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Reinventing the Recliner

The Empath recliner from Nurture by Steelcase works to make healthcare environments safer by paying attention to the details.


The Empath recliner from Nurture by Steelcase works to make healthcare environments safer by paying attention to the details.

Everybody has an idea of what the perfect recliner should be—firm yet soft, comfortable and comforting. Your recliner is an oasis at the end of a long day.

A patient recliner in a healthcare environment must be this, but so much more. It needs to be cleanable, durable and movable, among other things. To a patient, it isn’t just a place to relax, but a major and tangible step on their road to recovery.

And this is where Nurture by Steelcase stepped in. After observing what they determined to be the shortcomings of other products on the market, they created Empath and ended up revolutionizing the recliner in healthcare settings.

“We get our insights by going directly into real world healthcare settings,” says Travis Zimdar, Nurture’s product marketing manager. “It’s where we can best observe the critical interactions between patient, caregiver and partner-in-care. Our goal is to find the obstacles that get in the way of healing.”

It was during the observation of a bed-to-chair transfer that the design team had an “aha” moment, realizing that the patient wasn’t the only user that the chair should be designed around.

“I have a two-minute video that I took myself when I was doing observations, and that changed the project,” says Alan Rheault, Nurture’s director of product design. “It was two nurse assistants helping an elderly gentleman get out bed and into the chair, and this two minutes is so rich with information. The nurse assistants first had to retrieve the chair from the opposite corner of the room where they were going to have the patient get out of bed and then maneuver the chair around the bed in a very small room, and actually had to move the bed a little bit. So they created this dangerous situation because the chair was too big for the room. We watched the nurse lock and unlock the chair wheels several times for the individual casters. We saw that the chair had one pull-down arm so they could have a nice transfer, but it was on the wrong side of the chair so when they put the chair close to the bed, they couldn’t pull down the arm and make it less of an obstacle.

“We saw the [assistants] pick up the gentleman and as they turned to set him in the chair, one of them was in a bad place and put quite a strain on her back. A really big moment for me was when they lowered the gentleman into the chair; he hit his hip on the arm of the chair, and the arm was made of wood. You could literally see his skin wrinkle up as he hit the side of that chair.”

It was then that the team realized how crucial a safe transfer was for both patients and their caregivers, and what elements of the chair impeded the process.PageBreak

“For patients, the move from bed to chair is a milestone in their recovery,” Zimdar explains. “For caregivers, it’s an inherently difficult process due to patient limitations and the sheer number of times it’s performed. Caregivers risk back injuries and patients risk falls or injuries from dropping into hard, unforgiving arms. The design of Empath considers both the patient and caregiver, and helps to provide a safer, easier transfer process.”

Another observational session—this time with the Steelcase Retirees Club—helped influence the length of the lever controlling the back tilt of the recliner.

“We had it shorter, but when we worked with the retirees club, they realized that when they were fully reclined that they couldn’t reach the lever anymore—they kind of had to do a sit-up to reach the lever,” Rheault says. “We realized that we needed to lengthen the lever so that when someone is lying down, they can reach it.”

The immense amount of research and development leveraged in the design of Empath led to the incorporation of several other innovative features, including:

  • A central locking system for the casters, to make locking the chair in place easier
  • Dual flip down arms to provide flexibility
  • Dual-sided recline paddles to help users who struggle to reach the incline paddles
  • A soft urethane footrest scallop, which makes it easier for patients to get out of the chair by allowing their feet to be farther underneath their center of gravity

Empath has also been built to withstand the use and abuse that inevitably comes with the territory. The chassis and arm panels are reinforced, and the chair is completely constructed from steel, with all metal-to-metal connections. In addition, all of the components are replaceable, allowing for revitalization of the chair instead of disposal.

These seemingly small tweaks and innovations have earned the recliner rave reviews. Empath was awarded a prestigious Nightingale Award at the Healthcare Design conference in 2011, and according to Zimdar, Nurture has already exceeded its first year volume projections after less than six months on the market. But perhaps one of the greatest compliments came while showing it at a recent nursing conference.

“The nurses were trying out the chair and one of them said ‘This must have been designed by a nurse,’” Rheault recalls. “And that was the best compliment that you could ask for, because in her mind this really thought about all of their needs.”

Learn more about Empath at


Kylie Wroblaski is a former editor for BUILDINGS magazine, and has written previously about architecture and facilities management.