Designing Hospitals that Promote Staff Wellbeing

Even before Covid-19, rates of behavioral health illness were on the rise. In the third year of the pandemic, mental health has accelerated into a crisis, with health care workers in particular facing high levels of stress and burnout. Although mask mandates have been lifted and restrictions have been eased in many areas, caregivers are still in the throes of treating infected patients, while also coping with the fallout of the past two years. This convergence of factors has led to an uptick in mental health issues among health care workers, many of whom report experiencing record-high rates of anxiety and depression compared to the general population.

Previously, designing clinical spaces for well-being was primarily focused on the patient. Now, taking care of patients is table stakes; Caring for the people who serve them is crucial to creating and maintaining a high-performing hospital system.

Designing buildings for the well-being of health care staff is not just necessary to curb the mental health crisis among the profession. It’s also critical to buttress the financial fallout that ensues with high turnover, preventing additional strain on a system already taxed from financial losses due to differed treatment during the pandemic.

During Covid, hospitals have seen increased rates of turnover among employees, which is both costly to morale and the bottom line. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, in 2020, the turnover rate for registered nurses increased 2.8 percentage points to 18.7% industry-wide. Each percentage point change translates to approximately $270,000 lost or saved per hospital.

These numbers have prompted hospitals to rethink their approach to the physical environment and incorporate research-based design strategies that improve well-being for both patients and the staff guiding their recovery. Below, we outline three lessons for designing hospitals and clinics based on current projects NBBJ is working on with Massachusetts General Hospital, Atrium Health, Loma Linda University Medical Center, and Montage Health.

Lesson 1: Employee mental health can be part of a building’s identity.

Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston is currently building a 482-bed expansion called Cambridge Street that focuses on staff and patient satisfaction, operational efficiency, and environmental stewardship. Several years ago, NBBJ also oversaw the creation of MGH’s 150-bed Lunder Building. Both facilities offer key insights into how seemingly simple design interventions can have a significant impact on the mental well-being of staff members.

It’s important to note that what we recommend are not amenities, even if some may call them that. Rather than focusing on the “nice to have” perks found in tech company headquarters, many of the spaces in MGH’s facility are “must have” given the fact lives are on the line: stairwells flooded with light, deliberately quiet patient floors, and safer working conditions, for example.

The Lunder building offers plentiful access to daylight through a glass-encased stairwell used only by staff, who have adopted the corridor as a de facto meeting space (nicknamed the “stair conference room”). Staff also use this stairwell as a place to “be alone together” and report that they find comfort watching employees traverse the stairwell while they use the space to think and decompress.

The building further expands staff’s exposure to daylight — which impacts work-related stress and job satisfaction and is found to affect clinician burnout — through corridors that allow staff to access rooms from an exterior wall. Since less noise can reduce stress floors among caregivers and also help patients recover from illness, the Lunder building uses a variety of sound-absorbing materials and techniques to make the patient 35% quieter than typical health care buildings. Other features designed to minimize noise include sliding doors, distributing work zones for clinical staff across the floor rather than in a single location, and elevators and visitor waiting areas located away from patient rooms.

Finally, staff safety is perhaps the most critical “amenity” of all. For example, overexertion — in the form of repetitive routine physical tasks such as bending, stretching, and standing — account for 45.6% of all injuries occurring to nurses, according to a 2018 article published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. These injuries can result in musculoskeletal disorders such as sprains and strains that accounted for 8,730 days away from work among nurses in the private industry in 2016. Features such as motorized overhead patient ceiling lifts or full-height glass doors that provide greater situational awareness can help reduce injuries.

Designing buildings in this fashion makes a difference. For example, post-occupancy data from new inpatient units and staff work areas NBBJ designed for Atrium Health indicates that vast majority of employees feel safer and more at ease in the workplace. In the same post-occupancy evaluation, employees “the collaborative nature of the research floor,” “increased interaction with colleagues,” and “improved team collaboration” as positive aspects of the new building, further illustrating that opportunities for collaboration and improve interaction employee satisfaction.

Lesson 2: Design features can reduce stress in core working spaces.

Many hospitals are embracing support spaces that enable people to choose how they spend their precious break times. These spaces, both “offstage” (where staff can gather or be alone) and “onstage” (where caregivers see patients), allow staff to spend less time navigating a building and more time recharging.

Loma Linda University Medical Center’s expansion in Southern California boasts an open-core design. It features wide corridors, access to daylight, and the distribution of patient and supply rooms along the wings, which allows staff to connect better with each other and patients. In open-core hospitals, major support functions such as staff lockers, break rooms, and conference rooms are in a centralized hub that connects to patient wings along the exterior. This layout reduces the need for staff to travel between patient and supply rooms, the type of inefficient and repetitive physical tasks that can lead to burnout.

In addition to open-core designs, collaborative clinician rooms — such as the new examination rooms at MGH’s Cambridge Street project, which are sized to allow for multidisciplinary consults — reflecting the evolving nature of medicine. Collaborative clinician spaces decrease the load on caregivers and their teams while also providing patients with a new, more effective way to navigate their medical journey.

In the future, these recharging spaces could take different forms, which would acknowledge that everyone refuels in a different way. For instance, because the availability of private spaces has been shown to reduce caregiver stress some hospitals are exploring restorative zones with nap areas for their staff that would be located close to the patient unit for ease of use.

Lesson 3: Good design is ultimately good for business.

Health systems such as Montage Health on the Monterey Peninsula are taking advantage of their less-densely-populated location by incorporating nature into the design of their buildings. For example, Montage’s Ohana Center’s garden-like environment and private patios for staff are designed to lower levels of arousal fatigue — the psychological exhaustion that results from sustained stimulation without breaks. Arousal fatigue is one of the key factors contributing to burnout among behavioral health caregivers, who have an annual turnover rate of 40%.

Other organizations are exploring solutions such as satellite food lockers, mobile ordering apps, and meal programs that offer discounts for nutritious food options. These types of design interventions are investments in staff longevity; They help to reduce stress and positive lifestyle choices, ultimately supporting the mental and physical well-being of the people charged with helping others encourage recuperate.

Behavioral health challenges existed before the pandemic and will persist after it’s over. Accordingly, as health care systems navigate the lingering impacts of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever that they shift towards a more caregiver-centric mindset. Only by creating spaces and implementing solutions that promote staff well-being and patient healing at the same time they can effectively retain and recruit staff and reduce the financial impact of burnout and turnover. Designing buildings to enhance employees’ well-being will help keep them satisfied and productive.

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