Managing Stress at Work through therapeutic use of Expressive Arts- Tilottama Dutta Sarkar

Tilottama Dutta Sarkar

Corporate L&D Consultant

Creative Movement Facilitator.

According to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UN, 1948) “ Everyone has the right to life, to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment”.

International Labor Organization (ILO, 2012) report states that 50% to 60% of all workdays are lost due to absence attributed to factors associated with work stress.

It is from the above context that this article on stress management takes off.

Occupational stress or stress at workplace is a very real issue that countless employees and organisations are faced with today. The American Institute of Stress lists common symptoms of stress as frequent headaches, neck ache and back pain, frequent colds, excess worry, frequent mood swings, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, trouble learning, forgetfulness, constant fatigue etc. If employees experience any of these symptoms,  it is bound to cost a business dearly in the long run. Some of the ways in which an organisation feels the brunt of workplace stress are- higher levels of staff turnover, missed mandays, lower productivity levels, adversely affected group relation dynamics, more interpersonal conflict and so on so forth.

So what causes stress at work? While some level of stress is good, and can even stimulate creativity and productivity, excessive or continuous stress can be counter-productive. The natural pattern of human behaviour is to experience a stress-causing event or situation, react to it with increased tension and then return to a relaxed state. The problem occurs when stress is so overwhelming or constant that this pattern is broken. Some common workplace stressors are excessive workload, few opportunities for career growth, lack of scope for creativity in work, lack of social support, not having control over job-related decisions, over or under managing, conflicting demands, unclear performance expectations, low compensation etc.

“As employers, it is our fundamental duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace. As workers, it is our fundamental right to work under safe and healthy conditions. Occupational safety and health is not a bonus or an add-on. ”– Health & Life at Work, A basic Human Right (International Labour Organisation)

Reducing levels of occupational stress takes careful planning and preparation. It might not be possible to do away with stressors entirely in the workplace, however organisations can take some constructive action to equip their employees to healthily cope with stress.

From my work experience in the corporate sector spanning almost a decade, I suggest a two-pronged process for effective stress management – making structural and policy changes at the organisational level and building internal resources and resilience at the employee level. At the organisational level policies need to be made that ascertain clarity in job descriptions & job responsibilities (Abramis, D. J. 1994). Also promoting flexible work hours, holding managers accountable for sensitivity towards team members’ work stresses, prevention/redressal of harassment of any kind, ensuring safe and hazard free work environment and so on are some of the ways in which an organisation can set the tone for managing stress at the macro level.

Employees need to be given access to support systems and professional help that will facilitate building resilience within them to cope with existing stressors. Here, I am going to discuss one way in which this can be achieved – the therapeutic use of expressive arts like dance, drama, music, & visual art to build the internal resources of the employees for healthily coping with stress.

“Art is the constant agent of transformation and is indeed the soul’s drive to health.”– Unknown

Many scholars and researchers have studied the beneficial effects that expressive arts have on human mind and body. Expressive arts use dance, music, drama & visual arts as media to connect with people on a creative & non-verbal level (Sabrine Koch & Thomas Fuchs, Embodied Arts Therapies, 2011).

Body and mind are seen as connected in the paradigm of therapeutic use of expressive arts. The experience of the body is used as a modality to access emotions and build internal resources of an individual. Some of the ways in which expressive arts help in building resilience by engaging the body and mind are as follows

Dance: The use of movement activities like warm ups, mirroring, dancing with props, moving through space, trust exercises, improvisation and body rhythms

Music: The use of music, instruments, voice, sound and rhythm.

Visual Arts: The purposeful use of visual art materials and the creative process of art making.

Drama: The use of various theatrical interventions

As reported in The Arts in Psychotherapy, a 2012 study found that using Dance Movement Therapy group treatment improved stress management and reduced stress.

“In a 2008 article in Scientific American magazine, a Columbia University neuroscientist posited that synchronising music and movement—dance, essentially—constitutes a “pleasure double play.” Music stimulates the brain’s reward centres, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits.” (http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/dancing-and-brain)

Expressive arts combine physical and mental activity. When we sing, dance, listen to music, or paint, we feel good in our body as well as in our mind. Biologically speaking, feeling good is an expression which indicates release of stress alleviating neurotransmitters, endorphins in the body, thereby relaxing and rejuvenating anyone who has been experiencing stress. The therapeutic use of expressive arts can be an effective way to manage stress at work felt by countless employees in an ever-changing and fast paced work environment. Expressive arts encourage physical exercise, emotional expression, boost creativity and imagination, and bring about an authentic and unique self-expression.

For example, the body expressions and art content created as a part of an expressive arts intervention can lead to improvement in concentration, ability to coordinate, flexibility in body and mind, therefore opening up possibilities to activate internal resources and healthy coping mechanisms. (Koch, S.C. Arts and Health. Active factors and a theory framework of embodied aesthetics. Arts Psychotherapy, 2017)

Organisations and employees both can benefit from using expressive arts for managing stress. Through the creative process of expressive arts intervention, organisations can understand what causes stress amongst the employees and how it affects their minds and bodies. Many employees might find it challenging to verbally open up about what stresses them in the work environment. But through art, movement and music, they can safely express how they are feeling and build adaptive resources to cope with the stressors in a healthy way. When the employees feel supported and heard, the quality of life at work improves. A less stressed work environment can lead to better productivity and happier work culture.

A typical corporate workplace is marked by structured seating arrangements, increasing workload, power hierarchies within employees and rigid timelines.

While expressive arts is a flexible domain that has the power to introduce much-needed fluidity in the corporate structures.

Tilottama Dutta Sarkar is a Creative Movement and L&D Consultant with 9 years of experience in facilitating learning and personal development. She is certified as a Creative Movement Facilitator from CMTAI and is a member of CID, UNESCO. She facilitates various self-development and team development projects like mind-body connect, self-expression, soft skills, organisational development and Learning Management practices. She holds an M. A. in Sociology, certified in Gender Studies and is a Visharad in Kathak.