How To “Create a Zen Den”

By Melanie Rule & Allison Fifoot

Emergency departments by their nature are busy and chaotic places. They operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is therefore not surprising that staff often need a quiet place to take a break from the noise and chaos to relax and recharge.

Most departments offer office spaces or a meal room setup which serve as places to take your breaks. But these are often anything but quiet with staff sharing stories, debriefing about patients and having a laugh.

Some departments offer the additional option of an outdoor area that allows staff to get a healthy dose of fresh air and vitamin D during their breaks.

For Emergency Medicine Wellness Week 2019, we decided to try to create a place for quiet relaxation within our busy ED. Inspired by some fine examples on Twitter* we created our own “Zen Den”.

What is a Zen Den?

A “Zen Den” is a quiet, calm, relaxing space within the Emergency Department or within the hospital. It is designed to be an area that staff can go to during their breaks to switch off for a moment and relax.

We need to respect that we work with many different types of people, some who may wish to recharge in private, take a nap, do yoga or meditate in their breaks. They may be introverts who get their energy from spending time alone or just folks who like a bit of peace and quiet to break up their busy day.

Where is it located?

Ideally it should be located within the ED, to make it easily accessible to staff. This allows staff who are only able to take a short 10 minute time-out to use it as well as staff who are able to take longer protected breaks.

We booked a meeting room that is located out the back of the administrative area of the Emergency Department for a whole week. On the Sunday afternoon before Wellness Week, we snuck in and surprised our colleagues by completing the room make-over.

We made a sign for the door explaining that the “Zen Den” was a quiet space for relaxation, and that conversations should be had elsewhere to respect the nature of the space. 

What equipment do you need?

There are endless possibilities for how to set up your “Zen Den” depending on the size of the space you have available. We had a meeting room about 4m x 4m which was large enough to allow us to set up a variety of different areas.

We had a large table with a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, some plants & magazines on smaller tables around the room, some artwork and a selection of beanbags and cushions for people to sit on to relax. Couches or recliner chairs would have been ideal to allow staff to take a brief nap on night shift, but this was not possible in our temporary version of the “Zen Den”.

We were fortunate to secure some funding for a massage therapist to come into the “Zen Den” for a few hours each day during Wellness Week. They set up their own massage table (behind a room divider for privacy) and provided 10 minute back and shoulder massages to staff for a small fee. This added a wonderful incentive for people to come along and spend some time in the “Zen Den”.

How much funding do you need to make it happen?

Our temporary “Zen Den” relied almost entirely on donations from staff, particularly those in our Wellness Interest Group. They arrived (some on their day off) to help set-up the room as well as donated items from their own homes that fit with the theme of the room. We had a local fruit shop donate some apples and our consultant group donated a supply of fancy teabags, chocolates and muesli bars.

If you are fortunate enough to have some funding to put to a more permanent version of the “Zen Den”, then the essential items to purchase would be furniture such as comfy couches, beanbags, cushions and other soft furnishings like rugs and curtains.  Plants would be a nice addition to the usual austere hospital environment but it does require someone with a green thumb to take responsibility for watering them regularly. Artwork, particularly of outdoor scenery is a must to create a visual escape.

Things best to avoid are scented items, such as candles and incense as not everyone finds these appealing. They are also deemed a fire hazard and can make quite a mess (as we discovered with our scented plug in candle!)

What are the benefits of a “Zen Den”?

The benefits of the “Zen Den” were obvious – a nice quiet space to take a break from the chaos alongside relaxing, restorative massages that made us float back out into the ED feeling amazing even after only 10 minutes.

There were unexpected benefits from our “Zen Den” as well. We received positive feedback from the staff in our department that they felt valued.

Staff liked having different options for where to take their breaks, depending on how they were feeling on any given shift. They also liked the variety of books and magazines with a wellbeing theme that were provided. The jigsaw puzzle created a bit of shared purpose with lots of people working together to finish what seemed like an impossible task.

(Tip: Choose an easier option for your jigsaw than a 1000 piece puzzle of coloured trees if you want your team to experience success!)

Future possibilities

We have used the “Zen Den” concept to raise awareness about the inadequacies of our current break room set-up. It is woefully small for the number of staff working in the ED, and it often a mess with a sink full of dirty dishes. We are now planning a major redesign of our break areas in the future to include a larger tea room area, an outdoor space with seating and possibly even a permanent “Zen Den”.

The massage therapist’s phone number is posted up on the wall of the meeting room for staff to access when they feel the need for some pampering. We are planning to have them back in the ED in the future when funding allows.

It also helped to progress the conversation about the importance of allowing staff to take breaks for a nap on night shift if required. This had been previously discouraged due to the lack of onsite facilities, but with the possibility of a more permanent relaxation space in the ED to be built in the future, this is now being discussed.

*For inspiration, here are some pictures of the wonderful examples of “Zen Dens” that we have seen shared on Twitter, including our own temporary version from Wellness Week 2019. 


Temporary Zen Den – The Prince Charles Hospital, QLD Australia

(Credit to the Wellness TEAM – a multidisciplinary team of ED staff)


 Quiet Room – Landspitali ED: Reykjavik, Iceland

(Credit to the team at Landspitali Emergency Department in Reykjavik, Iceland and to Dr Chris Edwards @EMtraveller for sharing his photos.)

English translation of the sign in the meditation room:

This quiet room is a sanctuary in a hectic and demanding work environment.It´s first and foremost, to enjoy and relax and hopefully a way to your inner calm. A few guidelines on how to use the room:

The quiet room is not for meetings/work

The quiet room is not for chatting

No food and drinks

Can use phone to play calming music but no games, chat, texting

Please tidy up after yourself when you have finished, leaving the room as it was when you found it (or even better J )

That includes turning off the lights the scent lamp, fold blankets etc

About Melanie Rule

About Allison Fifoot