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Gardening breaks hoped to boost staff mental health at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital

Gardening breaks hoped to boost staff mental health at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital

19 September, 2022

Getting hands in soil, fresh air and sunlight could be the key to giving busy hospital workers a well-deserved mental break while on shift.

Brisbane's Mater Hospital has created edible gardens to give green-thumbed staff the chance to grow their own herbs and veggies as well as helping improve the reputation of hospital food.

The pilot is an Australian first and will look at both the health and nutritional wellbeing benefits of gardening while on a work break.

With hospital workers throughout the country under incredible stress over the last two years due to COVID-19, the project is intended to give them the opportunity to have time away from the wards.

"It stemmed from a desire to improve nutrition, but it's morphed into something much bigger," director of dietetics and food services at the Mater Hospital Sally McCray said.

"We always wanted to have a kitchen garden at the Mater and to grow more of our own food as well as increase the intake of vegetables and herbs for our patients and staff.

"When we started to look into the gardens, we saw the benefits to mental wellbeing, and we were interested in what this could do for staff."

Ms McCray said therapeutic horticulture was a way to "care for the carers".

"Our research found that the benefit of gardening reduces anxiety, better wellbeing and community engagement as well as the health benefits," she said.

"During COVID our staff were feeling burnout and stress and they told us they wanted to take their breaks outdoors away from the stressful wards and away from the public to have a break."

Green in a sea of grey

The hospital has installed pods in sunlit areas around the hospital, equipped with canopies and self-watering systems.

Tomatoes, rocket, spinach, eggplant, chilli, capsicums, bok choy, herbs and more could be grown in the pods.

"It's hard to find that space in a concrete-like jungle at the hospital but we found spots that were easily accessible to staff and had enough light to grow our produce," Ms McCray said.

"Staff will choose what they want to grow, and they can harvest it and take it home if they want to."

The hospital will invite staff to form an initial group that will be part of a wellbeing edible garden program aimed to be rolled out at the end of the year.

"We'll then measure both quality indicators of both health and mental wellbeing in conjunction with Bond University researchers who will look at the benefits of gardening at work," Ms McCray said.

Taking a break outside

The benefits of therapeutic horticulture are already being seen in aged care settings and disability services.

"Gardening provides tools for respite and a way to care for carers," Bond University senior researcher and dietitian Dr Jennifer Utters said.

"There's a growing body of research on the health benefits of gardening, including its ability to reduce emotional distress, improve quality of life and increase vegetable uptake.

"For staff it shows that breaks in the garden instead of inside could help reduce burnout."

Food for patients

Not only will staff benefit from the mental health aspects but vegetables and herbs will be used on the hospital menu too.

"It's about bringing the nature-based therapy to our workers as well as adding fresh ingredients to the patient menu," Ms McCray said.

Micro-herbs will be used in dishes co-created by Mater Executive Chef Aman Marwah and Luke Mangan to help boost the nutritional intake for patients.