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 is exploring the value of green space and outdoor activities for health staff, with a focus on the work of three health facilities. Each site 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 2019, an NHS staff survey found more than four in 10 staff had experienced work-related stress in the previous year. These problems have been greatly exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, making staff wellbeing a greater priority than ever. 

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. 

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

Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex, provides a range of acute and community based services, and is the largest site run by Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation 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 and South Cumbria 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, northwest London, 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, creating a new walkway and running staff gardening activities. The research project will monitor the effects of these new initiatives as they progress.

Understanding the experience of these case study sites will help the NHS Forest to support health sites across the country to unlock the potential of their own green spaces.

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