Six Design Strategies To Reduce Healthcare Worker Stress During The Coronavirus Pandemic

July 13, 2020

Healthcare Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s note: Our healthcare clients are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. We seek to support them as they courageously care for the sick. So we’re posting design ideas based on work with them, in the hope that we can contribute from our base of expertise to help combat the epidemic. From all of us at NBBJ to the many doctors, nurses and support staff in hospitals and clinics, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

This post initially appeared on Forbes. It was co-authored by Ryan Hullinger and Sarah Markovitz.


Frontline healthcare workers face enormous stressors during normal times, but especially today during the pandemic: fear of contracting the virus, concern for protecting their families, grief over watching patients die, and anxiety over resource rationing decisions. Tragically, these issues are increasing healthcare provider stress and harming their mental health, as some begin to display symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Even before the pandemic, levels of stress and burnout in healthcare workers were high. Fifteen percent of nurses reported feelings of burnout in a 2019 survey. Burnout is among the leading patient safety and quality concerns among healthcare organizations, as it can decrease work performance and increase risk of errors.

Although we can’t completely remove stress in the healthcare setting, changes in the environment may help boost employee resilience. Mindfulness micro practices—such as micro-breaks and a variety of respite spaces in which to take them—can mitigate stress. Meanwhile, developing resilience practices in the immediate setting where they are needed most could reinforce the impact of these practices. As the coronavirus continues, and we anticipate new pandemics ahead of us, how can we improve the experience now and for future events? We propose the following design solutions for hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

Rethink The Break Room

Taking breaks can help improve productivity and prevent burnout, yet healthcare workers may be reluctant to take them, especially in times of crisis. We need to ensure that when a break does happen, the environment is optimized for caregiver decompression, support and restoration.

One way is to transform the break room into an oasis of respite, where employees can relax and meditate. The first is to employ the power of nature to boost resilience and cognition. Research illuminates that surrounding ourselves with real or simulated green plants can lower our physiological stress response, such as blood pressure and heart rate. Break rooms with windows that face gardens, trees and other green spaces can take advantage of these critical nature benefits. Artwork or wall graphics of a forest, rolling countryside or green lawn, can help too, as can the introduction of birdsongs and other natural sounds.

Leverage Underutilized Corridor Spaces

Micro-break spaces along typical pathways, such as corridors and alcoves may decrease stress and boost wellness. For example, underutilized areas along a nurse’s route or a physician’s daily rounds can transform into a variety of calming alcoves for a moment’s rest. These spaces could include soft-cushioned chairs with ottomans and seating booths for solo rest or a quiet place to call family. In addition, corridor ends with a comfortable couch and views to the outdoors can offer a peaceful retreat, and with the addition of a whiteboard, can also allow staff to informally connect and share knowledge.

Provide Areas For Physical Exercise

Movement and physical fitness — especially high-intensity aerobic exercise — offers a host of short-term and long-term benefits, such as improved memory, a boost in mood, enhanced cognitive function and better quality of life. Walks in nature and views of green plants can help reset the harmful effects of sustained stress. Outdoor gardens can provide exercise and the restorative effects of nature.

Offer Immersive Respite Pods 

It is crucial to bring respite to those who need it most, from ICU nurses to emergency department physicians to support staff. One approach under development is called the mobile respite pod. This indoor modular system can provide a customizable and sensory experience to promote rest, relaxation and meditation. Inviting seating, adjustable lighting, calming sounds and green forest or ocean imagery may help healthcare workers recharge in their preferred way. Meanwhile UV lights engaged before and after each use could provide a convenient cleaning process. Designed to be easy to assemble and break down on site, these pods, offered in various sizes, could be installed in currently underutilized areas like waiting rooms or lobbies, or even outside in plazas or near gardens.

Decrease Stress At The Bedside

The opportunities for reducing healthcare worker stress are not limited to staff areas. In fact, many of the best opportunities are right next to the patients. We have long understood that high noise levels and incessant equipment alarms in patient areas are anxiety-producing for patients, families and healthcare workers’ communication, wellbeing and performance. Alarm fatigue is proven to decrease focus and memory, raise cortisol levels, lower concentration and even provoke a negative immune system response. Studies indicate background noise above 45 decibels can create adverse effects, and many healthcare settings are much louder than that. Simple environmental strategies like providing white noise, employing sound-absorbing materials and using smoother cart wheels are all beneficial.

Consider The Return On Investment

As we addressed in an earlier Forbes column, hospital systems currently face extraordinarily difficult financial challenges, so every solution needs to be carefully vetted in terms of costs and benefits. While some of the proposals above would have very little cost impact, others (like the respite pods) would require a larger investment. It is important to note, however, that the cost of not responding to provider stress is perhaps the highest of all.

