05/14/2024 • 5 min read

Caring for Our Caregivers

How to design healthcare spaces that prioritize caregiver well-being

by Haworth, Inc.

The caregivers who support our health are experiencing stress in ever greater numbers. The problem is so significant that US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued an advisory addressing health worker burnout. “The stakes are high,” he says. “If we fail to act, we will place our nation’s health at increasing risk.”

Through Haworth’s work with healthcare organizations and designers who specialize in healthcare spaces, we’ve identified factors contributing to the problem and solutions supporting caregiver well-being. Additionally, these solutions contribute to increased employee attraction and retention, which leads to more stability for caregivers and patients alike.

Why Prioritize Caregivers in Healthcare Space Design

Caregivers are weary and worn from long hours and staffing shortages. The burnout problem is dire. Compounding the problems are older facilities that don’t allow for control of environmental factors (like light, sound, and temperature) and workplaces that lack respite spaces for caregivers. However, healthcare spaces that evolve to address the unique needs of caregivers can become great places to work.

Our webinar, Optimizing Caregiver Work and Well-being, included a panel of 3 designers with expertise in creating environments that help caregivers flourish.

Their insights shed light on design elements that help support caregivers so they feel supported and healthier at work. Plus, the benefits go further. Thoughtfully designed healthcare spaces result in fewer medical errors and increased patient satisfaction.

How Do Designers Know What Caregivers Need?

There are 3 keys to identifying workplace elements that effectively support caregivers.
1. Engaging caregivers in the conversation
2. Observing caregivers at work
3. Including health professionals on the design team

The goal of conversations is to deepen designers’ understanding of caregivers’ needs. Conversations evolve from creating connection to gaining trust. When trust is established, caregivers allow themselves to be vulnerable. They become willing to share the problems they face. And sometimes, caregivers give designers the solutions that work best.

When designers spend time shadowing caregivers on the job they gain empathy that helps them better address challenges like ergonomics, workflows, and acoustics. Watching caregivers in action also allows designers to identify pain points and see what it really takes to get things done in healthcare environments.

Including healthcare professionals on the design team helps ensure that when healthcare spaces are built, they work as intended. For example, at HOK—a global design, architecture, engineering, and planning firm—on-staff nurse practitioners round out the team. Their unique perspective helps the design team translate workflows, processes, and strategies. The contributions of healthcare workers results in stronger designs with more effective layouts for caregivers—as well as patients and their families.

Healthcare spaces that support caregivers must address 3 aspects of well-being: mental, emotional, and physical.

Our panel noted that 23% of physician burnout is from lack of control, and this is directly related to architecture. The top challenges? Sound, temperature, and lighting—all elements designers greatly influence.

When we approach healthcare spaces as opportunities to enhance the general well-being of caregivers, our choices set an example. One that makes it easier for caregivers to practice well-being as individuals. And as a result, everyone around the caregivers does better.

What Caregivers Say They Need

Much of what caregivers need is the same as what makes any workplace supportive of well-being. Access to daylight. Views of nature. Spaces for movement and exercise. Healthy food options. Other elements for caregiver well-being are healthcare-specific.

Of course caregivers need ergonomic furniture for working and taking breaks. They also need furniture that goes further to address the physical toll of their work. Nurses often spend 8 or more hours a day on their feet. The physicality of the work often results in musculoskeletal disorders. Nurses want furniture that allows them to put their feet up. One easy solution: ottomans.

Another unique need for caregivers: places to grieve. There are difficult moments in healthcare, including death. Some nurses report having nowhere private to grieve except a stairwell. In addition to respite spaces, caregivers—from physicians and nurses to aides and chaplains—need a place to grieve their losses.

Healthcare Spaces That Optimize Caregiver Support

Many healthcare organizations have already implemented design features that optimize caregiver support. Here are a few examples:

  • When a Code Lavender is announced at the Cleveland Clinic in response to a stressful event or series of stressful events, there’s a designated Lavender Room for crisis intervention. The room is used by hospital staff, patients, family members, and volunteers.
  • The Cleveland Clinic also has outdoor spaces with year-round access to nature as well as panoramic views of downtown and Lake Erie, providing opportunities for respite.
  • An outpatient clinic in Chicago features vertical architectural elements called lanterns that shoot up the sides of the building and allow light to penetrate the building, even into small interior rooms and corridors where it’s usually dark.
  • Many healthcare facilities have begun to include family restrooms that include toilets for bariatric individuals and adult changing tables.

Additional design elements that support caregivers, patients, and their families include spaces for massage therapy with aromatherapy, sleep rooms for critical patients or their family members, geriatric behavioral health sensory spaces, and quiet spaces for caregivers.

When architects and designers approach healthcare spaces, they can further optimize caregiver spaces by being aware of healthcare-specific building needs. Including:

  • Privacy – There’s a move away from open nursing stations in order to protect patient confidentiality
  • Reduced sound transmission – Less noise allows caregivers to better focus and patients to rest
  • Sound barriers – These are especially important in emergency departments and behavioral health facilities
  • Adapted technology – Specifically, workstations for virtual visits   

Give Caregivers a Great Place to Work

By definition, caregivers are giving people. However, it’s clear that they are collectively stressed. To counter this, workplaces must evolve to give caregivers the support they need.

Those making decisions about healthcare spaces are uniquely positioned to create better workplaces. Incorporating elements like the ones described above optimizes caregiver well-being. The healthcare organizations that do this well will create great places to work and simultaneously improve employee attraction and retention.

Explore Innovative Healthcare Space Design

Discover more insights about designing healthcare spaces. Watch our Optimizing Caregiver Work and Well-Being webinar.


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