Want a Healthier Workplace? Sing!

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Winner-of-Choir-of-the-Year-2014

The power of singing became apparent to me in Nepal. My friend Clare and I got lost hiking in the Kathmandu Valley. We stumbled upon a Nepali army outpost and were surrounded by soldiers who aimed their machine guns at us. Long—true—story short, we sang our way out of it.

Thinking back, I still cringe at our stupidity, our illiteracy. I marvel at the kindness, and the singing, of Nepal’s soliders. They even taught us a Nepalese marching song. It involves stomping one’s feet and yelling something like “Denah, denah, denah haah.”

Tramping around Nepal alone isn’t recommended (in fact, I believe it may be illegal). The key thing I learned is that you can, indeed, sing your way out of trouble.

“If everyone started off the day singing, just think how happy they’d be.”— Lauren Myracle, Shine

We have abysmal employee engagement rates in the U.S. according to Gallup research. In a 2013 Monster.com study, more Americans said they hate their jobs than other developed nations’ workers. We need—pun intended—concerted action: we need to sing.

I’m not talking about the irritating guy on the other side of the mouse-maze of florescent-lit cubicles, the one who won’t stop humming “What Does the Fox Say.” I mean organized singing, workplace choirs.

Workplace choirs took off in the U.K. back in 2007 when the BBC reality show, “The Choir,” won the British Academy Television Awards 2007 for Best Feature. In a subsequent year, Choirmaster Gareth Malone got staff in some of Britain’s busiest workplaces singing while they work. Today, L’Oreal, law firms, banks, tech companies like Google UK, accountancy firms, and many more have organized workplace singing—choirs. There’s even a “Workplace Choir of the Year” competition. (2014 winner Cf1 from Cardiff pictured above.)

“If I cannot fly, let me sing.” –Stephen Sondheim

What is it about singing that makes us healthier? Researchers around the globe have asked that question and agree that singing produces significant physical and mental health benefits.

Seniors singingConsidered the world’s leading authority on music and wellness, Töres Theorell at Stockholm University, published Psychological Health Effects of Musical Experiences earlier this year. Theorell writes, “Learning how to sing is a physical matter, [i]t has a positive effect on the heart, and one’s lung capacity improves if one learns deep breathing [as practiced by singers]. Deep breathing is useful even when one isn’t singing.”

In one study, members of a choir filled out questionnaires to report their physical and psychological reactions to singing. Choir members reported: improved lung capacity, higher energy, relief from asthma, better posture, enhanced feelings of relaxation, more positive moods, and greater self-confidence. A University of Frankfurt study also found that choral members had higher levels of immunoglobulin A and cortisol—markers of enhanced immunity—after they sang Mozart’s “Requiem” than before. Just listening to the music did not have the same effect.

Being part of a chorus produced proven results in the U.S. too. As part of a three-year study in Washington, D.C., researchers examined how choir singing affects the health of those 55 and older. Choir members needed fewer doctor visits, experienced fewer eyesight problems, had less incidence of depression, required less medication, and had fewer falls and other injuries.

He who sings scares away his woes.” –Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Catalyzed by the UK workplace choir movement, businesses like Singing It Back have proliferated to train and direct workplace singing. Singing It Back contends that singing helps us “live in the moment,” alleviates workplace isolation, and teaches workplaces to focus on a shared goal made up of many parts. Singing promotes all-important listening skills as well.

Perhaps workplace singing is catching on here in the U.S.?

Newsweek’s Elisabeth Braw recently reported on the Birmingham law firm headquarters of Wragge Lawrence Graham where lawyers and staff members have formed a workplace choir. “The choir helps you get to know people at the company who you wouldn’t ordinarily meet,” explains Rob Bridgman, a young Wragge lawyer who conducts the three-year-old choir. “You meet people from other legal teams, the IT department, the business development department.” (Workers Who Sing Together Are Healthier, Newsweek August 2014)

We Sure Need A Healin’:  Let’s Sing

While not a researcher per se, Linda Ronstadt is unquestionably an expert on singing. In her book, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, she beautifully writes:

Perhaps more than birds do, humans hold a grudge. They sing to complain of how grievously they have been wronged, and how to avoid it in the future. They sing to help themselves execute a job of work. They sing so the subsequent generations won’t forget what the current generation endured, or dreamed, or delighted in.”

Maybe we can begin to heal our American workplaces—our culture—by singing together more. Given all the research around the individual and group benefits of singing, one thing is clear: if we sing together, we’ll definitely feel better.

I’ve got a song in my heart, how about you?

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Encore post. 

Shout out: Workplace Choir of the Year 2014. Cf1 hail from Cardiff (the name of the choir being the postcode of the city centre!) where it was formed in 2002. Its fifty members, led by Musical Director Eilir Owen Griffiths, impressed the jury and an audience of 1,500.

Resources: Need help setting up a workplace choir? From gaining management support to picking music, and how to breathe, hold your posture while singing, you’ll find great help at “Setting Up A Workplace Choir.” Images: Seniors singing from sequoiaseniorsolutionsblog.com.

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