Prioritising the health and wellbeing of NHS staff has never been more important – and nature can play a hugely important role in this. There are a number of ways in which healthcare sites can actively encourage their staff to spend time outdoors in green space, and to teach them simple nature connection and mindfulness techniques that they can carry with them throughout the working day.

Staff stress has long been a critical issue for the NHS, where in 2019 more than four in 10 staff reported feeling unwell as a result of work-related stress in the previous 12 months. These problems have been greatly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, making staff wellbeing a greater priority now than ever.

Our 2019 research project, Space to Breathe, shows that there is a strong appetite among health staff to spend time outdoors, and points to a range of wellbeing benefits, particularly for those who took part in organised outdoor activities. While relatively few staff at each site had engaged in organised recreational activities at work, such as Qigong or gardening, those who had done so had measurably higher wellbeing scores than those who had not.

NatureWell: Our outdoor wellbeing project for NHS staff

In June 2021, the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare launched a programme of ‘NatureWell’ sessions for staff at NHS trusts in Bristol, Kent, Liverpool, London and Sussex. These sessions, run in partnership with Natural Academy, taught healthcare professionals how to use nature to boost their wellbeing. Over three weeks, three intensive, three-hour sessions enabled them to experience the healing power of nature and to gain inspirational techniques they can use on a regular basis, thorough gathering natural objects, engaging with all the senses, creating bird feeders to ‘give something back’ to nature, and creating meaning from their experiences. Session themes included ‘contact and beauty’, ‘emotion and compassion’ and ‘meaning and integration’.

Read more about this initiative and see our full evaluation report here.

Word cloud associated with the NatureWell sessions
Word cloud associated with the NatureWell sessions
A participant with her 'nature weave' during a NatureWell session at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
A participant with her ‘nature weave’ during a NatureWell session at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Karen MacKelvie / CSH 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Hospitals with outdoor workplace wellbeing programmes

The Secret Garden at Leicester’s Glenfield Hospital incorporates a large lawn which is used, during the summer months, for lunchtime wellbeing sessions for hospital staff. The drop-in sessions have included tai chi, shiatsu massage, mindfulness and motivation. In autumn, staff were invited to join a six-week Forest School; during atmospheric sessions lit by candles in jars, colleagues enjoyed activities such as willow weaving and rock wrapping.

In Newcastle, staff at Freeman Hospital have been focusing on their own wellbeing while supporting the environment. Funded by NHS Charities Together, the site’s Green Gym was established in 2018 to link healthcare staff with local conservation organisations. Staff are invited to join in with activities such as beach cleans, tree and hedgerow planting and habitat creation, which boosts physical activity levels, teaches new skills and encourages them to socialise.

Southmead Hospital staff allotment
Staff volunteer at the Southmead Hospital allotment. Photo: Asia Pryjda / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Benches with commemorative plaques look onto the Secret Garden lawn at Glenfield Hospital
The Secret Garden lawn at Glenfield Hospital hosts staff wellbeing sessions. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

The staff allotment at Southmead Hospital in Bristol is a place where people can take a break from the office and ward environment, tending to herbs, fruit and vegetables in their free time. Our on-site Nature Recovery Ranger encourages engagement with the space through lunchtime gardening sessions for staff, during which she demonstrates how to propagate, care for and harvest organic produce.

How to develop outdoor workplace wellbeing sessions

Outdoor workplace wellbeing sessions can take many forms. The location will depend largely on the available green space at your site – do you have space to host sessions, or will staff need to travel off-site to spend time in nature, or carry out conservation work, for example?

Nature connection doesn’t require a huge amount of green space, as our NatureWell sessions demonstrated – but being able to sit a reasonable distance from workplaces ensures a sense of disconnection and privacy.

Funding for staff wellbeing

Some NHS trusts and health boards have been able to fund wellbeing activities directly, while others have sought funds from the hospital charity or from external organisations and donations to recruit session leaders – including Forest School teachers, and mindfulness and ecotherapy practitioners. If partnering with local conservation charities, such as with Freeman Hospital’s Green Gym initiative, the sessions can be free of charge – although these will need coordinating and promoting amongst staff.

Support your staff to attend

It can also be important to ensure staff are given adequate time to prioritise their health and wellbeing. Glenfield Hospital’s drop-in sessions were organised in a central location at lunchtime, which increased the number of staff who were able to attend. Our NatureWell sessions were organised in partnership with the trusts; due to the time needed (one three-hour session each week for three weeks) the sites needed to commit to releasing staff from their duties during the workday to attend. Do consider shift workers, who may need to take particular care of their health and wellbeing. Keep in mind how they can be included in these activities, perhaps by holding sessions in the morning or early evening.

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