The proven method to reduce stress in the workplace

Santiago Íñiguez. Dean of IE Business School

9 February 2015

Research findings in the field of cognitive psychology have served to prove that contemplating a natural landscape is an effective way of helping enhance a person’s mood, increase concentration, and reduce stress

Visual exposure to natural landscapes reduces stress, improves attention capacity, and induces behavioral changes that improve mood and general well-being. It even facilitates recovery from illness: this is evidenced in the findings of cognitive psychology, confirming the experiences of many of us (1).

Some of us run to the countryside for the weekend in search of placid bucolic views; others to the coast to enjoy the boundless immensity of the sea. In the meantime, if your office is located in an urban area lacking views over nice gardens, the best means to experience a similar sensation is to hang a picture or a photo of one of your favorite landscapes that you may glance at in moments of fatigue or boredom. I have two photos watchable from my working desk: one of Capri Island’s silhouette, in Italy, and another of the red cliffs surrounding the white sands of Pipa beach, in Brazil.

In addition of those beneficial psychological effects, the contemplation of nature and the environment’s allure has been a central object of the work of artists and writers through human history. In fact, as artist historian Kenneth Clark observed, “the appreciation of natural beauty and the painting of landscape is a normal and enduring part of our spiritual activity” (2).

Looking at fine landscape paintings could prompt evocative feelings and raise your spirits. Which one is your favorite landscape painting? There are plenty of styles and genres for your choice. From the elegant Chinese shan shui ink paintings, to the colorful Dutch sceneries and the neat Italian Vedute; from Turner’s stormy skies to the bright paintings of the Impressionists.

One of my favorites is “Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx”, painted by Joachim Patinir (1480-1524). Patinir was one of the pioneers of Western landscape painting in the early Flemish Renaissance, back at the turn of the XVI Century. His colleague Albrecht Dürer, the renowned German artist, once referred to him as “the good landscape painter”. I am particularly attached to this painting since it still remains as one of my vivid memories from a visit to the Prado Museum as a child. I was particularly impressed by the subject of the work, quite pedagogical, and the intensity of its colors, the deep blue that contrasts with the sharp line of the crepuscular flax horizon.

The center of the picture is dominated by the quiet blue flow of the Styx lagoon and Charon carrying a human soul in his boat. According to Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman who carried the deceased souls across the Styx to their final destination. At each of the two sides of the lagoon lie Heaven and Hell, each portrayed according to the conceptions of the time. The soft hills of heaven are wooded and green, inhabited by grace deer and even unicorns, but only accessible from the lagoon through a narrow river surrounded by crags. Hell is filled with dark constructions where souls are tortured, wrapped in a dusty, brown atmosphere caused by the flames.

I remember two of my reactions at seeing the picture for the first time. Firstly, Heaven and Hell could be places reachable by boat, around some corner of our World, and that they could resemble actual sites seen somewhere. In fact, Patinir’s Hell does not look too different from blast furnaces and Heaven reminds of some well-kept gardens at English mansions. Over time, I elaborated on this feeling and concluded that Heaven and Hell can be found on earth. Secondly, it was sad that the soul carried by Charon looks in the direction of Hell, expressing a final choice and anticipating the final destination of the boat. Analysts of the work explain that Patinir was influenced by pessimism and wanted to impact those who watched the scene.

Interestingly, Patinir ran his workshop from a business perspective. He actively cultivated his own image from the start by signing his early works, not a generalized custom in those days, a fact that reveals his concern for reputation and brand image. He was able to adapt to the preferences of wealthy merchant-customers by focusing on subjects that resembled cartography, contained allusions to trade or references to travel. In fact, he developed a distinctive style, a “product identity”, that is still recognizable today, another competitive advantage.

However, according to some analysts (3), Patinir was not as prolific as some of his contemporary painters. This is due, first to the fact that he did not have many apprentices in his workshop -apparently only one person- whereas other painters in Antwerp had as many as ten. Second, he did not produce many copies of the same work at a time when replicating a painting was the only way to exploit economies of scale. In fact, the workshop of Joos Van Cleeve, located in the same city at that time, produced series of up to 28 replicas of the same work. Third, Patinir enjoyed a comfortable life since his first wife belonged to a wealthy family and he was not probably pressured to work for monetary gain. He probably evolved as a perfectionist, as shown in the style and features of his works. He opted for a differentiation business strategy.

Returning to the positive effects of watching at natural landscapes, both in the flesh or reproduced in paintings and photos, let me summarize my conclusions:

  • First, it may release stress, help to improve mood, increase imagination and contribute to recharging the batteries: “Considered from the perspective of the cognitive approach, landscape perception becomes a process of interpretation, mediated by emotional responses to sites, perceived meanings, and physiological reactions (e.g. stress reduction)”(4). According to research, “Generally, the natural landscapes gave a stronger positive health effect compared to urban landscapes”, and the greener, the better (5). As suggested, a landscape hung in the office or on your computer screen may produce beneficial effects.
  • Second, nurturing landscape sightseeing and the culture of landscape painting and photography may enhance a respect for nature, particularly among children.
  • Third, I am convinced that cultivating the observation and analysis of natural landscaping may also stimulate strategic skills. Remember the maxim “can’t see the forest for the trees”?

(1) Mª. D. Velarde, G. Fry, M. Tveit: Health effects of viewing landscapes – Landscape types in environmental psychology; Elsevier: Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 6 (2007); pp. 199-212.
(2) K. Clark: Landscape into Art (London: Penguin, 1961); pp. 15-16.
(3) D. Ewing: Ventajas múltiples, production moderada: reflexiones sobre Patinir y el mercado ; in A. Vergara (ed.): Patinir: Estudios y catálogo critico (Madrid: Museo nacional del Prado, 2007) pp. 81-95.
(4) B. Kara: Landscape Design and Cognitive Psychology Procedia; World Conference on Psychology and Sociology 2012 - Social and Behavioral Sciences 82 (2013); pp. 288 – 291
(5) Mª. D. Velarde, G. Fry, M. Tveit, op.cit., ibid.


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