Bleak picture of work stress acc to new research

According to new research based on the figures from the Department for Work and Pensions in the UK, less than a fifth of employers provide support for stressed employees at work.

  • Short-term stress-related absences topped 42,000 in the three months to December last year.
  • Of the 593,930 people claiming the Employment and Support Allowance, 234,670 (39%) are doing so for mental and behavioural disorders.

Another survey showed that:

  • stress is the second biggest cause of short term absences
  • stress is one of the leading cause of all long-term absences for non-manual workers

While it is important to develop adequate interventions to support employees who are absent due to stress, and help them to come back to the workplace, it is also important to look into ways of counteracting and preventing stress from building up in the first place.

Music listening is by no means a ‘magic pill’, or a perfect solution to all stress-problems in organisation. Yet, it is worth noting the health and well-being related behaviours at work that many employees engage in, through listening to music. 

Music can contribute to relaxation: through channeling stress and negative emotions, and through reminding listeners of time and space outside of work. Many participants in my studies felt that music in the office provided them with a break from work and created space for reflection. Interestingly, participants described how increased relaxation could improve their focus and aid creative thinking. Being able to manage distractions was associated with a sense of relaxation.

However, having to listen to imposed music and getting distracted was perceived as annoying and stressful. So not only can music enhance relaxation, but it can actually also generate stress – if it is imposed on employees. Therefore, perceived control over the music is particularly important – perhaps the most important aspect – if music is to enhance relaxation at work. It would be a shame if music ended up causing stress, given the high levels of stress that already exist in many workplaces. Especially when music can do the opposite.

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Most-read article Musicae Scientiae

What a nice surprise!

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Music at work can help stressed employees

As I have written earlier, work-related stress is related to ill-health. Stress in the workplace can also reduce productivity, in particular when stress manifests itself as a reduction in psychological well-being.

This also has a very real and clear financial impact on organisations and their budgets, as stress at work costs the UK economy 10% of the total GDP every year. These figures are likely to rise further, as recent figures from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) suggest that stress related illness is on the rise in the UK due to spending cuts in the public sector.

Even though listening to music at work will not solve all these problems, there is a high incidence of music listening in the workplace and results show that stress-relief is one of the major functions of music at work. Therefore, it is worth examining this in more detail.

Listening to music at work is often viewed as an activity that helps to regulate and improve mood. Many of the respondents in my survey mentioned that music listening had stress- reducing functions (using descriptions like “it relaxes me”, “calms me down”, “eases stress”, and “soothing”).

For some people, music was experienced as cathartic and provided stress relief through representing negative affect in a public environment where acting out the experience was not deemed suitable;

Lets me think, allows me to chill and unwind, if it’s a punky song I can imagine all my stresses being screamed out with the song even if I’m not screaming along with it. (202, F: 18-25yrs, Administrative Assistant)

Statistical results from the survey showed that stress was positively significantly related to whether participants agreed that music could help them relax, which confirms that music can have relaxing functions at work – particularly if the participants are stressed at work.

The reports of mood improvement, relaxation and stress reduction can be understood as well-being related experiences. Given that people are more likely to report high subjective well-being if they experience positive affect more often (Diener & Lucas, 2000), this could be a route through which music listening can influence employee well- being. In other words, music can create a sense of well-being in offices, through providing frequent experiences of positive mood.

There is also another perspective on the way in which music at work can improve well-being. Being able to manage distractions is associated with a sense of relaxation, and having to listen to imposed music and getting distracted is perceived as annoying and stressful.

Researchers argue that there is no real difference between which sounds are perceived as music and which as noise, but that the main characteristic is that the event is out of the listener’s control. This becomes important to music listeners in work settings. Music provides a sense of control over mood and environments, and this experience is an important aspect of stress relief. Other studies have also found that control is a particularly important aspect of wellbeing. In organisational psychology, it is recognised that control is one of the determinants of well-being at work (Warr, 1999). Furthermore, control has been identified as influential in research on music preference and pain control (Mitchell et al., 2006), and post-operative care (MacDonald, 2006), as well as in studies of music listening and well-being in daily life (Batt-Rawden & DeNora, 2005).