Last year—even before the COVID outbreak—healthcare organizations on average faced 17.8% staff turnover. This came at a huge cost, averaging more than $60,000 for replacing a registered nurse and $500,000 for replacing a physician. Decreasing staff turnover by just 2% could save the average hospital over half a million dollars per year, and could quickly offset the construction cost for many supportive environmental solutions.

Our society has rightly reframed healthcare workers as heroes, who are sacrificing so much of their own security every day in order to save others. It is our hope that this new-found societal recognition will not be squandered, but will instead generate unprecedented advocacy and investment in the emotional safety and well-being of our nation’s devoted front line staff.


How are you and your healthcare organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Frank Oudeman.

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The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Boosted Telehealth; Here’s How Existing Spaces Can Support Virtual Visits

July 2, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s note: Our healthcare clients are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. We seek to support them as they courageously care for the sick. So we’re posting design ideas based on work with them, in the hope that we can contribute from our base of expertise to help combat the epidemic. From all of us at NBBJ to the many doctors, nurses and support staff in hospitals and clinics, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

This post initially appeared on Forbes. It was co-authored by Teri Oelrich and Bryan Langlands.


Telehealth — healthcare delivered remotely — has been offered for decades, yet only 11% of Americans used it in 2019. Not surprisingly, as COVID-19 changes the way we interact in all aspects of life, many patients are swiftly embracing virtual healthcare, with 46% of U.S. consumers now using telehealth. At a New England academic medical center, the telehealth utilization rate for routine health visits jumped from 1% before COVID-19 to 85% today. Meanwhile, more than 75% of Baylor Scott & White Health’s clinic visits are now virtual.

What will this mean for the future of healthcare? Below we look at the current telehealth landscape and how it will transform the physical design of clinics and other healthcare spaces.

Telehealth opportunities

Telehealth is particularly helpful for chronic disease management, post-hospitalization care, preliminary evaluation, follow-up visits and preventative care. There are three key types of care available: 1) Live telehealth allows physicians and patients to communicate in real-time, typically through video or phone. 2) Remote monitoring enables providers to monitor patients’ health data, such as blood sugar and blood pressure, via mobile medical equipment. 3) “Store-and-forward” telehealth is the electronic transmission of medical data and information, such as documents and x-rays, through a secure messaging portal to a provider or specialist.

Telehealth can keep patients out of the emergency room who aren’t sick and do not need to be there — those referred to as the “walking worried” or the “walking well.” This is critical to alleviate surges from the coronavirus pandemic. Telehealth can also “pre-sort and triage” patients, allowing doctors, specialists and other healthcare professionals to virtually prepare before they arrive at the hospital. It also allows healthcare systems to divert those who should not be seen at an emergency department to an appropriate venue such as an urgent care center — saving costs and provider capacity, and reducing the overall length of stay for all emergency department visits.

Telehealth services show key benefits for patients. The first being cost savings: Research shows access to telehealth can decrease emergency room trips. The average emergency room visit costs $1,734 and the average doctor’s visit is $149, while the average telehealth visit costs $79. Care is also much faster. Since there’s no travel required and shorter wait times, consultations are streamlined. Patients can take less time away from work or home duties and are not as exposed to delays. This is also a cost savings to employers as employees do not have to take hours off for a clinic visit.

These factors also translate to a convenience for patients who live a long way from the nearest healthcare center, and enables older adults and people with disabilities to receive improved access to care. The final benefit is improved health outcomes: with telehealth, there is no exposure to contagious illnesses in the waiting or patient room, and these services also translate into fewer missed appointments, better access and better patient follow-through. All of these can increase patient wellness, especially for chronic conditions.

In addition to providing benefits for patients, telehealth visits also make life easier for healthcare providers. Telehealth consultations are typically 20% shorter than traditional in-person appointments, which can  allow providers to see additional patients. Unused exam rooms can be converted to support higher revenue generating procedural care, and telehealth also lowers caregivers’ exposure to illnesses. The combination of these means that providers can boost revenues and expand their patient base while providing higher levels of care.

The impact of telehealth on the design of clinics and hospitals

The increased use of telehealth services can change how healthcare providers design and use their spaces. Here’s a few different ways this can be realized:

More efficient use of space

With an increased demand for telehealth, clinics can reduce the number of exam rooms and apply the square footage to higher-value areas like procedure rooms or multi-purpose rooms that can be used for different procedures. For example, the standard clinic exam room is 100 to 120 square feet dependent on specialty, while a telehealth room for a provider can be smaller, at around 80 square feet. Without exam room equipment, a telehealth room only requires a desk with a computer monitor and camera, appropriate lighting and audio equipment, and enough space for a provider and possibly support staff. An increase in telehealth and decrease in exam room numbers could also result in a reduction in support space needs and staff for reception, patient check-ins and check-outs, the size of medical rooms, nursing stations and waiting areas.

