While we often encourage healthcare sites to make their green spaces accessible to as many people as possible, there are benefits to creating gardens exclusively for staff use. Healthcare staff who are taking brief breaks while in uniform may be approached by patients and other hospital visitors. They may want more private spaces to discuss issues with colleagues, or even to conduct appraisals or small meetings with team members. And they may appreciate having ownership over a small space – whether that’s their ‘usual’ bench for a coffee, a tree to hang and maintain their own bird feeders, or a memorial area to remember colleagues.

Green spaces for staff can include secluded courtyards, only accessible via wards. They can lead off from staff canteens, or even be installed on rooftops – offering panoramic views alongside privacy. Staff wildlife gardens are growing in popularity; seeding wildflowers, installing bird feeders and building bug hotels – ideally with the help of staff themselves – can create biodiverse green spaces where people can be soothed by the sight of flitting goldfinches, butterflies and jays.

Why create garden areas for staff?

In 2019 the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare’s Space to Breathe study revealed the importance of green spaces for the wellbeing of NHS staff. Staff who regularly spent time in their sites’ green spaces during the working day reported significantly higher levels of wellbeing than those who did not, and more than 80% of staff surveyed said they would like to spend more time in green space at their site than they were doing. The benefits described by staff included feeling relaxed and calm, refreshed and re-energised, and positive effects on mental and physical wellbeing. This research was carried out prior to the pandemic; access to green space has arguably become even more important since then.

NHS Forest sites with staff garden areas

Staff gardens have been incorporated into many of our NHS Forest sites. At Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, in northwest London, our Nature Recovery Ranger created a green courtyard enclosed by ward buildings. The space was created in a day with the help of staff and community volunteers, and includes restored benches, new seating areas arranged around an upcycled cable reel table, and bespoke metal artwork to brighten up the surrounding brick walls. Patients can enjoy views of the space from the ward windows, but it is for the exclusive use of staff.

Southmead Hospital's rooftop herb garden, leading off the Vu Restaurant for staff
Southmead Hospital’s rooftop herb garden, leading off the Vu Restaurant for staff. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Staff courtyard garden between wards at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, London
Staff courtyard garden between wards at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, London. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, 2022. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Some staff spaces encourage activity. At Frome Medical Practice in Devon, for example, a staff wellbeing garden features allotment plots where individuals or small teams can grow their own fruit and vegetables. Similarly, Southmead Hospital in Bristol has a staff allotment which hosts lunchtime gardening sessions, teaching staff how to grow their own produce and giving them a place to potter when they want to switch off from work.

Southmead also has a fifth-floor rooftop garden which is accessed via its staff canteen. Diners can enjoy leafy views over north Bristol, and are surrounded by planters brimming with aromatic herbs and lavender – great for both pollinators and for the chefs.

Yorkshire Ambulance Service has green spaces for staff at many of its stations. Its ambulance station in Bradford now has well over 300 trees which offer plenty of shade for staff on their breaks, as well as supporting biodiversity. The service’s Fairfields site has been created as a memorial woodland, completed with a pond, meadow and seating.

Broomfield Hospital - Wellbeing Terrace cafe garden
Broomfield Hospital – Wellbeing Terrace cafe garden. Photo: Carey Newson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Tree planting at Fairfields, York, March 2022
Tree planting at Fairfields, York. Credit Alexis Percival / Yorkshire Ambulance Service 2022. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

In Kent, Darent Valley Hospital has also created a Memorial Wood for staff – something which is becoming increasingly common since the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a peaceful spot with seating areas, and the trunks of two recently felled trees have been preserved so that memorial plaques can ne placed on them to commemorate the loved ones of any staff member.

But paved areas can make pleasant staff gardens, too. An area of disused tarmac at Broomfield Hospital in Essex has been turned into a Wellbeing Terrace, complete with picnic tables, parasols, large planters and a sound sculpture. The terrace has become popular with staff, particularly in summer, and painted labyrinths offer a ‘walking meditation’ for those on their breaks.

How to create a staff garden

This needs to be a space that staff want to spend time in, and – crucially – are able to access easily. Proximity to the buildings where people work is important; on a brief break, a ten-minute walk, perhaps through busy hospital corridors and wards, or across a car park, will be a major deterrent. A courtyard leading directly off a canteen is ideal, as is a ward garden, where staff can slip out as needed for a dose of peace and greenery. Signage can be helpful here, to ensure as many staff as possible know that this garden exists. Depending on the available space it may also be possible to host small events, which can draw staff from across the healthcare site and help spread the word.

Think about seating and shelter; this space needs to be usable all year round if possible. A walled courtyard will provide protection on windier days, as will hedgerows and other well-planned vegetation. Consider incorporating shelters to protect from drizzle. Parasols, arbors and trellis pagodas can provide shade – or you can take advantage of existing mature trees to situate benches, for example. Movable seating may be preferable so that users can take advantage of sunlight or shade, and gather in larger or smaller groups.

Ownership is vital – staff need to be able to feel that this is ‘their’ space. Many staff garden areas have been created with the support of staff volunteering their time, or fundraising for equipment. Consult as many potential beneficiaries as possible, to understand the kind of space they would like, and what they would use it for. Does this need to be somewhere active or for relaxing? Should it be well manicured or left with a wild edge, to attract birds, butterflies and other wildlife? Do people seek privacy, or places to gather socially?

Redwood Cafe garden, Gloucestershire Royal Hospital
A member of staff works in a garden at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. Photo: Carey Newson / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Staff collaborate to restore a bench for a courtyard garden at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Staff collaborate to restore a bench for a courtyard garden at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2022. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

If the garden is large, you may want to break it up into smaller, more private spots rather than keeping it open plan. This can allow for individuals to sit quietly with a coffee or book; for colleagues to meet for one-to-one meetings, or even for staff to work on a laptop if work allows. More open spaces can have their advantages too, though; Glenfield Hospital’s Secret Garden hosts staff wellbeing sessions on the lawn during summer lunchtimes, with Qigong, Forest School, mindfulness and other activities offered on a drop-in basis. When it comes to planting, rooftops and courtyards in particular can be tricky to water if there are no taps nearby. You may be able to carry out a risk assessment to see if it is possible to install a water butt; if working in areas without water points or those which receive full sun, we recommend reading our guide to drought-tolerant planting.

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Banner photo: Staff enjoy the Secret Garden at Glenfield Hospital, Leicester. Photo: Dora Damian, 2022. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).