Office noise can have a negative impact on productivity, reduce job satisfaction, increase dislike for the office environment, and even cause medical symptoms (see review in North & Hargreaves 2008). Office noise also increases stress, and the negative effects are made worse when people believe they have no control over it, or when they are not used to it previously (ibid). It is therefore not surprising to find that employees value music listening, as it is often used to minimise office noise. But the negative effects of office noise should also be of interest to managers, given that it can produce stress.

Given that music gives employees an opportunity to manage unwanted office noise, it is clear that having this opportunity can also reduce stress and other negative effects of office noise.

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Talk at Goldsmiths

Good news! I have been invited to give a talk as a part of the Eminent Speakers Series at the Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London. I will give a talk on my research into music listening in offices, Thursday 3 November 2011. :)

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Is rap music to blame for the UK riots?

In an article by The Mirror, one journalist asks whether rap music is to blame for the recent UK riots.  The journalist states “I would ban the broadcasting of poisonous rap”. This is perhaps not a surprising response, given the current state of moral panic in which the UK finds itself.

It is not the first time that debates are evoked about whether certain kinds of music can influence young people and spark negative behaviour (North & Hargreaves, 2008). In 1985, two young men tried to commit suicide (one of them succeeded) after listening to Judas Priest. In the aftermath, the men’s parents sued Judas Priest for having included subliminal messages in their songs, which they argued the young men had acted upon. The law suit was later dismissed. And history goes much further back than that, even the Ancient Greeks discussed whether certain music could have negative effects on children (North & Hargreaves, 2008).

The one major aspect to consider is cause and effect. It may be that many young people involved in petty crime listen to rap and hiphop, but can we be certain that it is the music that influence them to commit these crimes? An analogy would be the high correlation between people visiting their doctor and being off work due to sickness. But it would be unwise to argue that people are staying at home because they went to their doctors – i.e., that the visit to the doctor caused it. There are common underlying factors as to why they went to the doctor and why they stayed at home (virus, bacterial infections, etc).

In terms of rap music, studies have shown that rap fans exhibit more aggression and distrust, and that those who enjoy rebellious music videos also score higher on measures of reactive rebelliousness (Robinson, Weaver & Zillman 1996; Rubin, West & Mitchell 2001). A study of exposure to rap videos (Wingood et al 2003) showed that those with high exposure experienced higher unemployment and less parental monitoring. They were also more likely to hit a teacher and more likely to get arrested during a 12 month follow-up period.

While many studies show clear statistical relationships between rap music and crime, there seems to be underlying factors that can explain the relationship – which means that the idea of rap music causing crime is not correct. Some of these underlying factors shown in studies of “problem music” (rap, heavy metal) are:

– psychoticism (North, Desborough & Skarstein, 2005)

– ethnicity (Epstein, Pratto & Skipper, 1990)

– (lack of) parental control (Singer, Levine & Jou, 1993)

– sensation seeking & negative family relationships (Arnett 1992)

– gender (Took & Weiss, 1994)

Studies also show that rap fans don’t perceive links between the music and their behaviour, but instead view the music as mirroring their lifestyle (Gardstrom, 1999).

It is therefore possible that these underlying factors somehow cause liking for rap music (which deals with themes of victimization and crime) as well as the crime itself.

Any calls for censorship and banning of certain genres of music can be understood as a knee-jerk reaction to a difficult situation where many are looking for someone/something to blame. We must not fall into the trap of spreading stereotypical assumptions. Instead, music researchers need to compile and communicate the more complex picture, based on actual academic research – even if this means that journalists get a more difficult job when they are pulling together their story on the topic.



