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May/June 2008

Work Space as Sacred Space — Creating a Comfort Zone
By Ann M. Callahan, PhD
Social Work Today
Vol. 8 No. 3 P. 30

Theory and research suggest that physical elements of a work space can enhance emotional health, interactions, and therapeutic outcomes.

Dirty, off-white interior paint and one small curtainless window grace this waiting room. Two paper signs on the wall direct clients. Chairs are mismatched and outdated, and nothing is on the floor other than gray industrial carpet cut irregularly down one side. In the hallway, one small picture is lost among a barrage of announcements tacked along the wall.

One office doubles as a storage room, with a folding table for a desk and a pile of electronic equipment connected by wires hanging down from the ceiling. Bookshelves are overstuffed with extraneous items and papers on the verge of falling out.

The next office has a desk covered with papers in disarray that surround a computer keyboard and terminal. The windows have black blinds blocking out the sun. The last room is a chair graveyard with unused office items along the perimeter.

This is our work space for months, weeks, and years to come.

Work space is crucial and yet it is often overlooked. It houses the tools necessary to facilitate our job performance along with the provisions to meet our personal needs. With a little attention, we can transform our work space into sacred space … a place that feels like we have a “home away from home.”

What Is Sacred Space?
Sacred space is an environment that supports the needs of both clients and staff. Emotions and elements of an area comingle in a way that moves those who experience sacred space. In a therapeutic environment, sacred space helps clients experience emotional growth by inspiring them and their therapist. Thus clients feel a sense of safety, delight, compassion, and insight, and therapists experience a personal affiliation with their space that strengthens their emotional reserves.

Creating Sacred Space
The creation of sacred space involves a thoughtful selection and placement of physical elements in an area. The most common physical elements include furniture, accessories, sound, color, temperature, texture, lighting, and fragrance. The physical elements in the interior and exterior spaces both require attention. Interior spaces are the entrance area, hallways, and rooms, while exterior spaces are the building’s façade, landscape, and parking lot. Each contributes to an impression of the overall building.

The way physical elements are used to create sacred space depends on the type and purpose of the space. For example, as a therapist, I wanted to create a space that helps my clients feel emotionally safe and inspired to seek personal change. My office was long and rectangular in shape with white walls and bright florescent lights. It appeared cold and stark. The furniture was covered with burlap that felt abrasive to the touch. My office required a better use of physical elements to make it more inviting for therapy.

You Can Create Sacred Space
Theory and research suggest that physical elements can be used to enhance workers’ emotional health, healthy interactions, and therapeutic outcomes (Bakker, 2003; Dijkstra, Pieterse, & Pruyn, 2006; Pressly & Heesacker, 2001; Ulrich, Quan, Zimring, Joseph, & Choudhary, 2004). Some of the physical elements with the most empirical support include furniture, accessories, color, and lighting.

Furniture layout is most important when used as a design element. The placement of furniture defines the space that surrounds the clients and staff. Mobile furniture works best so clients can create their own physical distance from others in the room. Clients generally feel most comfortable when they are separated by a distance of 48 to 60 inches (Pressly & Heesacker, 2001).

Furniture can be arranged to create an open or closed layout, depending on the purpose of the meeting and what is necessary to help clients feel most comfortable. For example, a sofa and chairs can be placed in a U or L formation to encourage the perception of privacy and enhance client communication (Dijkstra et al., 2006; Pegrum, 2003). A desk “barrier” may be necessary for individuals with confusion or paranoia to help them gain a sense of orientation (Bakker, 2003; Pressly & Heesacker, 2001).

Furniture must also provide adequate physical support for clients and workers. This is particularly important when clients have physical disabilities. In my office, I have some firm chairs for clients who needed extra support to rise from a sitting position. Adequate physical support is nicely complemented by furniture upholstery that is soft in texture. A soft throw blanket and pillows can be used to offset furniture upholstery that would otherwise feel cold or abrasive (Pegrum, 2003).

