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Sound Health: The Tranquility Room

Tranquility Room at Sibley Memorial Hospital, a member of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Photo © Wendy Steck Merriman Photography.

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

Doctors and nurses dedicate their lives to caring for others, but who is caring for them? Recent research makes it clear: healthy, happy caregivers provide better patient care. Yet caregivers’ realities are seldom a symbol of health: long hours, rotating shifts, and physically demanding tasks, set against the background of the sound of someone in pain, the most stressful noise in a hospital setting. It’s no wonder that healthcare workers are at high risk for physical and mental health problems, including musculoskeletal injuries and depression. Long overlooked, the impacts of diminished caregiver health are now coming to the surface.

Leading companies across industries are investing in wellbeing programs—like Gensler’s WorkWell℠ model—as a business strategy aimed at increasing employee productivity, enhancing engagement, and improving overall health and happiness in the workplace. Companies with healthy and happy employees are twice as innovative, and every dollar invested in workplace mental health initiatives results in a $2.30 return. With this in mind, hospitals are exploring cost-effective solutions to help caregivers manage stress in the 24/7 hospital environment.

Tranquility Room at Sibley Memorial Hospital, a member of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Photo © Wendy Steck Merriman Photography.

A thoughtful, intentional gift to staff

Gensler partnered with sound alchemist Yoko Sen and the Johns Hopkins Sibley Innovation Hub to research and develop one such solution, the “Tranquility Room” at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C. Multiple rounds of staff engagement sparked an idea—to create a space where staff could escape the hospital environment, even if only for a few minutes.

Layered onto the experiential goal of immersive relaxation was the recognition of diverse individual user needs. To achieve that, the team involved the staff in the decision-making process—holding an open house to elicit diverse feedback on experience concepts, finishes, and layout solutions. For instance, because the Tranquility Room would accommodate four people at once, individual privacy was a concern, yet the degree of physical privacy needs varied. At the same time, there was a competing desire for a sense of connection and community. There were also a variety of posture preferences—some staff want to fully recline in chairs, while others prefer space to practice yoga or meditate while sitting on the floor.

The Tranquility Room also had to meet the strict functional requirements of a hospital environment, without feeling like a hospital.

  • The design needed to maintain infection control requirements for cleanability, without feeling cold and sterile or smell of disinfectant.

  • It needed to fulfill life safety restrictions around the use of drapery and fire-rated materials—without creating anything that looks like hospital cubicle curtains.

  • And it needed to follow facility requirements around maintenance and durability—without the use of institutional, commercial-grade products.

Tranquility Room at Sibley Memorial Hospital, a member of Johns Hopkins Medicine. Photo © Wendy Steck Merriman Photography.

Caring for the caregivers

The Tranquility Room engages all five senses in an immersive relaxation experience—with dim lanterns, soft drapery, herbal teas, purified air, and soothing music. The music—originally tested as a part of "Nature as Prototype" exhibition at McLean Project for the Arts—creates a “soundscape” for the room by incorporating the sounds of nature with subtle musical elements. The design is simple yet flexible, including four personal spaces that can be fully enclosed by translucent drapery, paired with a variety of seating options for individual posture preferences.

With the physical design obstacles overcome, there was still one step to create this immersive experience: this Tranquility Room needed become an integral part of the hospital’s organizational culture. Staff has to feel they have both permission to take a break and the support to do so. Sibley is supporting this culture of wellbeing in two ways: by experimenting with retired nurse volunteers who can step into the room when they need a break and by tying the use of the room into a larger mindfulness program.

Sibley’s Tranquility Room opened to staff on January 31, and already the space is receiving positive feedback. “The biggest confirmation that we’re on the right track was when a nurse told me that the room made her happy she worked at Sibley,” said Sibley’s administrative resident, Allison Hart. “I’m delighted to be able to show staff how valued they are beyond telling them.”

Stay tuned for further research on the outcomes and impacts of the room and learn about the Tranquility Room Pop-up at STIR: The Experience Lab.

Bonny Slater is a senior designer and regional center of excellence leader for the Health & Wellness practice area. With degrees in both design and environmental psychology, her research-based solutions reflect the local cultures and identities of her diverse clients, from community health centers to foreign medical cities. Contact her at bonny_slater@gensler.com.