Arnett, J. (1992). The soundtrack of recklessness: musical preferences and reckless behaviour among adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 7, 313-331

Epstein, J., Pratto, D., & Skipper, J. (1990). Teenagers, behavioural problems and preferences for heavy metal and rap music: a case study of a Southern middle school. Deviant Behaviour, 11, 381-394

Gardstrom, S.C. (1999). Music exposure and criminal behaviour: perceptions of juvenile offenders. Journal of Music Therapy, 36, 207-221

North, A.C., Desborough, L., & Skarstein, L, (2005). Musical preferences, deviance, and attitudes towards celebrities. Personality and Individual Differences, 383, 1903-1914

North, A., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2008). The social and applied psychology of music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, T.O., Weaver, J.B., & Zillman, D. (1996). Exploring the relation between personality and the appreciation of rock music. Psychological Reports, 87, 259-269

Rubin, A.M., West, D.V., & Mitchell, W.S. (2001). Differences in aggression, attitudes toward women, and distrust as reflected in popular music preferences. Media Psychology, 3, 25-42

Took, K.J., & Weiss, D.S. (1994). The relationship between heavy metal and rap music and adolescent turmoil: real or abstract? Adolescence, 29, 613-623

Singer, S.I., Levine, M., & Jou, S. (1993). Heavy metal music preference, delinquent friends, social control and delinquency. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 30, 317-329

Wingood, G.M., DiClemente, R.J., Bernhardt, J.M., Harrington, K., Davies, S.L., Robillard, A., & Hook, E.W. (2003). A prospective study of exposure to rap music videos and African American female adolescents’ health. American Journal of Public Health, 93, 437-439


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Top 10 reasons for listening to music in the office

Why do people listen to music in the office? Here are the top 10 reasons, according to academic research:

  1. Relaxation: “calms me down”, “eases stress”, “soothing”
  2. Concentration: “improves my ability to focus on what I am working on”
  3. Affect management: “helps me to remain positive”
  4. Block out distractions: “helps me concentrate, especially when someone else is in the office, or talking on the phone, or having a meeting in my office”
  5. Create variation: “I couldn’t work without it. It would just be a nightmare. Too tedious a job, inputting all day.”
  6. Helps to think about something else: “If music was not my distraction, then something else would be, i.e. something unproductive such as fiddling with papers or gazing out of the window”
  7. For entertainment: “It keeps me company when there isn’t anyone else around”
  8. Because they enjoy it: “I feel more comfortable, it makes things more enjoyable, therefore I feel better about doing it, I guess. I suppose, in a nutshell, I just like it.”
  9. Makes time go quicker: “it just helps the day to go on. It would be a long day without it.”
  10. Lifts energy: “I feel a physical feeling of almost elation.”

Source: Haake, A.B. (2011) Individual music listening in workplace settings: an exploratory survey of offices in the UK. Musicae Scientiae, 15 (1)

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What benefits can music listening at work have?

After having researched music listening at work (in offices) for 6 years, it is evident to me that music listening at work can be useful to employees, as well as to managers and whole organisations. The short version of the argument is: because music can be so important to employees, it is also important to managers and the organisation as a whole. In this blog post, I will present and discuss four of the functions of music listening at work that are also clearly beneficial to managers and organisations.

1. Avoiding boredom

Many music listening employees find that music gives them something else to think about. It provides a diversion and prevents employees from engaging in other distracting behaviours. In this way, music is a strategy to manage internal interruptions, such as day dreams or other thoughts – which could lead to a loss of work flow which could lead to the employee starting to do something else (fiddling with papers, browsing the internet, find a colleague to chat to, send some e-mails and so on).

2. Avoiding interruptions

One frequently mentioned function of music at work is to manage interruptions, and through this function music can also help to improve task concentration. Being able to manage interruptions is by employees described as a way to cope with stress, through having control over the auditory environment. Headphones in particular help to improve concentration in two ways:

a)   Blocking other sounds: Employees often use headphones to block out surrounding noise from the environment or other colleagues by using headphones.

b)   Signalling withdrawal to colleagues: Employees also use headphones to send a visual ‘do not disturb’ signal to others.

