Music at Work: Research on Productivity

Research about music, work and productivity
Music can be a help or a hinderance depending on a few factors.

Continuing our series on impulse control, we look at one element that is quite common in all workplaces around the world: listening to music while working. There is research that suggests music can decrease distractions, therefore relieving the “impulse control muscles” in our brain. Distractions have been understood by cognitive researchers to cause “ego depletion” which is now regarded as a more updated and accurate understanding of the concept of “willpower”.

Many organizations have different music and other listening policies at work that are designed to increase productivity and decrease distractions. As a bonus, some organizations also care about employee morale and well-being. You must be asking yourself whether there has been real research done on these topics, and the good news is, yes, there has.

The Psychology of Music and Productivity

Music has long been recognized for its profound impact on human emotions, cognitive processes, and even impulse control. Neuroscientific research has revealed that listening to music can stimulate the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, promoting feelings of pleasure, relaxation, and even motivation. These psychological effects have led many employees to incorporate music into their work routines, hoping to optimize their performance and control their impulses.

Music as a Motivational Tool

One of the primary reasons individuals choose to listen to music at work is its potential to boost motivation. Several theories suggest that music can increase arousal levels and enhance focus, ultimately leading to improved productivity. For example, a study by Teresa Lesiuk (2005) explored the effects of different types of music on task performance. The research found that participants who listened to music they enjoyed while working on complex tasks showed higher levels of motivation and performed better than those who worked in silence or with disliked music. Employees that were able to listen to music that they identified as ‘enjoyable’ could be ‘in the zone’ more often which leads to less of a need to exercise impulse control. The test group performed better than the control group, especially when faced with challenging tasks. The study also highlights the need for organizations to think about their policies when music is played out loud and to consider music choice carefully, or institute a policy of no public music. In the case of retail and public/brick & mortar businesses, employees will likely be forced to listen to music that is intended for guests, and businesses may want to allow employees to have a say in the music selection based on this research.

The Impact of Music on Mood, Stress Reduction, and Impulse Control

In addition to motivation, music can significantly influence mood and stress levels, which, in turn, affect impulse control. Research indicates that listening to music with a positive emotional valence can lead to elevated mood states, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.

A study by Lai and Yeh (2019) examined the impact of music listening on stress reduction in a workplace setting. The results showed that employees who listened to music during breaks reported lower levels of stress and improved emotional well-being compared to those who did not. Reduced stress levels can be conducive to improved impulse control, as high-stress environments often lead to impulsive decision-making and behavior.

Personal Music Preference and Impulse Control

One crucial factor in the relationship between music and workplace productivity and impulse control is personal music preference. Not all individuals respond to music in the same way, and the choice of music can significantly influence its effects. Research by Furnham and Bradley (1997) found that participants who were allowed to choose their preferred music for a cognitive task performed better and reported higher levels of enjoyment compared to those listening to music chosen by the researchers.

Therefore, while some employees may find classical music or instrumental tracks conducive to concentration and impulse control, others may prefer energetic pop songs or ambient electronic music. Allowing personal listening devices may sometimes make it hard to get the attention of employees, but the choice to allow music should be accompanied by the ability for employees to choose their own music if possible.

Potential Downsides: Distraction and Cognitive Load

While music can undoubtedly enhance motivation, mood, and impulse control, it is essential to acknowledge that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution for productivity and impulse control. In some cases, music may prove to be a distraction rather than an aid. Factors such as the type of task and individual differences can play a significant role in whether music helps or hinders productivity and impulse control.

A study by Furnham et al. (1999) found that tasks requiring high levels of cognitive load, such as complex problem-solving or information processing, were negatively affected by background music. Participants in this study performed worse on such tasks when exposed to music compared to silence. The researchers suggest that music may increase cognitive load, making it more challenging for individuals to focus on demanding tasks and exercise impulse control.

Adrian Furnham
Extraverts and Introverts tend to react differently to music while working on complex tasks.

The Furnham study mentioned above focused on the difference music and background television has on introverts and extraverts. It was found that introverts are more likely to be negatively impacted by background music or television while they worked.

(pictured: Adrian Furnham, Organizational and Applied Psychologist and Management Expert, London School of Economics)

Furthermore, open-office environments, which are prevalent in many workplaces, can compound the issue. The presence of background noise, including music, can increase distractions and hinder concentration for some individuals, particularly those with sensory sensitivities or attention deficits, affecting impulse control as well.

Employers have the right to limit what employees listen to and how they listen.

Employers typically create policies to avoid legal troubles, such as eliminating any music played out loud in the workplace with these elements:

  • Sexually charged
  • Misogynistic
  • Racially Derogatory
  • Overtly religious or anti-religious

Context Matters: Matching Music to the Task

Given the mixed findings on the relationship between music and productivity, mood, and impulse control, it is crucial to consider the context and the specific nature of the work being done. Some tasks may benefit from background music, while others may require a quiet environment.

For example, creative tasks that involve brainstorming or idea generation may benefit from music that enhances divergent thinking and impulse control. In contrast, analytical tasks, such as data analysis or proofreading, may be best performed in a quieter setting, which can also help with impulse control. Tailoring the choice of music to the task at hand, individual preferences, and the need for impulse control can help employees strike the right balance between music’s benefits and potential distractions.

Listening to music at work can have a profound impact on productivity, motivation, mood, and impulse control. However, its effects are highly dependent on individual differences, the nature of the tasks being performed, personal music preferences, and the need for impulse control. Research has demonstrated that music can serve as a powerful motivational tool, reduce stress, elevate mood levels, and even enhance impulse control, all of which can enhance overall productivity and decision-making.

To maximize the benefits of music at work and improve impulse control, employees should consider their unique work requirements, preferences, and the impulse control needed for specific tasks. They should also recognize that, for some tasks and impulse control scenarios, a quiet environment may be more conducive to productivity and impulse control.

Music can be a harmonious companion in the workplace, helping individuals achieve their best performance and exercise better impulse control when used strategically and mindfully. By understanding the psychology of music, considering personal preferences, and matching music to the task and the need for impulse control, employees can harness the potential of music to enhance their productivity, well-being, and impulse control in today’s demanding work environments.

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