Music can help employee wellbeing by helping people deal better with tricky situations, depression or anxiety. Music therapist Dr Stella Compton Dickinson, musician and author of a recent book on music therapy, suggests seven ways to use music to support workers.
Confronting a tricky situation, giving a PowerPoint presentation, mustering the courage to overcome anxiety, conquering isolation and shyness and getting to know new people – these are all work situations that involve recognising internal fears of rejection, criticism and judgement of what might happen.
And all can be helped with music. Even people who are deaf benefit from music because they can feel the vibrations. The art lies in finding the right sort of music that connects with the required ambience, goal or situation.
1. Music to motivate
Pre-recorded music has associations to times and places. This can either distract us or make us focus. If we hear a song from a different time in our life it can bring back all those old feelings.
When we work therapeutically with recorded music it is important to facilitate the client’s own choice. To transfer this concept to the workplace means not imposing a managerial choice onto employees without considering the reason – or this may be perceived as overly controlling.
About the author
Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson is a Health and Care Professions Council registered music therapist, accredited supervisor, professional oboist and lecturer, UK Council for Psychotherapy registered cognitive analytic therapist and supervisor.
She is author of The Clinician’s Guide to Forensic Music Therapy (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), and has her own private practice and twenty years’ experience in the NHS as a clinician, head of arts therapies and clinical research lead.
Her research was awarded the 2016 Ruskin Medal for the most impactful doctoral research.
Employees who have musical skill will listen in a more critical way, because they have been taught to do so. Critical listening may distract and spoil their concentration rather than improve it.
Wearing earphones can enable someone to choose their own choice of music that supports motivation and a focus on work rather than environmental distractions in a shared office. However, it is common for people to use music to block out their environment and this may not be the desired managerial effect if a shared experience and rapport with colleagues is required.
2. Rhythm to decrease anxiety
Anxiety is linked to life pressures and stress. It creates negative and debilitating feelings, often around not feeling good enough.
For example, if an employee has an underlying fear of failure, this can get bottled up and remain unexpressed, and the psychological defence might be to freeze. This can be debilitating and distressing for the individual, and frustrating for the manager.
It can also lead to an auditory form of tunnel vision, because when having to listen to lots of things at the same time, the individual cannot hear sufficiently what really matters. Instead everything becomes tunnelled into an overwhelming form of what we could call ‘anxious deafness’.
This needs to be understood; otherwise the individual may be further berated for ‘not listening’ when in fact he cannot hear properly because of an overload of anxiety.
We all need a certain degree of anxiety to achieve things, but an overload of tension is not healthy. Just as we slow down when we get older, we all have a different inner pace or rhythm. Anxiety disrupts this because it triggers the instinct to take flight. Hence, finding one’s own inner pace matters in being able to perform at work.
Try breathing in through the nose over three counts, then out through the mouth over seven beats, pause for one beat and repeat the process three times. Soon the pulse of your counting and your body should slow down enabling clearer thinking. You are using musical pulse to regulate your body and your mind so that they can work in harmony.
As you breathe in imagine that you are enjoying the smell of the most beautiful bunch of flowers, the air can go up through your sinuses so that the oxygen feeds your brain and enables you to think more logically thus diminishing the flight or fight response.
As you breathe out, relax and imagine that you’re breathing out through your navel. This activates your abdominals and facilitates relaxation.
Worrying feelings need this sort of technique as a safe outlet, and without the fear of criticism. Otherwise the instinctual anxiety responses create butterflies in the stomach, breathlessness, nausea and chest pains – the brain may freeze up and leave the individual unable to move or read words on a page.
It is important to understand that this freeze response can be well hidden because the feelings that go with failure are horrible, there is the potential to feel ashamed and then a need to hide.
This need to hide poor performance can lead to untruthful responses. These negative patterns and feelings are often thought of as not acceptable to share. Furthermore, people often bottle things up so as not to worry those to whom they are accountable, because we don’t like to ‘worry’ others unnecessarily or to feel the shame of failure.
2. Music and staying safe
If you have an obsessive-compulsive streak you may be good at focusing but not so good at going with the flow. If you feel stuck this is often a trap in which you are anxiously avoidant: you may feel as if you should go back into a situation, but the longer you leave it the worse it gets.
Listening to your favourite play list can help to settle your heart rate and distract you from disturbing external noises, especially if you focus on your breathing as you listen. In this way you can take stock of your surroundings.
For example, when you are out and about using headphones may work on the train to reduce feelings of claustrophobic, but to be safe on the street you need to be fully aware of your environment and to hear what is going on – so this is not the time for headphones or loud distracting music.
3. Work-life balance
In music therapy you discover how to play with others even if you have never seen or touched a musical instrument before. Recreational music making in contrast involves finding or forming a band but the responses from others may not help if you fear criticism.
Most bands have standard structures but you might just want to do your own thing – so it is useful to learn some musical techniques and balance this with developing your own musical self-expression.
Find a good local music teacher and then be guided towards opportunities to play with others. In this way music making becomes sociable so that you are not isolated by practising alone. You will also build up your social skills and make new friends.
Learning to play an instrument involves tenacity, focus and resolve. You will improve through patiently discovering how to co-ordinate the different aspects of instrumental technique. Holding a beat, then learning the fingering, whilst blowing a wind instrument or bowing a string instrument needs to be built up gradually.
I teach high-powered professionals the oboe, and we have a lot of fun because they discover that by learning something entirely new that is of their own choice, they are fulfilling a long held desire as well as improving their motor skills, mental and physical co-ordination and abilities of self-expression.
5. Team building
Team building improves efficiency and morale. Much can be learnt about how a team works together by studying the way music is constructed in dialogue and counterpoint and how the orchestra puts this together. Hence a team building music workshop can be beneficial.
Imagine being just one cog in the wheel of that human machine that creates wonderful music together. This demands a focus on your own music as well an ability to listen to how it all fits together.
This is a discipline that involves multi-tasking, but it can help you to focus and discover how to go with the flow of the music whilst connecting and attuning to others, thereby overcoming the fear of unpredictable things occurring over which you have no control. The major orchestras all have outreach programmes, eg Orchestras Live and London Symphony Orchestra Discovery.
6. Music as help for depression
In ‘Darkness Visible’, American author William Styron’s autobiographical account of his struggle with depression, the author describes how in desperation he planned to shoot himself. At the last minute he heard the music of the German composer Johannes Brahms and this saved him. His life began to mean something and he found solace in the melancholic and uplifting moods of Brahms’s German Requiem.
If you suffer with insomnia or ‘the blues’ this may be linked to stress and anxiety or to early morning wakening which is a symptom of depression. Try putting the radio on just low enough to hear and choose a station, like Classic FM, that’s good at playing music that matches the general mood for the time of day
7. Exercise and music for tension release
Music supports the mind and body to work in harmony through joining physical and mental activity. Music underpins the movements and pace of events through the tempo, rhythms, mood and harmonies.
Without physical activity, one’s thoughts and worried feelings may get caught up and these can fester inside us. These experiences need an appropriate outlet or they can make one feel sick or wobbly.
Often this sort of mental difficulty, eg anxiously avoiding difficult social events, can be misunderstood as simply a digestive or eating problem. This sort of anxiety is unprocessed energy, which can be expended by moving to music – whether exercise, dancing, or simply moving around the room to the beat.