An answer to the ongoing mental health crisis in the workplace: Music therapy

The American work culture is notorious for its long hours, fast pace, and a “work at all costs” mentality. The demands placed on employees often lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression.

Statistics reveal a stark reality: the American Institute of Stress estimates that work-related stress accounts for $300 billion in lost productivity, absenteeism, and increased healthcare costs annually. This staggering figure underscores the urgency of addressing the mental health challenges faced by the American workforce.

The silent struggle: Mental health issues
Mental health issues have been a silent but steadily growing concern among American workers. The constant pressure to perform, meet targets, and excel in a competitive environment takes a toll. Many employees silently battle anxiety and depression, fearing stigma or career consequences if they seek help. The isolation and loneliness that can accompany a demanding work schedule further exacerbate these mental health challenges. Employees often find themselves trapped in a cycle of stress, anxiety, and reduced productivity, which can impact not only their job performance but their overall quality of life. And even worse, if they do seek help, traditional methods of support and resources often feel inaccessible and inadequate — and the data shows. Depressive episodes are up 90% in the last decade83% of workers report work related stress and only 24% of workers feel their employers care about their well-being. 

The helpful harmonies of music
Given the demands and stress of the modern workplace, executives and employees alike are constantly seeking ways to improve their mental well-being, productivity and focus. Historically, many have turned to caffeine, exercise, therapy or meditation to help give them a mental boost in their day, though oftentimes these options aren’t as effective, accessible or as culturally relevant as a tool that doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves: music.

Research has shown that listening to music while working can improve cognitive performance, enhance mood, and boost creativity. There is also good evidence to support that music can improve executive function, particularly when it comes to performance on cognitive tasks that involve sustained attention, response inhibition, repetition and flow. All of course very critical when we want to execute tasks efficiently and operate at our best in the workplace.

So, how exactly does music help improve mood and executive function? And what are some best practices for incorporating music into your work routine? Let’s dive in.

Look at the science
It’s important to understand the science behind music and the brain. Studies have shown that listening to music can improve negative moods and reduce stress, factors which can significantly decrease executive function and cognitive performance. Conversely, when we’re in a relaxed, positive state, our brains are primed for productivity: we’re better at attending to and focusing on the work at hand and we get more done. Music stands out in this context because it is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to boost mood and decrease stress, particularly while on the job. And it turns out that many employees are already taking advantage of music’s many benefits during their work day, as Nielsen reports that 75% of workers listen to music at work at least once a week.

But there is a tricky part: picking the right music to soundtrack your success. Not all music is created equal, and there’s a lot of nuances to consider, so listen up.

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Tip 1: Don’t choose based on genre
People often make the mistake of choosing genre as a starting point, believing one specific genre to be more helpful than another. Given there is a lot of structural variance within a genre, it’s better to get more specific than that. As an initial guidepost, you can start with instrumental music to enhance cognitive performance. This is because instrumental music is less distracting than music with lyrics, which can interfere with verbal processing and memory.

Tip 2: Calibrate the tempo and volume
Next consider tempo and volume. Up-tempo music can be arousing, which is good, but it’s important to not go too high with the tempo, otherwise you might start a dance party instead of getting down to business. Same with volume — if you go too high the brain will start focusing on the music rather than the task at hand.

Tip 3: Get familiar with music texture 
Consider texture in the music. This might be a new term for you. Music that is dense in texture will likely be too attention-grabbing to aid in work focus, and music that is too light in texture may not be stimulating enough. Experiment and see what the right balance is for you. This is one factor that tends to be pretty personal for each of us.

Tip 4: Match the music to your mood 
Music is not one-size-fits-all, and selecting the right music for focus can vary greatly depending on your emotional state, the task you are doing and your environment. A rule of thumb you can leverage from music therapy is called the iso principle, a technique by which music is matched to the mood of a person, then gradually altered to affect the desired mood state. For example, if you’re feeling tired, you might first want to select down-tempo music to match your low energy profile, helping you to acknowledge and embrace your current mood. Then gradually select music that can pull you out of fatigue into a more energized state.

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Recognize the significance
Unlocking the power of music to boost your brain can be a game-changer in getting your most important work done in your day. This is important to recognize as stress, anxiety, and mental health issues cast a long shadow over productivity and job satisfaction. The cost of this silent suffering is measured in billions of dollars and countless lost opportunities, having a detrimental impact in the workplace.

Music is such a crucial part of our daily lives but isn’t often enough looked at as a solution to major issues such as stress and productivity. Yet its benefits are well-researched and clear.

By incorporating music into the work routine, employers can help reduce stress and improve cognitive performance, leading to increased productivity and job satisfaction, and ultimately a reduction in costs. And for all you workers ready to boost your productivity, with some trial and error, you may discover that music is just the boost you need to level up and ultimately offer some real benefit in your workday.

To see a great podcast from The American Institue of Stress-Music can help you escape stress, click here!