VIU Researcher Investigates Hospital Design Elements to Improve Employee Well-being

Dr. Lindsay McCunn smiles at the viewer while wearing a grey blazer and shirt.

Dr. Lindsay McCunn, a VIU Psychology Professor, is working with Island Health to survey employees about architectural elements and design features that they associate with work satisfaction, productivity, well-being and more. Vancouver Island University Photo

May 20, 2021 - 10:15am

VIU researcher surveying Island Health employees working in Cowichan District Hospital to understand what physical architectural features make a difference in their work satisfaction and well-being.

 Vancouver Island University (VIU) Psychology Professor Dr. Lindsay McCunn is working with Island Health on a research project that could help the hospital replacement planning team consider which design features to incorporate into the new Cowichan District Hospital, which is expected to open in 2026. 

The research project is a long-term commitment that invited employees working at the current hospital to participate in a survey to determine which architectural elements and design features they associate with aspects of employee satisfaction, well-being, productivity and more. After the new hospital is built, employees will be surveyed again to measure the effect of included architectural features.

“Providing safe, high quality care for patients is our top priority,” says Deanna Fourt, Director of Sustainability and Business Continuity for Island Health. “Creating a positive working environment is one of the many ways we can support staff to maintain their safety and well-being at work, and improve the hospital experience for all. We are pleased to be partnering with Lindsay, and look forward to the opportunity to incorporate her leading-edge research into this exciting capital project.”

This research capitalizes on the rare opportunity of being able to ask employees questions prior to construction. McCunn, who specializes in environmental psychology – a relatively new sub-field of psychology that examines the transactions between individuals and their physical settings, says it’s unique to have a study underway this far in advance to get a picture of what design elements resonate with users.

McCunn, along with three undergraduate research assistants in her Environmental Psychology Research Lab, have recently surveyed employees at the existing Cowichan District Hospital to determine current levels of the staff’s feeling of commitment to the organization, perceived productivity, well-being, and their pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours within their workplace. Staff were also asked to describe what physical features in the hospital contribute to their sense of engagement and reduced stress on the job. 

“Often, research that connects an environment to behaviours is done retroactively and building users are asked how they feel about working in a setting after it has been designed. But that kind of research relies on peoples’ memories, which can include errors and biases. The study with Island Health has a better methodology that allows us to measure how staff feel in both buildings, with less reliance on memory, because we are surveying them before and after they move into the new hospital,” says McCunn.

The survey asks employees questions about what physical features make a difference in their work satisfaction and also examines how people perceive environmental features that offer a sense of privacy, social interaction, social cohesion, safety and security, air quality, lighting, and so on. Findings from the survey will be shared with Island Health project team to enhance the team’s understanding of what features are important to staff for environmental sustainability.

“We understand a lot about how we interact with each other socially in psychology but sometimes it’s more difficult to understand what attributes of a physical environment contribute to those relationships and the feeling you have in a place,” says McCunn, adding that design features can also influence people’s behaviour at work and their attitudes toward the environment.

Fourt says there are numerous environmental elements taken into account when designing a new hospital, including targeting LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold Certification. Many elements of the LEED® Gold Certification aim to improve the well-being and experience for the people inside the building. Some of the features that directly affect staff are storage and collection of recyclables, indoor air quality, places of respite and access to daylight. Another element that might also be important is just having a pleasant place to take a break outside. Outside the scope of McCunn’s research project, Island Health will undertake a process to ensure patients and family caregivers have the opportunity to provide input into many important aspects of the new hospital. 

“We want to make sure employees have a number of spaces that they can access to find some respite, privacy and a place to feel restored,” says McCunn. “That happens with things like biophilic design – where natural patterns and organic shapes and nature-based attributes – come in.” 

Natural design elements can have restorative effects on people’s attention and mood, she adds. McCunn received VIU’s Explore Grant and Innovate Grant to undertake this work.

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Media Contact:

Rachel Stern, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

C: 250.618.0373 l E: Rachel.Stern@viu.ca | T: @VIUNews

About the Cowichan District Hospital Replacement Project:

The Cowichan District Hospital Replacement Project is currently in the procurement phase with construction scheduled to begin in 2022. The new, $887.4M community hospital will be nearly three times the size of the current hospital with capacity for 201 acute care beds, up from 134. Despite the increase in size, the new hospital will have a lower environmental impact than the existing facility specifically targeting a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.


Tags: Psychology | Research