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Providing healthier workplace experiences for healthcare heroes

July 29, 2021

By Heather Greene

A wellness-driven workplace shouldn’t be limited to office design. Four tips for applying these principles in the hospital setting.

Choice, holistic wellness, empathy, and equity are driving design trends in the future of work. However, meeting those needs comes with the input from empowered teams choosing where and when they do their best work. So, how can we design better spaces for those who can’t choose their work environment?

The built environment at work has a proven effect on our personal health and safety. The World Health Organization acknowledges that the effects of our physical and social environments have as great of an effect on our health as healthcare quality or lifestyle choices. 

We spend a large portion of our time at the workplace, and, in many cases, these expectations remain even in a hybrid workstyle approach. As such, an increasing body of research is focused on improving the workplace environment and its effect on our well-being. Finding effective means to increase the wellness, happiness, and productivity of workers is a proven investment for employers in attraction, retention, and engagement. How can this workplace research translate to hospital healthcare workers, who are some of the most impacted groups recently when it comes to workplace well-being? 

Prior to COVID-19, healthcare worker burnout was a much-discussed and pressing topic. The health and safety of the patient is a priority for the inpatient and outpatient setting, and one that must be considered in tandem with the design of healthcare worker settings. 

However, burnout—the exhaustion and inefficacy resulting from long-term job stress—puts the health and safety of our caretakers at risk. In 2017, 51% of surveyed physicians in a National Institute of Health (NIH) study suffered from burnout. Through the pandemic, that number has risen to 71%, and is progressively worse for front-line nurses at 61%.

COVID has only compounded these issues as patient volumes have surged in high-care units. Healthcare workers have resigned citing burnout or have even gotten sick themselves. In addition to the added elements of a surge in patient and visitors, the layout of a hospital floor has unique challenges compared to a traditional workplace. Required care team sight lines into patient rooms determine the placement of nurse’s stations. And in operating rooms, the transition of clean to soiled equipment directs the flows of traffic. 

Despite these design challenges, there are many lessons we can learn from the workplace study of healthy environments. Creating a meaningful culture, prioritizing holistic wellness, connecting teams to their community, and using technology as a tool to support these goals ensures that we can raise employee engagement and support our healthcare workers so they can do their most meaningful work.  

The UCSF Bakar Precision Cancer Medicine Building in San Francisco, California.

Connecting teams to a meaningful corporate culture

Culture is defined at the front door. This means that designing empathetic, inclusive, and supportive environments is critical at all moments of the worker’s day. How do I arrive? Is it safe? Do I have spaces that support my best work? These are all questions that should continue to be top of mind.

Paramount to a strong culture is ensuring the environments in which the teams work are safe. Especially since research shows that the instance of workplace violence for emergency room nurses is higher than that of even police officers. Designing secure entry points and calming environments are a key component of managing safety for the care team. Integrating comforting lighting, color, and materials have a direct impact on stress levels and are tools that we can use to create a sense of calm in high stress situations and environments. Reducing the confusion, frustration, and fear as patients enter a campus should be top of mind. Facilitating clear communication with families and patients through spatial design, cuing, signage, and biophilic patterns are proven methods to reduce stress and violence. 

The health and safety of the patient is a priority for the inpatient and outpatient setting, and one that must be considered in tandem with the design of healthcare worker settings.

It is also critical to remember that each employee enters the workplace carrying different personal experiences. In a post-pandemic world, there could be varying levels of fear and stress that are unique to the individual. We know these are high-stress jobs, so we need to make design decisions that show employees every day that they are the most important part of the company. Engaging employees early in the design process to better understand their workflows, as well as address their functional concerns, elicits higher levels of engagement and satisfaction in the long term. Healthcare institutions can include and support their teams by giving them places to recharge, feel safe, and support their outside-of-work needs, such as providing childcare options or mental health support services.

At the UCSF Bakar Precision Cancer Medicine Building, our team’s design incorporates adjustable workstations and nooks to tuck away equipment and provide adequate space for healthcare workers throughout the day.

Agility and choice

Choice in how and where people work has been a rising topic in workplace design. Frontline workers cannot always choose to do their job from home. But they should have choices in how and where they do their best work. And those choices should be equitable regardless of tenure or position.

Many healthcare offices and residents’ rooms are densely populated. Based on workplace surveys, we know that sharing offices can make it hard to shift work modes from collaboration to focus. Opportunities exist to create hub and spoke models, where private focus spaces and collaboration spaces for care teams can be thoughtfully distributed to make them more accessible and useable. This allows the care workers—who are typically more transient—to migrate between patient and private areas more seamlessly.

Even in a setting like the ICU, where patient visibility determines the location of healthcare teams, methods to create options are available. Personal adjustable task lighting at workstations reduces eye strain and fatigue. In areas where workers typically stand, softer ergonomic floor materials can reduce knee pain and strain. Giving care workers adequate corridor width and nooks to tuck away equipment reduces the amount of awkward bending and moving.

Areas that provide respite should consider lower light levels, direct access to daylight, and soothing colors and biophilic patterns.

Supporting holistic well-being

Meeting basic safety and physiological needs are step one. Beyond that, we are seeing a timely focus on supporting holistic well-being for workers across all workplace sectors. Of critical importance is supporting workers’ cognitive and social-emotional wellness. Mental Health America reports continued increases of people with moderate to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety in 2021 with 8 in 10 people scoring moderate or severe since the beginning of the pandemic.

Areas of respite for the care team are often either taken up by storage needs, are combined across departments, or are smaller than what is needed for workers. These areas are critical to supporting mental and emotional fitness in caregivers. In a campus-setting, the closest area for healthcare workers to sit down and break can often be far away from the patient. Dispersed zones, used for quiet or for collaboration, can be too far to visit on a break. Relocating these areas closer to the caregiver’s paths of travel can optimize their use and make them more accessible throughout their shift.

Areas that provide respite should consider lower light levels, direct access to daylight, soothing colors, and biophilic patterns that have proven effects on lowering stress, blood pressure, and heart rate. Daylight is often reserved for the patients, but the importance of daylight to support emotional and mental fitness for the caregiver should not be discounted. Skylights and centralized internal gardens can provide opportunities to capture daylight and provide benefits for the care teams, as well as the patients. 

Centralized gardens provide benefits to the care team, as well as patients and families.

Leveraging technology to create employee experiences

Smart building technology and the integration of Internet of things (IoT) is not new. But the potential to leverage technology as an employee engagement tool is something we are just beginning to tap into.

Centralized technology for job tasks and employee benefits can create a personalized and more engaging worker experience. Imagine, for example, that a frontline worker can reserve a parking spot in a well-lit area to increase their sense of safety as they arrive to a night shift. Or, perhaps, this worker could pre-order a healthy snack or meal and have it ready for pick-up to not lose precious break time. Tech tools can even allow workers to reserve focus or meditation rooms on days that a caregiver really needs respite or a chance to recharge their battery. Not to mention, there are business opportunities to better understanding density, paths of travel, and utilization of space to allow for spatial adjustments in response to use and needs.

These tools leverage the ability to increase convenience for workers during the workday, so focus remains on patient and self-care.

While traditional design thinking in the workplace focuses on the office setting, only 16-20% of the US workforce are in offices. As we look at the health and wellbeing of our population, thinking about the determinants of health and cross-collaboration between different sectors will give us the tools we need to design for thriving people—no matter where they work.

  • Heather Greene

    Focusing on workplace strategy, storytelling, optimization, and branding, Heather works to synergize design and strategy.

    Contact Heather
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