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.