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Music and the workplace
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Music and the workplace

I’ve just read a new report published by Public Health England. Titled “Everybody Active, Every Day,” the review once again highlights the serious health crisis that the UK is hurtling towards. As a nation the UK is 24% less active than in 1961, and if current trends continue the population will be 35% less active by 2030. This is not just a UK phenomenon.

An international comparison of physical activity published by the World Health Organisation shows that 63% of the UK population is inactive. This is significantly worse than other countries:  USA (41%); Australia and Finland (38%); France (33%); Germany (28%); Holland (18%).

I began my professional career as a sport and exercise scientist in the early 1990s. I’ve been prescribing music for cities, brands and organisations ever since. I spent more than a decade launching and managing health club chains and training a new generation of personal trainers and exercise instructors. We truly believed that we’d cracked it. Everyone was signing up to these new gyms, and a healthy nation seemed ‘almost’ guaranteed. However, decades later humans are more unhealthy than ever before, and this is almost a worldwide trend. Fitness industry revenues in the UK have continued to grow – but so have average UK waistlines. Customers join gyms because they know they should be doing more exercise (usually in January as a New Year’s resolution). But they rarely go there. Because most humans don’t actually want to be exercising. They’d rather be doing something more fun. Like socialising with friends in their favourite bar or restaurant, watching Netflix, or going to a music festival. Extended working hours, commuting time and working parents mean spare time in the modern world is more precious and scarce than ever before.

I’ve been working in this field for 25 years, and I can pretty much guarantee that no matter how much money governments put into advertising campaigns, this crisis is not going to be averted by encouraging the general public to do more exercise. The take-up rates are just too low and are unlikely to increase at the required level. We need to adopt completely new approaches. We need to rethink health and wellbeing and the ways in which health benefits can be delivered.

The workplace is key to this, because humans spend a considerable proportion of their day there. Employers currently take a very narrow approach to workforce wellbeing. It is almost entirely based on fitness-based principles: gyms in the office or a corporate membership at a local health club, maybe some healthy eating options thrown into the mix and some yoga or mindfulness for mental health. Imagine if we took an entirely new approach and focused on embedding music in the design of workplaces and wellbeing programmes.

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The body of scientific evidence over the past 100 years regarding music’s ability to automatically deliver a multitude of health benefits is now far too large to keep ignoring. Music works. It’s proven. No matter where you were born, your brain processes music in the same way. It’s the one language that every human on the planet can understand. It’s coded into our DNA. The health benefits are broad. There’s the automatic release of neurochemicals that increase the efficiency of our brain, control our anxiety, help us bond with other humans etc. Then of course there’s the cardiovascular and musculo-skeletal benefits that singing and dancing can deliver. Also don’t forget the lifelong impact on brain health that learning an instrument can have. Plus its power to help us get high-quality sleep. No matter how we consume music – listening, watching, performing, singing, dancing, learning – there are several positive health benefits attached. When I began working as a sport and exercise scientist I was lucky enough to be involved in the psychological training of Olympic athletes. We used music to control nerves and anxiety, to boost self-confidence, to aid concentration and motivation. It’s no coincidence today that you won’t find a single professional athlete who doesn’t include music as part of their formal training programme. Because it holds phenomenal power. It works. Getting more music into our daily lives delivers a positive health impact. But most importantly it’s fun, and humans are universally hardwired to enjoy it (provided its not a music genre they dislike).

So I believe that employers should take inspiration from Olympic athletes and formally write music into their wellbeing programmes, using it as a tool to help keep workforces happy, healthy and achieving peak performance. Here are five examples of how music could and should be woven into the design of a workplace:

1. Social spaces are absolutely vital in workplaces. This aspect has often been overlooked in years gone by. It’s important to value areas where employees can take a break from their desks, get a drink, relax, chat with friends, both inside the building and outside. Creating areas where music can naturally exist – whether via live performances or streamed recordings – enables a relaxed and enjoyable social atmosphere to be nurtured.

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2. Put a radio in the kitchen area. Just low volume is fine. Something as simple as this can provide a clear difference in atmosphere and environment compared with the desk area. It creates a proper differentiation and helps facilitate that break in focus that enables people to then go back to their desk and commence another focused spurt of work activity. Don’t be afraid to let employees wear their headphones while working if they want to. In fact I would encourage it. It can help them maintain focus (especially in open-plan office environments). Encourage them to share their playlists and recommend songs to colleagues.

3. Create space to offer music tuition on site at lunchtimes. A soundproofed meeting room, for example, would be perfect. An eight-week programme of regular instrument lessons would enable employees to become proficient enough to be able to play numerous wellknown chart hits. This is an achievement that adults rarely succeed at when trying to fit lessons into their busy lives outside of work. You will have given them a gift (the ability to play an instrument) that they will have for the rest of their lives. This may well be key to the prevention of dementia in later life, according to research. It may even spark the creation of an office band or choir.

4. Instead of splashing out on a big Christmas party once a year, why not take the team to a music concert each month or quarter instead? Studies have shown that when humans experience music together, there are significant effects on social bonding and general feelings of wellbeing.

5. Think about the environment of your reception area. Play music there in the mornings when employees arrive and at the end of day when they leave. The right vibe can have an immediate psychological effect. Build in space for high-quality speakers or a small performance space, and invite local talent in to entertain. Music is all around us. Harness it in your designs so it delivers its maximum potential in the workplace.

This post was extracted from Exchange, Make’s new thought leadership series which explores some of the challenges and trends that the property industry is encountering. Issue No. 1 in the series looks at the workplace and is available to read and download.