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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