New research looks at value of NHS green space for workplace wellbeing

Could greenery, gardens and wild areas at NHS sites help combat workplace stress and improve staff wellbeing? A new research project led by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare will explore the value of green space and outdoor activities for health staff, with a focus on the work of three different health facilities. Each of the sites is a member of the NHS Forest, and has encouraged the active use of its green spaces to raise the quality of life for staff. The study will evaluate staff’s experience of green space in and around the workplace, as well as the barriers that prevent them from making use of these areas to relax or recharge during the working day. The project is supported by the Health Foundation, an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and health care for people in the UK.

Staff wellbeing and the impact of stress are critical issues for the health service. In 2017, the NHS staff survey found more than a third of staff had experienced work-related stress in the previous year, an increase compared to the year before. Staff absence due to poor health is estimated to cost the NHS £2.4bn a year, accounting for £1 in every £40 of its total budget. Reduced staffing means less time is available for patients, and can impact negatively on patient care as well as worsening staff stress further through greater workloads.

Substantial evidence points to the health and wellbeing benefits of natural areas. Green environments can reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Contact with nature has a positive impact on heart rate and blood pressure.  Greenness in residential areas and the use of natural places for recreation is linked with lower levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone.    But while much research has focused on the benefits of green space where people live, there has been little investigation of its impact at work. This new research will look at what green space initiatives improve the experience of health staff, what challenges arise in introducing these and how they can be overcome. 

The research will provide in-depth case studies of three sites:

Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford provides a range of acute and community based services, and is the largest site run by Mid-Essex Hospital Services NHS Trust with more than 5,000 staff. Broomfield has an array of natural landscapes managed by the Trust including two woodlands, open space, and gardens.  The Trust’s ‘Natural Health Service Project’ is a community based initiative bringing in volunteers to assist in the natural space management.  With the support of these volunteers and charitable funds the hospital has opened new areas including two dementia gardens, a wellbeing terrace and a vegetable garden and fruit orchard.  All of these spaces are accessible to patients and staff. Educational bat walks are a recent addition during the summer months and led by a local expert. 

Guild Lodge, is a mental health care hospital in the grounds of Guild Park, Preston, run by Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust. Guild Park has open green spaces that are accessible to health service users and also used by schools and the wider community. The hospital has a peaceful ‘grow your own’ area where people recovering from mental health issues can grow plants, and has recently introduced regular health walks for staff. 

Mount Vernon Cancer Centre in Northwood is a regional specialist centre with 500 staff. The centre has run health walks for staff and is planning to develop a series of green space projects on its site in the coming year, renovating and re-planting internal courtyards, creating a new walkway and running staff gardening activities.  The research project will be monitoring the effects of these new initiatives as they progress.

The NHS Forest Programme, run by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, encourages the innovative use of green space for art, food growing, reflection and exercise. Understanding the experience of the case study sites will help to support health sites across the country to unlock the potential of their own green spaces.

For more information contact Carey Newson at carey.newson@sustainablehealthcare.org.uk