3D digital technologies tackle mental injury in healthcare

by Sophie Berrill
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3D-knitted scrubs

Designers have 3D printed chill-out pods for busy healthcare workers to improve their comfort and workplace mental health. 

The Safety Sensescaping project, funded by WorkSafe’s WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund, is part of Peninsula Health’s Thriving in Health program, which aims to create safe and mentally healthy environments for healthcare workers to thrive in.  

Project lead and RMIT senior lecturer Dr Olivier Cotsaftis worked with doctors, nurses and non-clinicians at Peninsula Health for three years to understand the psychosocial hazards in their workplace and find design-led solutions to prevent mental injury in healthcare.  

Sound-absorbing furniture  

Cotsaftis says the demanding nature of healthcare work means staff are often unable to take restful breaks as there is a lack of private resting spaces.  

“Many healthcare workers take breaks wherever they can, but there may not be any seats to sit on or they might lack privacy,” he says.  

“They’re also subjected to lots of noise pollution, which makes it difficult for them to de-stress.” 

Working within these constraints, Cotsaftis designed a suite of portable, modular, cost-effective and sustainable 3D-printed furniture. The furniture could be printed on demand when needed by the hospital and industrially composted at the end of its life.  

Most importantly, the furniture was sound absorbing. 

3D-printed modular furniture helps to prevent mental injury in healthcare

3D-printed modular furniture in a workshop, featuring privacy dividers and two
stools. Image: RMIT University

The prototypes are made from corn polylactic acid (PLA), a compostable and carbon-neutral natural plastic, and recycled paper for its sound-absorbent properties. Cotsaftis’ furniture design includes the use of rounded patterns, allowing sound to travel through the furniture rather than bounce off the surface.  

To alleviate another unconscious source of stress for many healthcare workers, the researchers also designed 3D-knitted bespoke hospital scrubs, which are often scratchy, overheat and don’t typically accommodate a wide range of body shapes and sizes.

Preventing mental injury in healthcare 

According to WorkSafe, psychosocial hazards are factors in work that increase the risk of work-related stress, which can lead to psychological or physical harm. 

Psychosocial hazards can range from low job control and poor environmental conditions to violent or traumatic events in the workplace. 

WorkSafe Victoria executive director of external affairs, Sam Jenkin, says the Mental Health Improvement Fund supported initiatives that prevent work-related mental injury through system-level change.  

“Thriving in Health’s prevention-focused initiatives will share knowledge and resources to support more than 100,000 frontline healthcare workers across Victoria,” Jenkin says. 

“As a community, we need to look after the workers who look after us. Sadly healthcare workers face increased risk of mental illness and injury – especially those who provide frontline care.” 

Jenkin says WorkSafe has accepted nearly 13,000 claims from the Healthcare and Social Assistance sector in the past three financial years, with 17.7 percent of these for mental injuries. 

Design – more than just aesthetics 

Cotsaftis says his research with Safety Sensescaping highlights how human-centred design can change our approach to creating products, services, strategies and policies to tackle the growing issue of mental wellbeing in the workplace. 

“Design is often misunderstood as form and aesthetic, but it also includes the broader systems we sometimes interact with, such as health care,” he says. 

“What we’ve designed is not just innovative scrubs or furniture, but a design strategy that can be used to tackle any work-related factors contributing to poor staff mental wellbeing in healthcare.” 

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