A blanket can also serve as an accessory that ties in the room’s color palette, as well as provides a covering for clients who get cold. One item that is particularly popular in my office is a fuzzy teddy bear. Clients have sometimes fought over who got to hold the teddy bear during group therapy. The use of soft-textured accessories is also suggested by Bakker (2003), who observes that individuals with dementia may gain comfort by holding a stuffed animal close to them much like they did a previous pet.

Natural items such as plants, pine cones, shells, rocks, wood, candles, and water are additional low-cost accessories for your office (Pegrum, 2003; Ulrich et al., 2004). They can be visually soothing when they have curved shapes, as well as visually stimulating when they have a pattern or texture. Natural items also symbolize growth, renewal, and life, serving as a metaphor for the healing process. Finally, items such as plants can improve the air quality, temperature, and humidity level in an office (Pressly & Heesacker, 2001; Whately, 2005).

Artwork is another accessory that can comfort clients. Our clinic had an art gallery that spotlighted clients’ work in a manner that was particularly profound when clients communicated very little any other way. Artwork with natural subject matter is reported to be the most soothing (Bakker, 2003; Pressly & Heesacker, 2001; Ulrich et al., 2004). For example, a picture of a seascape allows clients the freedom to imagine being in a different place or simply have the relief of a positive distraction (Ulrich et al., 2004).

It is important to maintain accessories. Maintenance includes cleaning, displaying, organizing, and changing accessories over time. Plants need regular cleaning to prevent the collection of dust and mold (Pressly & Heesacker, 2001). Display accessories so they are proportionate to the space (Pegrum, 2003). It is best to use small pictures in an intimate space and a large pictures or collection of pictures in a grand space. Organize accessories to reduce clutter and distraction (Whately, 2005). Finally, allow accessories to change over time to be a suitable resource for changing needs.

The color of walls, drapery, upholstery, and accessories is another issue to consider when creating a sacred space. Based on color theory (Pegrum, 2003; Whately, 2005), warm colors (e.g., red, orange, and yellow) are energizing and make a space feel cozy. Cool colors (e.g., blue, green, and gray) are calming and visually expand a space. Neutral colors (e.g., beige, ivory, taupe, black, gray, and white) unify a space. Whately (2005) recommends a neutral color palette with creamier tones to turn your work space into “a sanctuary of softness and warmth.”

Likewise, according to Pressly & Heesacker (2001), research has found that light colors are often associated with positive emotions and dark colors with negative emotions. Even though the impact of color appeared to be dependent on gender and age, most people said they preferred to work in white offices. Blue was also reported as a favorite color. With this in mind, light blue walls would be a good office color, except for children who, based on the research, would respond more positively to pink walls.

Certain colors are also complementary (e.g., red-green, blue-orange, and yellow-violet), thus enhancing the brilliance of each other when used in combination. However, the negative effects of certain color combinations must also be considered. Research on a blue-violet combination indicated that blood pressure decreased but feelings of depression and fatigue increased (Pressly & Heesacker, 2001). The number of colors used in a space is also important. For example, design theory suggests that fewer colors are best in a small space for less stimulation (Whately, 2005).

One final consideration is the sheen of interior paint, which can be flat or glossy. Flat paint is good for walls that have imperfections, as they will appear smooth and uniform. Glossy paint reflects light and draws attention to the wall’s texture for visual interest. Thus, glossy paint would be good for a small space as it would reflect light and brighten the space (Pegrum, 2003; Whately, 2005). However, glossy paint may create glare that can be confusing for those with cognitive or visual impairment (Bakker, 2003).

The positive effect of bright light is widely supported by theory and research. There are two types of light: natural and artificial. Natural light (sunlight) can promote activity and mental alertness. It can further reduce depression, stress, fatigue, and agitation with exposure to the morning sun being the most effective (Pressly & Heesacker, 2001; Dijkstra et al., 2006; Ulrich et al., 2004). Glossy paint, metal, glass, polished wood, and leather all reflect light and thus improve the brightness of a room (Pegrum, 2003; Whately, 2005).

