How singing can support mental health in the workplace.
Singing is hugely beneficial in supporting mental health in the workplace; reducing stress, improving self confidence and self worth, reducing social isolation, developing greater interpersonal cohesion, and giving a powerful rush of endorphins and joie de vivre. To really explore this in more detail, let us start with a whistle-stop tour through time to explore some key moments where music has played a pivotal role.
What initially drove humans to make music? Darwin’s theory was that music evolved as a display to attract mates, however, rather than simply a by-product of evolution, music or more precisely musicality is likely to be a characteristic that survived natural selection in order to stimulate and develop our mental and social faculties.
Hunter-gatherers would join together in larger groups that involved ceremonial singing, and in ancient times we see the first traces of music being used as a tool to promote health and wellbeing, the first such recorded instance by Greek philosopher Pythagoras.
However, music therapy as we recognise it today has its origins in World War II, when musicians played and sang for wounded bedridden soldiers, aiming to relieving their boredom. More than just being entertained, it became apparent that for many of these convalescing soldiers music improved their mental health by decreasing depression, increasing emotional expression, and improving socialisation and morale.
Singing is a very complex process, getting synapses firing in various areas of our brain through (unwittingly) simultaneously juggling pitch, tempo, rhythm, dynamics and lyrics, whilst listening to those around you and (in a choir) following the gesticulating of the conductor. This automatically puts the brain into a state of what in positive psychology is known as flow, or more colloquially as ‘being in the zone’. Flow is a mental state of operation involving a fully energised focus, basically meaning that it’s almost impossible to think of anything else - a valuable, and often very rare chance to switch off from the many all consuming pressures of work and modern life. Singing thus has a lot of parallels with mindfulness and meditation.
Furthermore, in the mindful act of singing we unknowingly open ourselves up to a flood of emotions, memories, and associations, which can often lead us to new insights, empathising with different ways of thinking and feeling that we have not hitherto explored.
Singing increases feelings of self-worth and self-confidence, bringing a calming yet energising effect that soothes nerves and elevates spirits. A big part of this is due to the relatively well-known fact that singing promotes the release of the oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, which help increase the sense of trust and bonding and helps combat loneliness and depression.
It’s fair to say, coming from a personal perspective, that a stressful day, or a day containing lots of screen time doesn’t automatically make one feel like participating in group activity. A very often heard quote we hear after on:song rehearsals goes along the lines of; “I nearly didn’t come today, I didn’t really didn’t feel like singing, but now feel great and can’t wait until next week”. Singing makes you feel good, pure and simple.
Stress is a well known trigger of mental health issues, and singing reduces the stress hormone cortisol. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can have harmful physical and psychological effects, including heart disease and depression. Another way that singing reduces stress is through the effect that it can have on your breathing. As we sing in unison, so we all breathe together, and speed up and slow down our hearts together. Believe it or not, our hearts can literally begin beating in unison.
Correct singing necessitates controlled diaphragmatic breathing, taking in more oxygen, exhaling greater levels of carbon dioxide and improving brain circulation. This makes us feel more awake and energised, and improves concentration and memory. Think also about how acting coaches turn to breathing techniques to turn nervous speakers into confident extroverts.
Working towards a common goal, such as a performance, also makes for very rewarding outcomes for ones mental health, engendering an increased sense of self-esteem, confidence, recognition and status. It is here, as any well functioning team, that it is best recognised how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, something unanimously recognised by choirs.
Singing together fosters social closeness – even in large group contexts where individuals are not known to each other. Singing is also nurturing because it can put people in a position of being vulnerable, which requires a sense of trust in those around you, trust that they will actually sing and not leave you hanging, for starters, but also that they will also commit themselves, expose themselves, and in doing so co-create a supporting environment.
Singing is as old as humanity, it is individual yet inclusive, ancient and modern. The benefits are far reaching, especially beneficial in a workplace setting and, when all is said and done, it is a fabulously fun and fulfilling way to spend time with friends and colleagues.
As famously immortalised in the worlds of Brian Eno: “…singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humour.”
We couldn’t agree more Brian.