Anxiety and stress seem to come with the territory of having a demanding job.
Unfortunately, work related stress has far reaching negative consequences.
We know that constant low levels of stress are not great for you. Our bodies have evolved to deal with short bursts of stress, like being chased by a tiger, but not constant and continuous tension.
The strain which this kind of never ending work-stress puts on us can cause severe problems. It’s causing people to change careers or go on medical leave. This takes a heavy toll on businesses in terms of productivity and financial cost. A recent report estimated that workplace stress causes businesses to lose millions of dollars a year (Hassard et al. 2014).
Workplace stress also takes a heavy toll on your mind and body. It has been connected to mental health problems (Klainin, 2009), heart disease (Inoue et al. 2009) and insomnia (Nomura et al. 2009). There is even evidence that continual work stress increases the risk of heart attacks (Bodis et al. 2010).
Before you get too stressed about the negative effects of stress, there is good news! Scientific evidence indicates that music can help with work related stress (Lai & Li, 2011).
Previous studies have shown that just ten minutes of music listening can reduce stress (Lai 2004), with hormonal changes after as little as six minutes (Mockel et al. 1994).
Recently, a group of scientists decided to test whether relaxing music could help reduce stress in a group of people dealing with a highly strenuous job: newly hired first-line nurses. These nurses work directly with the most seriously sick and injured people, working with people who are suffering on a daily basis. Understandably, there is a high turnover rate for this position, with nurses often leaving their job due to very high stress levels (Lai et al. 2006b). This is especially problematic, since there is a world-wide nursing shortage, and the high turnover rate negatively impacts health care (Waldman et al. 2004).
So, scientists wanted to know if there was an effective and inexpensive way of reducing stress, to improve the health of nurses, and to help hospitals by preventing high turnover rates.
They decided to play these nurses music, and wouldn’t you know it, the nurses reported being less stressed compared to the nurses who just sat in a chair and rested. More than that, the scientists took bio-measurements that correlated to stress. These included heart rate, levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and blood pressure; all of which were lower during and after listening to soothing music, even when they controlled for the natural rhythms of hormones during the day.
Music reduced stress on the levels of both bodily function and mental experience. With the most pronounced difference being in subjective experience of stress.
This study has a lot of weight behind it. For starters, it was published in one of the most read, peer-reviewed nursing journals, by a reputable publisher. That’s always a good start.
The study also included proper scientific methods, like randomization and controls, so that the results were most likely not just a fluke, and not due to a flaw in the design.
Anybody who had a medical condition or a habit (like smoking) that might bias the results, was excluded from participating in the study.
The researches also compared the results from the nurses who listened to music with nurses who sat and rested, so the comparison was actually meaningful as it contrasted music listening with another real-life way that people try to relax on the job.
The statistical analysis shows it’s very unlikely that this result happened just by chance.
The authors mentioned a few limitations. There was a somewhat small sample of nurses. To deal with this, the researchers used a within-participant design, meaning that each participant both experienced the music condition and the sitting rest condition. Participants also volunteered for the study, which could bias the results, but this is unavoidable in most psychology research. Finally, most of the nurses had some experience using music to relax. Normally, when authors admit to limitations, this is seen as increasing the validity of a study, as compared to studies that try to hide potential problems.
So what can we learn from all this? Music can help lower stress, even in people who are in a very stressful workplace.
Music can improve not just how stressed you feel, but also your levels of stress hormones and blood pressure, which have serious health implications.
And this is not some laboratory finding that does not actually apply to the real world. Instead, this study has what we in the psychology world call ecological validity, which means that the results are relevant to real world situations (yes, I know we’re nerds, but we’re proud of it!).
The scientists intentionally found a group of people who experience intense work-stress, which we know leads to high turnover — and more importantly — serious health problems. These researchers tested the effects of music to see if it would help with stress. And it did!
The study ends with the suggestion that music listening become a regular practice for hospital staff. So next time you’re feeling stressed at work, maybe some relaxing music is just what you need!
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