Bringing doctor’s offices back into communities

In recent years, many doctors’ offices have been moved off-site or eliminated altogether. However with the emergence of telehealth, the doctor’s office may have a resurgence, in the form of a space that is part office, part exam room. Going forward, a doctor who spends a day in the clinic may spend half the time seeing patients in person and the other half seeing patients remotely.

Reinventing the waiting room

With the use of smart phone apps, the traditional waiting room could be transformed. In non-urban settings, the parking lot can serve as a waiting room for many patients. In urban settings, appropriate waiting areas could have limited seating capacity and organized so each patient has their own personal space. While some clinics have responded now by introducing plexi-glass partitions between chairs, and an abundance of hand-hygiene stations — this is a temporary solution.

These could be replaced in due time with solutions that use furniture and screening mechanisms designed for privacy and separation, with patients organized in small groupings of one to three people. Mechanically, we could see requirements for clinic and doctor’s office waiting rooms match those of emergency and radiology departments with negative pressure and increased air changes per hour exhausted outdoors.

Adding telehealth to the workplace

For many patients who worry about exposure to Covid-19, telehealth consultations at home can provide safe alternatives to in-person visits. Even when the pandemic retreats, these telehealth consultations could also take place in specialized places outside the home, such as offices and higher education campuses.

Dedicated rooms for virtual health visits on a corporate campus, for example, would provide patient convenience, privacy and time savings, and require less square footage than a more traditional health clinic. A wellness room within an office can easily be converted into a telehealth room with modest financial investment, requiring nothing more than good lighting, acoustical separation, a computer with a decent sized monitor and an internet and phone connection.

Barriers to telehealth utilization

Despite the benefits of telemedicine, there are a few things that are preventing it from being more widely adopted. First is the perception that telehealth is less effective than in-person care. This perception has kept some people from utilizing these services, but this should change as more people use it. A 2019 study shows satisfaction with telehealth has increased, with 62% saying the quality of care was the same as an in-person visit.

Another challenge is in the regulatory landscape. While some health insurance companies, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, may cover or reimburse telehealth visits, telehealth coverage laws vary between states. Moreover, people who are uninsured may not have access to the technology needed for telehealth appointments. This is something that needs to be addressed. If not, those under- or uninsured — who may benefit greatly from telehealth — will continue to be excluded.

Telehealth services have been critical during the coronavirus pandemic and a crucial supplement to in-person medical care. As more patients and providers become comfortable with remote care for some services, it is important to consider its impact on healthcare real estate and the overall patient experience.

Telehealth used to be the “on ramp” of the healthcare freeway system. Now it’s in the “passing lane,” overtaking some long-established traditional modes of care delivery. Telehealth is here to stay, and we need to plan for it.


How are you and your healthcare organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Tim Griffith.

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How to Make Ambulatory Care Centers More Adaptable

Six Ways to Prepare for the Next Pandemic by Reconsidering Healthcare Design Guidelines

May 26, 2020

Senior Associate, NBBJ


Editor’s note: Our healthcare clients are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. We seek to support them as they courageously care for the sick. So we’re posting design ideas based on work with them, in the hope that we can contribute from our base of expertise to help combat the epidemic. From all of us at NBBJ to the many doctors, nurses and support staff in hospitals and clinics, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Noelia Bitar and Paula Buick.


The number of outpatient centers has increased dramatically in recent years, but as scheduled appointments were canceled during the coronavirus, this valuable real estate stood empty. Because ambulatory centers already have basic healthcare infrastructure in place, they potentially could flex to accommodate an inpatient surge; however, many of these facilities were designed to meet only the minimum requirements of current codes — like the FGI Guidelines, which establishes national standards for the design and construction of healthcare facilities — and as a result their ability to be adapted for inpatient care is limited.

As we think about building new ambulatory care centers, a few design considerations, above and beyond code minimums, could make it easier for these facilities to flex to meet future inpatient surges or post-acute care needs. Given funding constraints, it may be challenging to incorporate all of these features into every ambulatory care center; however, these are some of the options a health system might consider:

1. Build public spaces that allow for easy conversions. If utilized during a surge event, ambulatory care centers would likely transition from opening only during a set number of hours each day to a 24/7 service, which, because inpatient care requires more staff than outpatient, would require an overall increase in staff on all shifts. This increase would require additional support areas, which will impact the design of public spaces. These spaces should be designed so lobbies can be converted for triage (screening, testing, queuing, etc.) and patient waiting areas converted into “team work areas” where care team stations, staff amenities (lockers, lounges) and clinical support services can be located outside of patient areas that might be required to be isolated. The code currently requires waiting areas to have a ratio of 1.5 to 2 chairs per patient care room, but it does not specify a square footage per chair; we find that 25 square feet per chair is a good standard for providing additional future space flexibility in waiting areas.

