No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });



by Steve Wright

Fly away, fly away bird to your native home,
You have leapt free of the cage
Your wings are flung back in the wind of God.
Leave behind the stagnant and marshy waters,
Hurry, hurry, hurry o bird, to the source of life!

- Rumi (trans. Harvey, 1994)

Sometimes work can feel like we are stuck in stagnant and marshy waters, the endless toil broken by the prospect of the next holiday as a chance for respite. Caught up in the grand drama of nursing, sometimes the only sanctuary would seem to be to fly free of it, if only for a little while.

Sanctuary: the idea of a safe sacred place where we are free from the pursuit of others, a place to re-member and re-collect who we are in the midst of all this ‘stuff’. This ‘stuff’ being our work in the swamp of human suffering. Many nurses take sanctuary by literally flying away from it – but after a holiday we may we come back to the way things always were. The temporary refreshment soon wears off as we hit the pile of work awaiting us. Nothing has really changed.

Some studies have shown that nurses find other ways of escaping from the pressures of caring – not all of them positive, such as increased likelihood to resort to drink, drugs, smoking, serial relationships, suicide and more (Snow and Willard, 1989; Williams et al, 1998). Snow and Willard’s study suggested that up to 80% of nurses may be really struggling in their roles and seek to drown this struggle in a wide range of damaging behaviours like these.

Finding the time and place to re-collect ourselves is important, otherwise we can continue to feel dismembered by the conflicting demands at work and home, pulled this way and that as we seek to meet the needs of others. This is all made worse by the often-inhospitable managerial cultures in which we work and the dis-spiriting environments (Wright and Sayre-Adams, 2000; Borrill et al, 1998; Audit Commission, 1998).

Most of our hospital buildings, clinics and other workplaces are clinically clean yet spiritually dead. They are built to be functional, but without the concept of sacred architecture where buildings are pleasing to the eye and bring added healing benefits from their precise proportions and perspectives (Mann, 1993; Wood, 2000). Interestingly, Nightingale held great store by this in her design for hospitals – a notion now long dead it seems in the minds of modern architects and hospital planners who sacrifice the wholesomeness (holiness) of a building on the altar of efficiency. This economy may be a false one, the dispiriting environment may in the long term simply add to staff and patient sickness. Pert (1997) for example has demonstrated the direct connection between our general feelings of wellbeing and our immune response.

A demolition job on much of our health service infrastructure is not possible, but we can take some steps to mitigate their worst effects and restore a sense of the sacred space of healing work (the very essence of the original concept of the hospital). We can look again at that dusty old hospital chapel and reinvigorate it as a multi-faith sanctuary for meditation and contemplation, or create sacred spaces elsewhere on site where there is space for stillness and silence. Yes, I know that can be difficult in settings where space is at a premium, but it can be done with a bit of imagination.

I know of one colleague who has created a small shrine area in one corner of his office, a place filled with symbols of spiritual significance to him. McMann (1998) gives some beautiful examples of how this can be done without being intrusive. My colleague’s office has become the place where everyone seems to go in search of peace and solace – despite some initial scepticism and funny looks.

Gordon (1998) has argued that sanctuaries to find stillness and solitude should be built in the workplace, especially as we live in a largely non-secular society. Meanwhile, pupils at Stocktonwood junior and infant school in one of the most deprived areas of Liverpool have created a ‘quiet place’ – a room offering peace, calm and support from a counsellor. The "Quiet Place" on the campus at the University of York is a sanctuary centred on an old Georgian gazebo. Working with colleagues at West Cumberland NHS Trust, we have developed a "caring for the carer’s" approach, which embraces the idea of setting up a sanctuary in the workplace.

It’s one thing to have a quiet place to retreat to when we feel stressed or just in need of a quiet moment to ourselves. (It should be possible for all nurses at work, and much more healthy than a desperate fag outside the main entrance!). It’s another, however, to be able to make best use of it. This needs two things – firstly an organisational culture that accepts and gives permission for staff to take sanctuary for a short time. Secondly, we often need preparation ourselves (such as a meditation training programme) to be able to make beat use of it. The most important sanctuary we have is within ourselves, but sitting quietly with that can be difficult at first and downright scary for some.

Coming home to the still, quiet space within ourselves is arrival at sanctuary. From this safe, sacred space we are far better equipped to deal with the buffeting of our everyday lives. Shifting the environment helps, but this is only a gateway to a shift in our thinking about how we best take care of ourselves and the real source of our strength in our work.


Audit Commission (1998) Finders keepers – the management of staff turnover in the NHS. London: Audit Commission.

Borrill C, Wall T, West G, Hardy G et al (1998) Mental health of the workforce in NHS trusts. Sheffield: Institute of Work Psychology, University of Sheffield.

Gordon P (1998) "Secular thoughts" The Guardian, Society pp18-19, 30 December.

Harvey A (1994) The way of passion – a celebration of Rumi. London: Souvenir.

Mann A (1993) Sacred Architecture. Shaftesbury: Element.

McMann J (1998) Altars and icons – sacred spaces in everyday lives. San Francisco: Chrinicale.

Pert C (1997) Molecules of emotion. New York: Scribner.

Snow C and Willard P (1989) I’m dying to take care of you. Redmond: Professional Counsellor Books.

Stone V (2000) "Designing environments to nurture the spirit" Sacred Space 1(4) 39-46.

Williams S, Mitchie S and Pattani S (1998) Improving the health of the NHS workforce. London: Nuffield.

Wright S and Sayre-Adams J (2000) Sacred Space – right relationship and spirituality in health care. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

Professor Stephen Wright is Editor of Sacred Space and Chairman of the Sacred Space Foundation.

An edited version of this article was published as "Take Sanctuary" in Nursing Standard, vol 15, issue 4.

Back to ICPD.


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!