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Wellbeing and returning to work

Tina Speed, a counsellor and therapist who also has many years of experience working within the music industry, considers the impact of musicians being asked to return to the workplace following the easing of pandemic restrictions.

The transition back to the workplace following a sustained period of absence is a significant change.

If your work has previously taken place in the concert hall, classroom, studio, or a combination of settings, it’s possible that you now spend more time at home, online, or in a carefully controlled environment. Musicians often experiment with new ways of working. However, this adaptability doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider the impact of change. Below are some thoughts on how to prepare for and manage this process.

What change means to you

How we feel about a situation will be influenced by our experiences in the world. Some of us will feel comfortable returning to the workplace while the opposite will be true for others. Our emotions can tell us what we might need from ourselves and from those around us; feeling anxious might require self-confidence or reassurance, helplessness might require assertiveness or collaboration, and resentment might require self-compassion or understanding. As we are programmed to repeat ways of thinking and doing, reflecting on previous instances of change can help us to understand our feelings. This allows us to separate out associations from the past that might not apply in the current situation and avoid unnecessary discomfort.

Sometimes there’s a difference between our first response and what follows. Whatever your initial feelings about returning to the workplace, if this subsequently changed it might be useful to try and understand why. Were these adjustments the result of helpful or unhelpful thought processes? Have they successfully added context to an automatic reaction, or have they set aside a valid feeling? Our immediate, unfiltered response may also reflect learned behaviours that don’t always serve our best interests. You might feel obligated to do something you don’t want to do, to conform with or prioritise the needs of others, or to pretend you feel ok when you don’t. Knowing what might be affecting our thoughts and feelings can help us to make an informed choice about what action to take.

I’m OK, you’re OK, we’re OK

Through the pandemic it’s been necessary to develop individually tailored ways to live and work in isolation. A move back to the workplace means navigating how to share space with others again. However, what happens if your employers, bandmates, or audiences want to move at a different pace to you? Having others understand our position can avoid the distress of feeling misrepresented or overlooked. In turn, being heard encourages us to see things from another’s point of view and can support us to accept a difference of opinion. This shared understanding hopefully leads to a place of negotiation and compromise that can maintain respect and trust within relationships.

Much research has been done into the sophisticated ways that musicians communicate through their craft. However, in a potentially sensitive situation we might feel unsure about asking for what we want or about how our request will be received. Underlying feelings of worry or frustration might be reflected in our voice and our body language. Preparing, and sometimes even practising, what we want to say in advance can help us to be understood. Be clear about your motivation, who your audience is, your reasoning, and what you’re asking for. This clarity can also reduce the risk that we’ll regret how we represented ourselves or of fearing we’ll be persuaded to change our mind by others.

How change can be empowering

Considering what it’s like to return to the workplace can be an opportunity to recognise new things about ourselves. What has been your experience of working in different environments during the pandemic, and across your career? How has your health and wellbeing responded to factors such as the location and type of space, schedule, social aspects, and access to facilities? Which settings allow for the most confidence, focus, productivity, collaboration, creativity, and enjoyment in your work? Knowing how we feel and function in different environments can give us confidence in our expressing what we need.

A sense of control over our environment can have a significant impact on our health and wellbeing. This is perhaps even more important for musicians, whose working hours can be long and variable. It’s therefore reasonable to feel entitled to work in a space that takes you into account. Psychologists Cattaneo and Chapman developed a process for empowering us to effect change that includes building trust in our ability to influence our world. They also highlight the importance of taking action and noting the impact of what we do. This acknowledges that making change is a process, and that even if our concerns are not initially resolved we are left better positioned to continue the conversation.

Wellness in the workplace

Whatever you’re feeling about returning to the workplace, any changes to our day-to-day life will have an impact. Differences in our mood, physical condition, energy levels, or habits can signal how we’re responding to change. Prioritising self-care (leisure activities, wellbeing treatments, rest) places us in the strongest position to navigate changes. Resilience can also be encouraged through an awareness of what keeps us feeling safe and secure (home, social networks, sense of identity). Social psychologist Mark Snyder also identified a relationship between feelings of hope and optimism and the qualities of determination, adaptability/flexibility and self-confidence. This suggests that attempting to identify positive aspects of a situation can also affect our experience of it.

If you find yourself in the position of returning to work, below are some ideas for how to manage the process:

  • Plan a visit to familiarise yourself with the space and how it feels to be there.
  • Find out what procedures are in place to manage your safe return.
  • Reconnect in advance with colleagues with whom you might have had less contact.
  • Arrange to check in with a colleague, employer, or friend who you trust.
  • Implement changes to your schedule in advance, giving yourself time to readjust.
  • Reflect on your experience of returning and what might reduce any challenges.
  • Explore options for reasonable adjustments with your employer
  • Make use of support services, including through organisations such as the ISM.