2. Design exam rooms to flex beyond outpatient care needs. The minimum clear floor area required for patient exam rooms per the guidelines is 80sf, but as we design for future flexibility, we could see a shift to allow for stretchers to be used in these rooms. Taking into account the appropriate clearances that might be required, 120 square feet is a more appropriate minimum, and sometimes 140 square feet for multidisciplinary-based team care.

Medical gases such as oxygen and vacuum could be included in at least some exam rooms, even though the code does not require any medical gases in a standard exam room. The addition of medical gases in general ambulatory centers will allow for these rooms to flex when needed.

Because telehealth is important not only for expanding access to care but also for helping to reduce exposure to contagion for both patients and staff, it would be beneficial to integrate technology and design that supports telehealth or teleconsults into more exam rooms. While the outpatient guidelines offer dedicated spaces where telemedicine could take place, such as a bay, cubicle or room, including it in every exam room would provide additional support. Consider elements such as:

  • Monitors with fixed cameras or mobile carts for telehealth and remote consults to be able to remotely view and communicate with patients
  • Communication tools, including “nurse-call” that is voice-activated (the current code does not require nurse call devices in exam rooms)
  • Television for patient distraction and education

Larger 4′ (or 48″) door openings could be the new norm for the exam room and all patient areas — even though door openings serving occupiable spaces are usually a minimum clear width of 34″, or 41.5″ where stretchers are used, and 4′-door openings are typically only required in the path of travel to public areas and in areas where care will be provided for patients of size. Using sliding doors or double-leafed doors could accommodate a wider opening without impacting the design of the room.

Even though an exam room, by code, requires privacy for patient consultation, integrating a transparent material like a narrow light or half window with integral blinds would allow it to flex into an observation room, which by code requires patient visibility. Sliding glass doors with a translucent film could be used to maintain privacy while providing light into the corridors during normal exam-room use, but the film could easily be removed and allow for transparent glass, if the room needed to flex for observation.

3. Plan for an isolation zone within outpatient care areas. An entire floor or section of an ambulatory care floor could be designed to become a negative pressure area. Rooms would need to identified for transforming into donning/doffing PPEs, and with a one-way entry and exit flow.

Similarly, while Airborne Infection Isolation (AII) exam rooms are only required in specific programmatic ambulatory needs, having the option to accommodate a patient who has screened positive for an airborne infection may be advantageous in the surge response plan. A minimum number of AII exam rooms could be required, along with an adjacent room or space to serve as an ante room or vestibule. And don’t forget that patient isolation can function at multiple scales.

4. Expand corridor widths to allow multiple flows. Although outpatient guidelines only require 6′ corridors in areas where there is use for stretcher transport, if corridor widths were required to be a minimum of 6′ throughout, they could accommodate stretchers and other circulation needs, and support PPE carts outside rooms, EVS cart parking, patient transportation etc.

5. Choose the soiled workroom over the soiled holding room. Most outpatient general facilities only require soiled holding rooms in exam areas, as they are only used for temporary storage of soiled materials and supplies — as opposed to more intensive soiled workrooms, which include additional plumbing and space in which staff can work. However, choosing to include the soiled workroom in outpatient settings will also allow for cleaning or disposal of soiled items with the multiple sinks required by code for inpatient care.

6. Add redundancy in infrastructure. Including additional electrical power in public areas like waiting rooms and exam rooms makes it possible to support additional equipment loads such as physiological monitoring, mobile diagnostic equipment, emergency power and more. Likewise, HVAC systems ideally would be flexible enough to accommodate 24×7 patient care, additional cooling for increased staffing, thermostats in each exam room or the modest increase in air changes per hour — from 4 to 6 — required by code for inpatient settings. Most general ambulatory centers like medical office buildings do not require these types of redundancy per code requirements.

Many of these features will entail additional costs. However, there are also significant costs associated with leaving an ambulatory care space idle because it is unable to meet unexpected care needs like the Covid-19 pandemic. Some additional upfront investment may be necessary but doing so will ensure that these centers will be ready to flex when the next emergency arises.


How are you and your healthcare organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

Banner image courtesy Sean Airhart.

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