ABCs of the ED: depicting moments of meaning and joy in the Emergency Department


The Emergency Department (ED) is a high-risk and fast-paced environment. Every day, people from all walks of life pass through ED. ED workers encounter every part of humanity — from births and broken limbs to bloody accidents and death — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Healthcare design has prioritised patient needs for years, for a good reason. However, recent trends in declining health workforce wellbeing (heightened by understaffing, rising patient numbers, and under-resourcing) suggest that healthcare workersrequire a comparable level of attention.

Most healthcare professionals’ journey to a medical career was sparked by an intrinsic impulse to heal and relieve suffering for others. These intrinsic motivators are their sense of calling, which “must be protected and preserved for the benefit of both the physicians and their patients” (Serwint & Stewart, 2019). However, healthcare workers are chronically exposed to suffering. The irony of suffering being a motivator and something that takes a toll on them led Sulmasy (1997) to use the term “wounded healer” to describe healthcare workers.

Burnout is caused by a myriad of factors, such as lack of autonomy and control, little funding for resources and support, and patient load. Work-related burnout in the healthcare workforce has increased from 39.4% in 2015 to 43.3% in 2020 (Chambers, 2021). One out of two doctors now experiences burnout (Russell, 2021). The consequences of this among ED workers are significant, negatively impacting the individual and their colleagues, as well as the quality of care their patients receive (Chambers, 2021).

Burnout in the ED has become increasingly visible; this has beenfurther amplified in recent years with the uncertainties that Covid-19 has brought along. This research explored the importance of illuminating the joy and meaning in work for healthcare workers to “thrive and not merely survive” (Serwint & Stewart, 2019) using an appreciative lens rather than a perspective of deficit. Design and creative methods were used to invite ED workers to reflect on small moments of meaning and joy. Previous research used an appreciative inquiry process supported by creative workshops to identify and highlight the abundance of existing positive aspects of the ED. This project builds on that work by generating a set of artefacts that physically embody the moments that easily slip away, to serve as a reminder to staff during difficult times of what really matters. The artefacts developed have the potential to encourage the expansion and expression of ideas that are otherwise difficult to articulate.

This research is exploratory and a small part of a wider process toinfluence the wellbeing of healthcare workers using design. It will serve as a proof-of-concept for how small and non-intrusive design ‘interventions’ can be used to contribute to improving the wellbeing of the healthcare workforce.

Read more about Zora's Masters project here:

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