Analysis: research has found that 15 minutes of music listening at lunchtime may increase employees' work engagement in the afternoon

By Avery Torres, Hilary Moss and Deirdre O'Shea, University of Limerick.

Workplace health is an increasing issue for employers and the inability to recover from work has long been acknowledged as a risk factor for employee well-being. Traditionally, we have tended to think about summer holidays as a time to rest and recover from the impact of work. But daily recovery from work is as important, and sometimes more important for maintaining work-related well-being and motivation for one’s job.

This recovery can come at the end of a long day's work or even through what one does during a work break. Past research has demonstrated that relaxing activities during one’s lunch break are associated with lower end of day fatigue, compared to doing social activities or work related activities during one’s lunchbreak. According to the 2021 Labour Force Survey, 17.9 million working days were lost in 2019-2020 in the UK due to stress, anxiety and depression.

Music has long been considered a relaxing activity and researchers at the University of Limerick looked at the effects of a 15-minute music listening work break at lunchtime. 36 people in total across a variety of occupations and workplace settings volunteered to take part in the randomised controlled trial. They completed surveys for five working days (1 week) with validated questionnaires conducted several times a day to measure work engagement fatigue, vitality, vigour, positive and negative affect.

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Those in the intervention group were given a playlist of nine relaxing pieces of music, curated by a music therapist, and instructed to choose any combination of songs to listen to for 15 to 20 minutes. Additionally, participants were prompted to relax and find a space and a position (standing, walking, lying down) where they felt most comfortable completing the music listening activity. A separate control group proceeded with their lunchbreak as usual.

Compared to the control group, the group who listened to the curated playlist reported higher positive affect, vitality, relaxation and better psychological detachment on the days they listened to the curated music. In addition, the group reported higher work engagement in the week after the completion of these activities. However, there were no significant differences noted in afternoon vigour or stress levels, so listening to music during one's lunchbreak represents a low cost recovery intervention.

Overall, these findings suggest that listening to music represents a promising lunchtime pursuit on which to base larger studies. Listening to enjoyable music at lunchbreak represents an intrinsically motivating activity and allowing individuals to restore their energy in the form of renewed enthusiasm and aliveness post-workday. The study shows small but significant effects of engaging in an enjoyable activity at lunchtime and furthers what we currently know about music listening and its potential to influence recovery.

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From RTÉ Lyric FM's Music and the Mind, Liz Nolan and guests Dr Hilary Moss, Dr Jennifer Wilson O'Raghallaigh and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra conducted by David Brophy join forces to discuss music and relaxation

Having time to recover is important for employees, but few studies to date have examined the specific methods in which relaxation and psychological detachment can be induced for short periods of breaks at work. Music listening as an activity has been associated with having an influence on affect, specifically by boosting one’s mood and relieving feelings of sadness.

But despite the evidence of the benefits of music on mental and physiological wellbeing, few studies have examined the impacts of music listening within the context of workday lunch breaks. Lunchtime recovery plays a key role in preserving and restoring energy levels. During these periods of recovery, employees are free from the demands of work and have a chance to regain personal resources that re-energise them for the remainder of the day. Work breaks represent valuable time for individuals to divert attention away from work related tasks and responsibilities.

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From University of Limerick, Dr Hilary Moss on music and relaxation

We should encourage workers to engage in activities during their breaks that allow them to relax, both mentally and physiologically, and detach from the demands at work. But not all lunch break activities are equal and it remains a challenge for many to switch-off during a break. It may be useful to consider taking a 15 minutes during your lunchbreak to pursue an activity you enjoy, such as music listening, walking in nature, socialising or exercise. Exercises that you feel you have control over and that divert you from the stresses and strains of everyday life are particularly beneficial.

Many employees are still attempting to engage in effortful activities, whether that would be running messages or even participating in work-related events, such as lunch-and-learns. Due to the decreasing divide of work-home life balance, with remote and hybrid work shifting the modern world of work, within-workday break interventions remain a valuable avenue of research. As most full-time employees spend more than half their day working, the lunch break represents valuable time for employees to recharge and detach from workplace demands.

Avery Torres is a Masters student in the Work and Organisational Psychology programme at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. Dr Hilary Moss is Associate Professor of Music Therapy at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick. She is an Irish Research Council awardee. Prof Deirdre O'Shea is Associate Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. She is an Irish Research Council awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