The softness of artificial light can enhance the feeling of intimacy and relaxation. Artificial light can be placed throughout an office via lamps or candles. The positive effects are most profound when artificial light is placed in harmony with other elements in the space (Pressly & Heesacker, 2001). The placement can direct one’s attention to specific areas, thus stimulating visual interest and perceived size of a room (Pegrum, 2003; Whately, 2005). Artificial light further compensates for limited or absence of natural light.

It is ideal to use a combination of lighting to create sacred space. Research suggests that it is better to use diffused, soft light rather than direct, bright light near clients (Pressly & Heesacker, 2001). In my office, florescent lights provide general lighting overhead. I adjust the blinds to control how much sunlight streams in throughout the day. I placed a lamp on one end table that anchors the furniture’s L-shaped alignment. This lamp helps my clients identify where to sit for therapy despite being in an expansive office with a variety of places to sit.

Remember Personal Needs
In the process of creating sacred space for your clients, remember your own needs. Create a space that provides personal nourishment and emotional reprieve from the daily pressures of work. Therefore, surround yourself by that which uplifts you. Ask yourself the following questions:

• What makes me feel comfortable?

• What inspires me?

• How can I feel at home?

• How can I do my best work?

• Where can I turn if I need relief?

• Does the space balance my needs and client needs?

Even if the physical elements of your work space cannot be changed, there are still ways you can create sacred space. For example, a “workplace altar” can be used to display symbols of that which gives your life or job meaning (Neal, n.d.; Sullivan, n.d.). It can also be a place to leave your concerns about your clients or prayerfully seek inspiration on how to best help your clients.

Workplace altar items may include pictures of loved ones, poetry, quotes, pine cones, rocks, memorabilia or other inspirational items. The location of your workplace altar can be anywhere relative to the amount of space needed and desired level of visibility. Examples of possible locations include your desk, your locker, or the dashboard of your car (Sullivan, n.d.).

The Choice Is Yours
The energy you put into a space is what sanctifies it. The creation of sacred space starts with the intention to nurture those who encounter it. This intention is manifested by thoughtful selection and placement of design elements such as furniture, accessories, color, and lighting. Effort is further required to sustain the sacred space. It is a living space that must change with the needs of those who utilize it.

Since others may not share your desire to transform work area into sacred space, your commitment must be self-sustaining. This is one reason why it is important to start with creating a space the meets your personal needs. In time, others who recognize the power of sacred space will reciprocate this energy. Then you can solicit ideas on how to make your area more accommodating.

Beyond taking responsibility for your own space, your leadership in transforming shared space may be required as well. There are many areas in a work place that are neglected. Transforming these areas is a wonderful way to build community with clients and coworkers by collaborating in design decisions. Such collaboration is also critical in stimulating their investment in sustaining the space.

Remember the consequences of neglecting your work space and visualize the potential. Rest assured that the only basic requirement is a personal desire to transform your work space into sacred space.

— Ann M. Callahan, PhD, is an assistant professor of social work at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN.

Bakker, R. (2003). Sensory loss, dementia, and environments. Generations, 27(1), 46-51.

Dijkstra, K., Pieterse, M., & Pruyn, A. (2006). Physical environmental stimuli that turn healthcare facilities into healing environments through psychologically mediated effects: Systematic review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 56(2), 166-181.

Neal, J. (n.d.). The four gateways to spirit at work. Retrieved September 3, 2006, from: http://www.fourgateways.com

Pegrum, J. (2003). Peace at home: Simple solutions for serene rooms. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Pressly, P. K. & Heesacker, M. (2001). The physical environment and counseling: A review of theory and research. Journal of Counseling and Development, 79(2), 148-160.

Sullivan, P. M. (n.d.). Spirited work: Ways to feed your soul and stay connected to spirit in the workplace. Retrieved June 15, 2007, from: http://www.beliefnet.com/story/103/story_10319_1.html

Ulrich, R., Quan, X., Zimring, C., Joseph, A. & Choudhary, R. (2004). The role of the physical environment in the hospital of the 21st century: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Retrieved January 17, 2008, from: http://www.healthdesign.org/research/reports/physical_environ.php

Whately, A. (2005). Peaceful spaces: Transform your home into a haven of calm and tranquility. New York: Ryland Peters & Small.