Video of Hungry heart, choir number three and four in The Sound of Well-Being from 2011.
Employees at two county hospitals in Norway formed choir groups and practiced, competed and eventually performed in concert. The participants reported improved health and a better work environment.
A new study shows how a cultural activity such as choir singing might impact work environment and improve the psychosocial health of employees who participate, and how it affects those who opt out.
Employees at two hospitals in the Norwegian county Nord-Trøndelag were invited to participate in a choir singing programme organised by professional musicians and instructors.
The project, called The Sound of Well-Being, was funded by local authorities and had already started up when Vaag and colleagues decided to research its effects on hospital employees.
A total of 700 men and women participated in the choir programme, nearly one-third of the hospital's employees. These were divided into 21 choirs who represented different departments of the two hospitals, and over a total of six months the groups gathered for monthly practice sessions.
Several music videos were recorded and the best ones won informal competitions. Four concerts were arranged towards the end of the project.
After the project, Vaag and colleagues surveyed 426 choir singers and 1000 people who didn't join the choirs.
Those who had participated in the choirs reported higher commitment to their workplace.
Vaag also found that twice as many of the choir participants reported improvement in their general health, compared to non-participants.
“Those who participated reported an increase in workplace involvment, improved psychosocial work environment and also better self-assessed health,” says Vaag.
Asked if the hospital workers might have benefited just as well from participating in an informal football cup, or other activities, Vaag says studies have indicated that there might actually be something special about choir singing.
The results of the study are encouraging, but Vaag points out that choir participants and non-participants were not surveyed before the Sound of Well-Being programme was kicked off, only after it was completed. This means that the results must be read with caution.
Vaag says choir singing or other cultural and social activities will not fix a damaged work culture.
“The purpose of this choir programme is to give the workplace a positive boost and one may regard it as a preventive or counteractive intervention,” says Vaag.
When there are issues such as ongoing conflicts between co-workers, or stress due to onerous workloads, it would be more efficient to deal with the problems directly – they will not go away no matter how sweet the choir sings, and employees might see a top-down implementation of cultural activity programmes as a red herring.
Also, choir singing is not everyone's cup of tea.
“While many participate, you also get a group of people who choose not to,” says Vaag. “By having a wide range of different activities you will avoid an ingroup-outgroup situation.”
There were substantial differences between the choir participants and non-participants.
The gender distribution at the two surveyed hospitals was already skewed, at 80 and 20 percent women and men, but even more so in the choir groups, where nearly 90 percent were women.
Vaag argues that men might have opted out of the programme because they had a significant risk of being one of very few men in their respective choir groups.
Many of the female employees also worked in departments with a strong group mentality, such as the nurses, while men were overrepresented in more independent positions such as doctors or psychologists.
Vaag also found that the choir participants were more extroverted than the non-participants. This is hardly surprising as singing out loud in front of an audience is rarely the favorite setting for more introverted persons, but Vaag says that the positive effects of choir participation were fairly similar across the board, regardless of age, gender and personality.
“The difference between these groups was statistically significant, but it was still quite small,” says Vaag. “That was surprising to me.”
The Norwegian authorities supports cultural activities in companies and organisations by handing out nearly €700 000 every year. The Sound of Well-Being is one of the programmes that benefited from the cash, and Vaag says he supports the authorities' initiative.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Our results imply that it's a good idea to support such cultural activities.”
He adds that one should also make an effort to further evaluate the effects of such activities.
“They are a good alternative to the typical intervention, where workers may be invited to passively participate in soporific lecture series about the importance of having a healthy work culture. With initiatives such as The Sound of Well-Being, people get engaged right from the start.”
The researchers have ventured into unmapped territory as little research has been done on the possible effects of cultural and social activities for job mates who usually only meet at work.
"The lack of research on this topic is unfortunate," says Jonas Vaag at the Department of Psychiatry, Nord-Trøndelag Health Trust.
“There's research on change in physical design of work spaces and the use of stress reduction programmes, but social interventions that are initiated by organisations or employees are rarely evaluated,” says Vaag. “It's important to map the potential effects of these cultural activities, too.”