Mental health, the arts and safety in the workplace

By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

Adelaide breaker Bboy Dreaded
Adelaide breaker Bboy Dreaded

In a frightful article titled Your Job Is Literally Killing You, The Washington Post recently reported on a new study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford that ‘connects unhealthy workplaces with national inequality’ and has quantified just how many years your stressful workplace may be shaving off your life. If you want to know, you can read the study here. But your job doesn’t need to be like this, and nor should it.

A friend of mine has a day job at an electricity company and is a break-dancer at night. She has also lived with depression for over seventeen years. Her company understands that her mental health challenges require management in order for her to be effective on the job, so she is allowed some flexibility to come in late when she needs to because the sedative effects of her night-time medications make her drowsy in the morning. Her bosses also know how important breakdancing is to both her physical and mental health and have made time allowances so she can dance each night; they understand that in the long run, letting her dance is more effective than having her work overtime.

I asked her to tell me about the benefits that breakdancing has brought to her mental health. “God, I could say so much” she started before putting me in my place: “It’s not breakdancing though – it’s breaking! No self-respecting bgirl uses those terms unless we’re talking to corporate types”. Ouch!

“When I felt bad” she said, “like really at my worst, I didn’t get any enjoyment out of breaking and I didn’t want to leave my bed let alone the house. But somehow breaking got me out and interacting. Out of habit I just kept going, and out of a desire to still improve, even if I wasn’t enjoying myself. And because I knew that when I got better, mentally better, I’d be glad that I kept breaking.

It doesn’t sound like much but breaking saved me from a horrible and fast moving downward spiral, starting with being mad at myself for “being lazy” and thoughts like “why bother, I suck at this anyway” followed by feeling shit from lack of exercise and hating on myself for bein’ out of shape. I’d get anxious and fearful and doubt I had anything worthwhile to give. When I got like this I wouldn’t sleep, I wouldn’t eat (or ate junk when I did eat), and I often wouldn’t go to work.

When I felt good, it kept me feeling good and kept me physically in shape too, of course.  It also kept me social when I otherwise wanted to withdraw more and more. I often found when I got to training or the gig, and I spoke to people, that it wasn’t as bad as I imagined and I often had fun. This made me want to go back to training and created a positive loop. The flow on effects in other areas of my life were positive too. I wasn’t fearful or anxious about work. I would be motivated to make good decisions, ensure I got a good night’s rest and eat properly, and I was a lot more creative, productive and engaging at work”.

This is an experience that many people who participate in arts and cultural activities can relate to, and numerous studies have shown the positive mental health benefits that participating in such activities can bring about. Several of these studies are cited by Professor Michael B. Friedman of the Columbia University who, in his Art Can Be Good for Mental Health article for The Huffington Post points out that:

Art can be a healing force for people with mental disorders, including people with dementia, and art can contribute to the psychological well-being of people regardless of whether they have a mental disorder or not.

As former Australian Government Cabinet Minister and lead singer of Midnight Oil Peter Garrett reminds us in his newly released memoir Big Blue Sky, “humans are born to sing, to make music, to dance, to tell stories, to paint pictures in order to celebrate life”, before going on to say that:

In hospitals and special schools, music therapy is used to help treat those suffering illness or disability. Singing in school choirs has been linked to improved academic performance, giving kids a sense of achievement and assisting in addressing behavioural problems. Life without a sweet song or a soaring soundtrack is a dull imitation of the real thing, because music, like laughter, is medicine. With ever-increasing numbers of people experiencing mental and physical ill health, especially as they age, there’s a simple prescription: liberate the mind and the body with heaps of art, and lots of music.

There are many benefits for corporations who put arts and culture at the centre of what they do. A corporate arts and culture program can be a connector between the many parts of the organisation’s operations, its corporate values and its objectives. Properly designed and implemented, it will enhance brand image, help build relationships abroad or across cultures, create the desired corporate culture, inspire innovation and creativity, reduce staff turnover and absenteeism, improve the health and safety record of the workplace and help meet CSR targets.

Here are some ways that workplaces can encourage their workers to engage in healthy arts and cultural activities:

  1. Financially assist with the purchase of materials or provide flexible working hours for staff who play or sing in music ensembles, write books or poetry, or perform in theatre groups.
  2. Actively encourage employees to learn an instrument, draw or sing and contribute to their course or lesson fees.
  3. Encourage employees to attend cultural events like concerts and theatre performances and even supply tickets. Sponsoring festivals and performing arts venues or organisations can help you get great deals on tickets and other unique opportunities.
  4. Have original art exhibited on the walls at your workplace, change them regularly and have events such as exhibition launches that allow staff to interact with the works or understand the creative mind of the artist.
  5. Start a workplace choir! I recommend you read two recent articles: Heather Carr’s Sing And You’re Winning and The Conversation’s Choir singing improves health, happiness – and is the perfect icebreaker.

My business, League Cultural Diplomacy, helps organisations and individuals use culture to increase profits. If you are interested in incorporating arts and culture into your corporate operations, be sure to get in touch!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. KOJI NAKAGAWA says:

    In material world,we are forced to be a “so-called” social being in order to gain even petit salary at work place.However,we know in our body that we are unwilling to be an obedient cog of any companies.Through arts,we are intrinsically dying to express ourself as a precious part of the universe.SNS may function as a alternative way of self expression temporally instead of arts.


  2. Get Creative says:

    Great article Grant!


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