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Plants at desk

How desk plants can improve your productivity while you work

It’s a fact: indoor plants are having a moment. From the fiddle leaf fig trees dominating your Insta feed to the retro-inspired monstera plants gracing the pages of leading design magazines, we’re painting the indoors green in a very big way. And this green makeover isn’t limited to bedrooms and living spaces – these days, everywhere you see a desk there seems to be an indoor plant atop it.

If you’ve just been perfecting your work or study from home set-up, you’re probably tempted to deck out your space with a few desk plants – if you haven’t already. And there’s a really good reason you should.

Surprisingly, there’s a lot more to it than aesthetics. A growing body of research is revealing that the humble desk plant offers a heap of benefits for our health and productivity while we work. It’s all about the way they improve indoor air quality, explains John Patykowski from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Deakin University.

Benefits of indoor office plants

Contrary to what you might think, air pollution levels are almost always higher inside buildings than they are outside, even in busy city centres. Worryingly, research shows any decrease in indoor air quality directly affects health and performance, which is especially concerning given the rise of conditions like burnout.

Most Australians spend 90% of their time indoors – much of this for work – and the cost of poor indoor air quality is estimated to be as high as $12 billion each year, according to the CSIRO. Yikes.

Two of the nastiest indoor pollutants are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – which leach from building materials, furnishings and electronics, and even in low concentrations may result in a condition called ‘sick building syndrome’ that effects health and productivity – and carbon dioxide, which is emitted when people exhale and can make the room feel stuffy and your head a little fuzzy.

Enter an unlikely saviour: indoor plants. In a famous study published in 1989, scientists at NASA found that indoor plants are extremely effective at reducing harmful toxins in the air in confined spaces. Later research found it is potting mix that feeds bacteria in the air rather than specific species of plant, but the plant itself nourishes the soil which purifies the air. So both the plant and the soil play key roles in removing nasties from the air.

‘Good indoor plants can positively affect air quality and reliably reduce VOC loads by up to 75% and increase oxygen to carbon dioxide ratios, at least during the day while they are performing photosynthesis,’ Patykowski says.

There’s also research linking desk plants to improved mood, concentration and creativity. ‘It’s well-recognised that indoor plants can have positive effects on mental and physical health,’ Patykowski says. ‘Humans have a natural tendency to prefer settings with natural elements, and the perceived attractiveness of indoor plants can induce stress-reducing effects.’

'Good indoor plants can positively affect air quality and reliably reduce VOC loads by up to 75% and increase oxygen to carbon dioxide ratios'

John Patykowski,
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

Best indoor plants for your desk

Most indoor plants help to reduce the concentration of VOCs thanks to the power of potting mix, but when it comes to reducing carbon dioxide some plants are better performers than others.

One study identified five species of indoor plants that reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide during the day: crotons, gloxinia, rubber plants, yucca plants and basil (or ‘ocimum basilicum’ if you’re into proper scientific names).

There’s some research to suggest plants with large leaves may be able to remove more carbon dioxide from the air, so low-maintenance (read: idiot-proof) varieties like peace lilies, snake plants and Zanzibar gems are great choices.

But don’t be afraid to be a little more adventurous, says Patykowski. ‘Certainly low-maintenance species are ideal for the indoor environment but, equally, some more spectacular plants that may require a little more care can be very rewarding.’

As for how many plants you need, research suggests just two desk plants in an average-sized room will do the job, so there’s no need to worry if space is limited.

How to care for your indoor plants

Looking after indoor plants is a lot easier than you might think, Patykowski says. ‘Plants really need only three things to keep them alive: light, water and nutrients, plus access to air,’ he says. ‘Natural light is best, although bright LEDs are an energy-efficient way of providing light energy to leaves in some settings.

‘The darker the space, the more you need to think about choosing plants with large, spreading, deep green leaves. The sunnier the space, the more you should think about plants with smaller leaves, even going as extreme as cacti.’

He says all desk plants need regular watering, and if the weather is particularly warm or your plants are exposed to direct sunlight, water them a little more often.

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John Patykowski
John Patykowski

Casual Academic, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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