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Does work come alive with the sound of music?

You might like to whistle while you work, or at least have some music on in the background but although IOSH’s Stephen Thomas is a fan, especially when he works at home, he can see it may not suit everyone. Here’s his personal view…

It’s safe to say the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the uptake of hybrid working, especially for office workers where their day-to-day activity is mostly online. Being one of those workers myself, this led me to think about whether music helps or hinders productivity and also if it might impact health, safety or wellbeing in any significant way.

Working at home

For those of us who benefit from being able to work at home, we can choose music to suit or adjust our mood and, by extension, productivity. This is borne out by what limited research is available. However we should be mindful of the effect different music genres have: familiar pop music may be suited to repetitive tasks but have a negative effect on those requiring higher levels of cognition [1], while classical may be more suited to tasks requiring concentration [2].

I know from personal experience that being able to have music on in the background while working at home during the many ‘lockdowns’ was something of a lifeline, a way to help alleviate some of the uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic situation. Music also became a talking point on our internal social media platform, with colleagues sharing their Friday afternoon musical choices and recommending new artists to listen to.

‘Broadcasting’ music in open-plan workplaces

When considering whether to ‘broadcast’ music in an open-plan workplace the key, I suggest, is as always, to take a proportionate, risk-based approach, much the same as with other workplace issues.

There are certainly potential benefits such as making the workplace less formal, enhancing workers’ mood and creating a team ‘buzz’. My very first job was in a local knitwear factory pushing around untrimmed jumpers in barrows for 8 hours, so I know from personal experience that having music on can help alleviate the boredom of repetitive work.

These positives need to be assessed against such negatives as music becoming a nuisance or distraction eg productivity may be disrupted in colleagues working on tasks requiring higher levels of concentration. The choice of music or radio station will also need to be carefully considered, since music can be a polarising force as much as one that brings people together. The demographics of the workforce should be considered: for instance, gender, age and ethnicity may have a bearing on an individual’s preference for certain musical genres – this could be utilised positively to help promote inclusion in the workplace.

The impact on safety should be considered, for instance whether people can clearly hear the fire alarm or other signals throughout the workplace. The safety and wellbeing of neurodiverse colleagues and those with hearing disabilities may also be affected; for instance colleagues with autism might encounter sensory overload with higher levels of workplace noise.

To help inform the assessment and decision-making process it is essential to involve the workforce that will be affected eg through a health and safety committee, employee unions or direct discussion, and to keep the situation under review throughout a trial period.

Personal devices

Personal music devices such as mobile phones (with even the iPod no longer in production, do people still use dedicated music players?) give the individual control over what they listen to without affecting fellow workers and therefore have less of an impact on the workplace. However, these devices will not be appropriate for every work environment; for instance, in higher-risk work environments such as warehousing, forklift truck horns and vehicle reversing alarms will always need to be heard.

The OSH view

As with most workplace issues, there are positive and negative points to having music in the workplace. It can undoubtedly have positive effects for worker wellbeing, such as improving people’s mood and helping to alleviate the boredom of repetitive tasks. Yet some thought needs to be given as to whether it is appropriate to each workplace.

As occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals, we can support management and HR colleagues with informed decision-making made through the mediums of employee consultation and assessment.

Music can also be a great unifying force for people. As part of the wider push for social sustainability [3], I would encourage open-plan workplaces that choose to broadcast music to consider using it as an open and positive way to promote diversity and inclusion across all genders, ages and ethnicities, while also considering any impact on neurodiverse colleagues and those with hearing disabilities.

Stephen Thomas

IOSH Health and Safety Business Partner

 

  1. Avila, Furnham and McClelland. (2011)  The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts, published online
  2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090423132615.htm
  3. https://iosh.com/businesses/iosh-for-business/catch-the-wave/
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