Updated: Nov 15, 2021
As those who follow me know, I have long been touting the positive benefits of humanity’s connection to and immersion in nature. It is exciting to see this ancient idea re-embraced. What I find exciting is how something disregarded or dismissed in the recent past as a nice to have is becoming a must have; backed by metrics, and recognized as essential to living a healthy life – both physically and mentally. To quote Mark Twain: "The man with a new idea is a crank - until the idea succeeds."
WHAT’S CHANGING OUT THERE?
What was unheard of only a few years ago – major global insurance organizations supporting the benefits of green spaces on health outcomes – has now come to the forefront. SwissRe, one of those insurers, recently published a 24-page study entitled Biodiversity and the benefits for human health. They call out studies that have been prevalent recently regarding the reduction of blood pressure and cortisol after walks in the forest vs. walks in town; as well as the worldwide increase in park usage during the height of the pandemic lock-downs.
Nature’s benefit is highlighted as a balm for worker burnout, stress, and poor mental health resulting from current models of corporate businesses. The type of bosses who demand our souls along with our bodies – as just one of the myriad reasons for the ongoing Great Resignation.
As SwissRe indicates in their report – “the direct costs and productivity losses of poor mental health are huge, projected to reach USD $6.0 trillion by 2030. Mental health is the most common form of workplace absence, followed by cancer. Loss of productivity, reduced returns, or loss of employees are some of the costs of poor mental health in the workplace. Good mental health is far from a subsidiary and an additional bonus to physical health; the costs associated with poor mental health are high and carried by individuals and societies.”
They also have broken the ice by highlighting mental health as a priority for the health insurance industry. This is viewed as a ‘potential new risk pool, which can equate to a new opportunity for the insurance industry.’ Current treatments for mental health require large outlays of expense, expertise, hospital stays, and more. This may not be beneficial overall for those it is trying to help.
The recommendation from SwissRe is for a more salutogenic approach – including making “active use of what nature can contribute.” As a landscape architect, I’ve been an adherent of a salutogenic approach for nearly a decade. For the uninitiated, salutogenic is the opposite of pathogenic, which is currently the main focus of western medicine.
Breaking down the etymology of the words, patho-genic means “focused on disease.” Saluto-genic means “focused on health,” as in the French toast ‘Salut!’ which translates as “to your health.” Ultimately this is a preventative and health focused approach, but one that also allows for finding meaning, thus building personal resiliency. Where has humanity found meaning for much of its existence on this planet? In the woods and forests; plains and deserts; oceans, lakes, and rivers. Nature!
Now, I’m not naïve – this is business. Saving money outlaid for treatments helps insurers bottom line. And I am certainly not complaining that recommendations are being made for more people to go on forest bathing walks as part of corporate wellbeing initiatives. That being said, the numbers found in this study are quite compelling: “USD $60 billion annual savings could be achieved by 2030 if the financial impact of mental health conditions was reduced by just 1% by time spent in nature; USD $10 billion in annual savings for heart disease by that same 1% reduction via nature.”
If my small business, along with others in the nature wellbeing space, could be a part of that 1% it would constitute healthy economic support for so many independent entrepreneurs fighting for survival.
Urban noise made by humans and our inventions (sirens anyone?) cause health issues such as hearing loss, poor sleep, and heart disease. What can soften and reduce the amount of noise that reaches us? Greenery! Green roofs, parks, plantings, highway buffer zones. What did you learn in 4th grade science about what keeps us alive? Breath. Oxygen. What is the source of this precious gift? Trees and all things green.
Currently tree production farms are some of the few growing things insured for loss. You can also insure your green roof against loss or damage. What is fascinating to me is that insurers are beginning to contemplate insuring urban parks and other non-forestry related green spaces due to the critical link they play in humanity’s health equation.
SwissRe discusses what they call The Big Six Lifestyle Factors that can be used in assessing risk beyond traditional biomarkers: mental wellbeing, physical activity, environment, sleep, nutrition, and substance use. Many of the factors that nature can have a positive effect on are directly related to those Big Six, as they call out in their paper - “Nature plays a strong role in prevention and in reducing the impact of these surrounding risks on an individuals’ health.”
Future investments in biodiversity, as a result of the pandemic and climate change, will “yield a five-dimension return: create thriving natural environments, counter climate change, encourage social cohesion, create jobs, and improve health.” Insurance can ‘act as an enabler of a new planning paradigm’ focused on embedding thoughtful, plentiful, and ecologically rich green spaces in cities across the world; as well as protecting what we still have. Health insurers can support and include experiences like forest bathing as low-cost, salutogenic solutions for preventative and mental health benefits. This reduces insurance costs for all – something I’m sure we all would like to see.
Will this happen or is it just a dream? McKinsey has already started talking about valuing conservation, now SwissRe is approaching from a different angle. I know from advocating for innovative design ideas that those with the capital are usually the ultimate arbiters of what gets built. Insurance companies certainly control a lot of capital, so if they decide to use that leverage in a positive way, that’s an interesting change in direction. Doctors have been testing out ‘nature prescriptions’ for a few years now and some are beginning to take hold.
As someone who thrives off hope and inspiration – I will be pushing for this. How cool would it be if your insurance covered an intentional walk in the woods to ease your stress, help your work performance, and banish burnout?
I, for one, am beyond ready.