3. Allowing employees a sense of control and identity marking

There is a wealth of research indicating that lack of control can induce stress at work. For example, noise at work can negatively impact on both physical and psychological well-being (North & Hargreaves 2008). When people can choose what to hear at work, they find it more relaxing and their work becomes more productive.  Music listening is also strongly connected to identity display, and the workplace is no exception. Lack of opportunities to display personal distinctiveness in offices can undermine self-identity (Baldry, 1997; Elsbach, 2003), and music may therefore be particularly important in open-plan workspaces as a means for employees to assert their identities.

4. Combating work stress

Work-related stress is related to ill-health (Donald et al., 2005; Smith, 2001) and stress in the workplace can also reduce productivity, in particular when stress manifests itself as a reduction in psychological well-being (Donald et al., 2005). This also has a very real and clear financial impact on organisations and their budgets. A mental health charity (Mind) estimated in 2005 that stress at work costs the economy £100 bn every year in the UK. One hundred billion. E v e r y  y e a r. It equals about 10% of the total GDP in the UK. That is an awful lot of money to pay for the consequences of employee stress. Especially today, when there are major issues with the economy in several countries – not only UK, but most Western countries. Can we really afford to lose that amount of money from the economy? To make matters worse, recent figures from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) suggest that stress related illness is on the rise due to spending cuts in the public sector.

The Mind charity report in 2005 identified the following stress-inducing factors:

  • poor working conditions, including shift work, long hours, travel, noise, smells, lighting, work overload and work underload;
  • an unclear role in the organisation, including ill-defined expectations, conflicting priorities, role conflict and responsibility for others;
  • personality factors, including a tendency towards anxiety, or a disposition that is unsuited to the type of work – for example extrovert people may find a socially isolated job more stressful than introverts;
  • poor relationships at work, including low levels of trust, lack of supportiveness and inadequate opportunities to explain problems to someone who will listen.

It is obvious that simply allowing employees to listen to music (or even worse – forcing employees to listen) will not solve the whole problem. But there are some of the factors that I feel are clearly related to music, and/or that music can influence.

– Poor working conditions: noise, work overload, and work underload

Music is often used at work to manage noise and interruptions. It is also often used to manage work overload. Through this function, music listening at work can create breaks and relaxation during the working day, as well as providing a sense of control, which in itself is stress relieving. Music is also a strategy to manage work underload, through distraction from day dreams and other boredom-related behaviour.

– Personality factors

Music listening at work is for many people an accompaniment, which could be particularly suitable for extravert people who work in a socially isolated job. Equally, an introvert person may find the interruptions in a shared working environment difficult to cope with, and could therefore find self-selected music useful to reduce interruptions in the workplace.


Music can have many positive functions at work, and these functions can counteract common stress triggers in the workplace. Viewed from this perspective, managers should conceptualise music at work as more than simply a fluffy ‘leisure activity’ at work. Instead, music listening at work can ultimately help organisations and companies to save money on working days lost due to stress-related illness.

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Sodcasting – music as anti-social behaviour?

Today, in a BBC news article and in a BBC Radio 4 programme, the concept of sodcasting was being discussed. Sodcasting is described by The Urban Dictionary as “The act of playing music through the speaker on a mobile phone, usually on public transport. Commonly practised by young people wearing polyester, branded sportswear with dubious musical taste.”

The article in BBC asked one main question: why do people engage in sodcasting? But I would like to turn the question around, and ask: why is sodcasting so upsetting for so many people?

In my thesis, I wrote about the fact that the development of new technologies have interacted with the shifting of boundaries between public and private space, and music listening can be understood as a way to construct private space and mark territories in everyday life. Frith (2002) argues that the use of music to construct a private space has developed through the emergence of radios in homes. Radios were the first technological listening device that started blurring the boundaries between public and private space, by bringing elements of the public into a private realm. This development led to people being able to switch their attention between background and foreground music. People were able to construct a private space within a larger public space through being able to screen out background sounds and focus attention to foreground sounds.

