Business & Tech

A growing trend in employee well being

Boston, MA -- 7/12/2017 - Arlydia Walker, 11, of Dorchester (R) and her sister, Dayana, 6, pick carrots at Boston Medical Center's Rooftop Farm. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 13rooftopfarmpic Reporter:
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Arlydia Walker, 11, and her sister, Dayana, 6, of Dorchester picked carrots at Boston Medical Center’s rooftop farm.

On a recent sweltering summer day, two dozen employees of Netscout Systems, a tech company in Westford, spent the morning working not at their air-conditioned desks but in the company’s new garden. Wearing khakis and button-down shirts, the Netscout employees got their hands in the dirt, harvesting carrots and planting kale.

The garden for Netscout employees is part of a growing trend in employee wellness. In many instances, community garden groups provide the knowledge, infrastructure, and oversight, and companies provide enthusiastic workers. The produce that is grown is often donated to local food banks, sent home with employees, or prepared and served in corporate cafeterias.

“There’s something really, really special about it — when people come together and do something as tangible and real as growing food,” said Christine Berthold, president of Fresh Start Food Gardens, a company that installs and manages corporate gardens, including at Netscout.

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“You want employees who are happy, who are fulfilled, who are connected, who feel a part of something, and you want to keep them healthy,” Berthold said. “The garden does all of those things.”

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The Netscout garden has been met with overwhelming enthusiasm from employees. Karen McCloskey, a project manager at Netscout, said she often attends official volunteer hours, but employees are also encouraged to visit the garden on their own.

“You just kind of walk away from what you’re doing,” McCloskey said. “You go out, you pick something.”

The added charitable and sustainable aspects of donating the produce or incorporating it into the company’s salad bar, McCloskey said, makes it feel “worthwhile stepping away from what you do.”

Produce harvested from Boston Medical Center’s 7,000-square-foot rooftop farm helps stock the center’s food pantry and supplements food served to the hospital’s patients, according to David Maffeo, BMC’s senior director of support services. The garden is expected to produce 15,000 pounds of food this growing season.

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“We really wanted to be able to touch the entire BMC community,” Maffeo said. “The chefs have been energized in terms of grabbing the food that grows across the street and cooking it.”

BMC’s rooftop farm has seen engaged employee participation as well, according to Maffeo, in part due to its explicit charitable mission.

Tracey Burg (center) carried a tray of freshly picked vegetables at the Boston Medical Center’s rooftop farm, as she and campers from BMC’s summer culinary camp headed to the kitchen.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Tracey Burg (center) carried a tray of freshly picked vegetables at the Boston Medical Center’s rooftop farm, as she and campers from BMC’s summer culinary camp headed to the kitchen.

Research has shown that employees value companies that give back to the community, according to Debbie Phillips, a Waltham-based work-life consultant. Corporate gardens, she said, can serve as an opportunity to volunteer without leaving work.

Though there’s the potential for employees to take too much time at the garden and away from their desks, Phillips said, that’s not often the case.

“If anything, what happens is that they don’t utilize them as much as they could because they’re working,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just hard to break away in the middle of your routine.”

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Companies are increasingly encouraging employees to take time during the day, Phillips said, with the incorporation of game rooms, quiet spaces, fitness centers — and now gardens.

‘The [Boston Medical Center] chefs have been energized in terms of grabbing the food that grows across the street and cooking it.’

David Maffeo, Boston Medical Center’s senior director of support services 

“A garden in a workplace reduces stress, and stress is a huge part of lack of wellness,” said Barbara Kreski, director of Horticultural Therapy Services at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “It also provides sort of a mental break and the ability to restore your energy for difficult cognitive tasks.”

Green spaces and gardens have been found to reduce cortisol rates and lower heart rates, clear indicators of lowering stress levels, Kreski said.

“They speak to a more primitive part of our nervous system, the part of our nervous system that allowed us to survive in the great outdoors,” she said. “Returning to those nervous system ruts feels comfortable.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield is in the process of assigning concrete metrics to the success of its corporate garden programs in Hingham and Quincy, according to director of sustainability Kyle Cahill.

Each of the 3,500-square-foot gardens is divided into plots, assigned to a team of six to eight employees. Close to 200 employees across the company participate in the project, Cahill said, and there’s a long waiting list to join.

Blue Cross Blue Shield surveys employees involved in the project on their stress levels, creativity, and productivity, Cahill said.

Roughly 85 percent of the employees surveyed reported improved mood after spending time in the garden, and dozens have been inspired to start gardens at home.

“We think it’s overwhelmingly positive. You know we hear firsthand from gardeners, but we also hear second-hand from teammates,” Cahill said. “It’s a great opportunity for an office space organization to experience something in the office setting that they normally wouldn’t.”

Employees at Netscout Systems harvested carrots.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Employees at Netscout Systems in Westford harvested carrots.

Sara Salinas can be reached at sara.salinas@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @saracsalinas.