Make It Personal

COVID-19 brought to light, in a new way, the exacerbating toll on physical and mental health that frontline workers in healthcare can experience. These individuals were already working in stressful environments before the pandemic hit, with jobs that require lightning-fast reflexes and the ability to make life-and-death decisions while delivering an abundance of care and compassion. Additionally, healthcare staff work long hours and frequently have very little time for breaks. An article this past March in U.S. News & World Report ranked the most stressful jobs, with 11 of the 22 jobs on the list related to the healthcare profession.

Our industry has always been aware of the stressors on staff and has worked to design hospitals and healthcare facilities with respite areas where staff can go to destress and recharge. What this global pandemic has shown us, however, is that these environments aren’t always done well or consistently enough.

Seven months into this virus, it’s being reported that healthcare workers are likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder due to their experiences during COVID-19, as well as high rates of burnout and depression. Additionally, we know that many care providers have the additional burden and fear of bringing the virus home to their families. The news each day brings fresh stories of the emotional toll and sacrifices caregivers are making, from moving out of their homes to sending their children to live with family and friends, to help keep loved ones safe.

In response, the World Health Organization has urged hospitals to think of the pandemic as a long-term situation and to give workers regular breaks and rotate them out of high-stress positions. Most healthcare institutions have begun offering services to their employees to help relieve some of the day-to-day burdens, like providing meals and child and pet care. And although many facilities report that they struggle with having no significant space for healthcare workers to take breaks, some have created ad hoc areas within their facilities designed specifically to combat the stressors of the job.

One example is New York City’s Studio Elsewhere, which, in partnership with the Abilities Research Center at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York, launched “recharge rooms.” These spaces immerse Mount Sinai Health System workers in an environment with thoughtful approaches to music, sound, scent, and lighting to support rehabilitation, human performance, stress resilience, and mental health. Surveys of 480 frontline healthcare workers who spent 15 minutes in the new environment found staff members averaged a 60 percent reduction in self-reported stress levels.

There’s also been more home-grown solutions, such as a nurse at Dignity Hospital in the Central Coast area of California who created two relaxation rooms using items from her own home to provide colleagues with a tranquil space for respite and quiet. The rooms, which are getting significant use, are located across from the critical care unit and include greenery, aromatherapy, white noise, massage chairs, and inspirational reading materials.

At Cleveland’s University Hospitals Conner Integrative Heath Network, a team was created to provide more emotional support for its frontline staff, many of whom were suffering from compassion fatigue. Private relaxation rooms were provided as an alternative to the standard break room or busy cafeteria, where most went to get away for a moment, and were filled with eye masks, aromatherapy scents, and stress balls as a way to encourage caregivers to momentarily switch their focus from caring for their patients to caring for themselves.

As we move forward, it will be vital to gather the lessons learned on how the built environment functioned during this critical time, not just in the patient care spaces but in the spaces that provide support for families and staff. COVID-19 exposed our vulnerabilities to global events and may foreshadow future challenges to our healthcare system from probable reoccurrences. By analyzing, cataloguing, and sharing the solutions we used to survive this experience, we can be better prepared to thrive when faced with these challenges again.

Debra Levin is president and CEO of The Center for Health Design. She can be reached at dlevin@healthcaredesign.org.

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