Music to the Ears: Lessons on Workplace Wellbeing

Co-Creation Consultant Marcel Becker is a classically trained musician who has been in leading positions in professional orchestras for over 30 years. His artistic background influences the coaching style he provides and brings new creative aspects to the process.

In this unique, in-depth personal insight, he discusses the importance of health and wellbeing in the workplace, specifically in the context of orchestra musicians.

Using his experiences from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) to demonstrate how the institution has acknowledged the importance of employee wellbeing to secure a more sustainable future, Marcel suggests that addressing the root causes of these issues requires a more profound intervention than ‘just’ a pay raise for the employees.

Balancing Passion and Reality: The Challenges of Making a Living as a Musician

I am a classically trained musician and have been in leading positions in professional orchestras for over 30 years.

Most musicians who go into the profession see it as a vocation. For them, expressing their thoughts and emotions through the medium of music is a necessity, a calling that can’t be ignored or suppressed.

“What a blessing it must be to turn your hobby into a job, to celebrate every day what you are passionate about”.

Musicians hear such comments from members of the audience on a regular basis, and indeed we are privileged.

However, studies of orchestra musicians show that morale is low and pressure is high.

According to surveys conducted in German orchestras over the last three decades, 55% of participants suffered from playing-related injuries and physical damage, and 49% of all musicians stated that the stress and pressure that came with the job were increasing.

In a political environment where artistic institutions suffer from substantial financial cuts, raising salaries to keep the workforce motivated is for most orchestras, not an option.

The question is whether much deeper routed problems do not cause the low level of wellbeing and job satisfaction and needs a more profound intervention than just a pay raise for the employees.

Like in any other profession, the matter of health and wellbeing for orchestra musicians is very complex.

I will show with a few examples how the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO), of which I am the section leader double bass, has acknowledged the importance of the employees’ wellbeing to secure a sustainable future for a successful and competitive orchestra.

Physical damage and how it can be prevented:

Playing an instrument at elite level requires an enormous amount of “training time”. Like athletes, musicians spend hours practising and rehearsing to prepare for the performances. The demands on fine motor skills are very high. Repetitive strain injuries and musculoskeletal damage are very common.

The RLPO was to my knowledge the first orchestra in the UK that recognised that injury prevention can be more cost effective in the long run than having to pay extra players to cover for sick leave.

Taking inspiration from elite sports, the RLPO introduced a health and wellbeing program which included onsite physiotherapy, massage, and injury prevention workshops, amongst other interventions, to maintain the physical fitness of the musicians.

Next to the physical benefits, it gives the musicians in a fast paced and highly competitive industry the feeling of being looked after and being valued as individuals.

Using local services to provide these supportive services, as well as establishing cooperative programs with universities and other research and educational institutions, strengthened the ties to local communities and could be an opportunity to open up new funds to finance such programs.

Dealing with the psychological strains:

Professional orchestras are mostly run in an extremely hierarchical, and slightly antiquated way. At the top of the autocratic order is the conductor, followed by the leader of the orchestra, the leaders of each instrumental section, the numbered players in the section and at the bottom of the ‘pecking order’ the tutti players. Usually, the commands go from top to bottom.

Even though the quality of an orchestra might be very high as a collective, one wonders how sustainable it is for the individual to continuously perform under intense pressure for decades without any psychological support while experiencing the frustration of having very little influence on the decision-making process and minimal ownership of the final product.

Like other businesses operating on the global market, orchestras face increased competition. Recent cuts mean there is more work for fewer people and the work for each individual becomes more demanding. This increase of pressure comes at the same time as job security decrease.

In order to create a ‘feel good’ factor for the workforce it is no longer enough just to cover the basic financial needs. Aspects that influence the quality of life, such as work-life balance, manageable workloads, being valued and respected and some sense of job security, are vital for the positive employees’ attitude, their mental health and therefore the productivity of the company as a whole.

Studies conducted by the University of Warwick and Oxford concluded that happiness can significantly increase productivity. An organisation’s working culture directly impacts employees’ happiness and mental wellbeing and is one of the most important ingredients to achieve success in a competitive market.

The RLPO recognised that a cultural change within the institution was necessary to break the hierarchical structures, to give musicians more job satisfaction and make the business fit for a changing future.

The senior management acknowledged the strain that constant pressure puts on the musicians’ mental health and came to understand that the personal reward for musicians who perceive themselves as just a small cog in the big orchestra machinery was very limited.

As part of the health and wellbeing program the RLPO offers 1:1 coaching and collaborates with the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, to manage the stress and pressure of the individuals, as well as working with different instrumental groups on conflict management and teambuilding.

In order to facilitate a smooth transition to a less hierarchical system, section leaders looked at ways to increase involvement of all musicians in decision-making processes and how to encourage more contributions by individuals. Even though moving away from a traditional leader–follower – system meant a loss of power for the section leaders, they were very much in support of the process.

An increase in collective responsibility throughout the orchestra, meant a decrease of pressure for the section leaders.

Looking into the future

A cultural change that puts the wellbeing of the employees at its centre needs to be well communicated, as mistrust between employees and senior management seem to be a general problem for businesses worldwide. This mistrust is often rooted in the mismatched or missing dialogue between senior management and employees.

The culture is usually deeply rooted in the company’s values and is difficult and complex to change. It should involve the whole institution, including the leadership, so it is not perceived as a “fixing the employees”, but a beneficial intervention for the whole work community.

The RLPO example shows that a health and wellbeing program needs to cover both sides, the physical and mental health of the employees. While the physical fitness can be maintained and enhanced by services like physio, massage, and various injury preventing activities, the mental health needs to be not only supported by coaches and mental health practitioners but has to be a crucial part of the overall workplace culture.

Playing in Tune: Creating a Passionate and Inclusive Work Environment

Corporate businesses could learn a great deal from the orchestra analogy presented by Marcel Becker.

Key takeaways for organisations include:

  • Prioritising employee wellbeing can lead to a more sustainable and competitive business in the long run.
  • Prevention programs can be more cost-effective than paying for sick leave or hiring additional staff.
  • Providing physical and mental health support can make employees feel valued and supported.
  • Addressing the root causes of low morale and job satisfaction, such as hierarchical structures and lack of job security, can improve overall employee happiness and productivity.
  • Creating a positive working culture is crucial for achieving success in a competitive market.

Like the RLPO, organisations must recognise that employee wellbeing is critical to securing a sustainable future.

Taking a more holistic intervention approach, addressing root causes and the wellbeing of the individual as well as at an organisational level.

Ultimately, creating a positive work culture that promotes employee happiness and mental wellbeing can significantly increase productivity, just as it has for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Are you looking for a way to improve your organisation’s performance, break down silos and create a culture of positive workplace wellbeing?

Look no further than Co-Creation. Our team has extensive expertise and diverse experiences that uniquely position us to help your organisation achieve its goals. Call us on +44 0161 969 2512 or email us