Yet, although we are skilled at screening out music in many environments today (in restaurants, shops or at home or in the car with the radio in the background), we can still find imposed music extremely annoying. The reason for this could be understood though our current understanding of music’s effects, according to Frith, which is conceptualised in terms of individual psychology. Frith (2002) suggests that our understanding of the effects of music in modern societies is related to what he calls “the articulation of self” (p.45), and that this understanding of music’s power could help to explain why involuntary listening can be experienced as annoying:

It is because music is now used to mark out private territory that it can also ‘invade’ it; it is because music has become so deeply implicated in people’s personas that it can be ‘misused’; and it is because music is now so widely employed as an emotional tool that its misuse is genuinely upsetting. (Frith 2002, p.46)

Involuntary listening can create irritation because it is connected to emotional uses of music as well as marking of private space; if a territory can be marked, then it can also be invaded.

The idea of music as invading someone’s territory has been discussed in connection to music and oppression. Cloonan & Johnson (2002) have suggested that music-related oppression may be anything from “discomfort which is incidental to the intended function of the music, to the deliberate deployment of music as an instrument of pain” (p.28). Cloonan & Johnson argues that in today’s modern societies there is “increasingly portable noise in increasingly densely packed spaces” (p.31). This then becomes a potential site for conflicts, as the auditory boundaries are more flexible than visual boundaries:

More often, it is sound itself that is used to oppress, to take up public space at the expense of others. Sound thus becomes an invasion of personal space. (p.29)

Cloonan & Johnson point out that the key issue is the sense of invasion of personal territory, rather than the loudness of the music per se.

By listening in certain ways, irresponsibly for example, the listener lacks civility and therefore burdens others with the burden of their self (Höflich, 2006). By not invading other people’s territories, they are spared interaction with the listener by not having to hear their personally selected music.

But why is it so irritating to have your personal space invaded, and why is it seen as bad manners? Duncan (1984) argues that manners can have a reflexive character. Manners can indicate how one wants to be treated oneself. Therefore, Duncan argues that “anger over ill manners of others arises out of the belief that not following our manners is a way of telling us that we are not really important in the eyes of the transgressor” (p.267). Imposing music onto others on an bus is seen as inappropriate. Thus in considering other people on a bus by modifying listening behaviour, listeners communicate to the people around them that they are important and respected. If someone feels they are having their own personal space invaded, they may feel as if the other person does not consider them to be important.

Public spaces are often used for information or advertisement, but are also associated with social interaction, rather than personal expression (Eriksson et al., 2007). Using a public space for a private purpose can therefore be seen as anti-social, and an increasing number of rules have been applied to public spaces (for safety and in order to control these spaces) (ibid). Perhaps this may be one of the reasons for why people use personal technologies in public spaces, as a way to avoid the rules, surveillance and imposed control. Disappearing into one’s own world of music in a public space may mean that one can reclaim the sense of control that has been lost.

Another perspective on the use of personal technologies in public spaces is that it is a manifestation of the individualisation that has characterised the 20th and early 21st century, in which individuals to an increasing extent have to construct their own lives (Bauman, 2001; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2001).

Interestingly, in my own research into music listening behaviour in offices, employees were very conscious not to sodcast. Instead, they practiced what I called ‘responsible listening’ – they made sure they did not impose their own music onto colleagues, as doing so was seen as very rude and inconsiderate.

Sodcasting 80's-style

For references, click here.

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Radio interview – BBC radio Nottingham

I have done another radio interview about my research, for BBC Radio Nottingham.

It is available online on iPlayer for 1 week. Click here – the interview starts at 1:21:00.


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Live radio interview on BBC Radio Sheffield

I have just carried out a live radio interview on BBC Radio Sheffield this morning, about the experiences of music listening in offices.

The interview starts at 1:07:30 – click here to listen.


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