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Sound Health: How Noise Can Inspire Healing  

Editor’s note: This blog post is part of a series on sound health.

Did you know that stroke patients working with a music therapist can learn to express themselves through singing, or that music with a beat can make walking easier for those suffering from Parkinson’s disease? I, for one, became more aware of the impacts of sounds, both positive and negative, while attending a sound health event at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The Kennedy Center and the National Institutes of Health, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts and renowned soprano Renée Fleming, launched this collaboration to explore the connections between music, health, and wellness.

As the Kennedy Center noted, “Music is fundamental to the human species in ways that reach beyond entertainment or pastime. In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks noted that music can ‘calm us, animate us, comfort us, thrill us, or serve to organize and synchronize us at work or play, [but] it may be especially powerful and have great therapeutic potential for patients with a variety of neurological conditions.’”

It was through these Kennedy Center events and also through a relationship with the Johns Hopkins Sibley Innovation Hub that we learned of the sound alchemist and Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow Yoko Sen. Yoko, through her company Sen Sound, seeks to alleviate acoustical suffering by transforming sound design in hospitals. In addition to working with medical device manufacturers to “tune” their alarms, she has been leading research at the Johns Hopkins Sibley Memorial Hospital on the need to create a space for caregiving staff to recharge.

For nearly half a century, research has focused on the negative impact that sleep deprivation and alarm fatigue (i.e., caregivers’ constant exposure and eventual desensitization to alarms, resulting in a diminished sense of urgency) have on hospital patients’ ability to recover. The Archives of Internal Medicine research also states that noise can increase anxiety, stress, and perception of pain, resulting in longer lengths of stay. Only in the last decade have we begun to recognize the negative impact sound and noise have on hospital caregivers, specifically their ability to focus, their coping mechanisms, and the impact of noise on staff burnout and stress.

Through Gensler research on another high-pressure and stressful knowledge-worker occupation, financial trading, we know that success or failure hinges on the traders’ ability to instantaneously process, analyze, and react to multiple and increasingly fast-paced streams of information. Not surprisingly, debilitating stress and high burnout rates are becoming commonplace for traders. Gensler’s research found that a healthier environment means healthier traders, who, in turn, impact the health of the financial market itself. One of our research takeaways was the need to curate sensory stimuli in the design of the traders’ workspace to minimize stress, rather than amplify it, mainly through the design of light and sound. This also holds true for nurses, physicians, and other hospital staff.

Through a pro-bono engagement, we partnered with Yoko and the Sibley Innovation Hub in furthering their research focused on creating a cost-effective intervention, in the form of a tranquility room at Washington, D.C.’s Sibley Memorial Hospital, to assist in alleviating hospital staff stress. As Yoko has noted, “This room is not another staff break room, it is a statement by way of physical and experience design that caring for those who care for others is a necessity. The dignity of ‘staff experience’ matters as much as ‘patient experience.’” The Sibley research team’s early observation and engagement with over 100 of their staff uncovered six categories of needs for a successful staff room: emotional recovery, physical comfort and relaxation, nourishing moments of pause, sensory detox and recharge, private safe space, and a sense of belonging. Thus, the tranquility room was born.

Journey Map Sketches. Images © Yoko Sen.

Journey Map Sketches. Images © Yoko Sen.

A preliminary prototype resulted in additional staff feedback based on “I like…,” “I wish…,” and “I wonder….” The findings indicated the need for a room that was dimly lit, with quiet sounds and comfortable furnishing, such as cozy chairs and yoga matts with access to water and aromatherapy. The findings also revealed a need for semi-privacy and for the tranquility room to be located near the staffing unit. Feedback from the prototype helped to inform our design brief, which had three categories: sensorial, functional (including infection control), and cultural. The brief effectively kicked off the next phase of the project—extending the research and learnings from the prototype tranquility room into a final built product. To find out how we did just that, tune in to Part II, “Sound Health: The Tranquility Room,” in which we describe the design and outcomes of the space.

Tama Duffy Day is a strategist and translator—seeking to align operational strategy with physical and social environments. A principal and Firmwide Health & Wellness practice leader, she leads teams and clients in leveraging the power of design to impact lives and enrich communities. Contact her at tama_duffyday@gensler.com and @TamaDuffyDay.