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The surprising popularity of workplace choirs

It may be growing in popularity, but is there anything substantive to this new wellness trend?

Choir
The Ghent Altarpiece: Singing Angels by Jan van Eyck
  • Workplace choirs are becoming increasingly popular in the U.K. and USA, particularly in companies such as Boeing, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google.
  • Proponents tout choirs as a way to avoid employee burnout, and the research seems to suggest they're right.
  • Singing in choirs comes with a slew of psychosocial benefits that can make the workday a little more bearable.

In some workplaces, you might find yourself taking a break from filling out TPS reports to working on hitting the high notes of "Bohemian Rhapsody." More and more businesses are encouraging their employees to start work choirs to improve their physical and mental health and promote social cohesion.

It might seem like an odd solution, but workplace choirs are an effective response to employee burnout. A recent Gallup study found that 23 percent of employees feel burned out at work often or all the time, and another 44 percent feels burned out some of the time. Employees who feel burned out are more than twice as likely to actively seek out other employment and 63 percent more likely to take sick days. They're less confident in their performance, less likely to work with their managers toward goals, and more likely to visit the emergency room.

How did workplace choirs come to be and what are the benefits?

But why is singing being implemented as a solution to this? Part of the reason has to be attributed to the popularity of the 2012 British TV show, The Choir: Sing While You Work, in which choirmaster Gareth Malone trains amateur workplace-based choirs to compete against one another. Over time, more and more businesses in the U.K. began implementing workplace choirs, including Wellington Place's workplace choir in the video below.

Now, it's not just U.K.-based businesses that are assembling choirs. Boeing, Facebook, and LinkedIn all have their own choirs as well, and Google has its own a capella group called Googapella. The city of Cincinnati even has its own city-wide choir competition called CincySings that pits different company choirs together.

Jordan Shue, a representative of Americans for the Arts, told the Chorus Connection blog that "[An employee choir] is a way to show employees that you value them and want them to have fun at work. It also challenges them to show their creative sides and work as a team on a project vastly different from what they do in the office day to day. That can have a huge impact on the way they work together in the future and how connected they feel to their company."

Research backs this up, too. Choirs have been shown to promote a sense of togetherness and social cohesion. Choral singing can be good for your heart as well and can even cause the heart rates of choral group members to rise and fall in tandem. Choirs reduce stress and depression, improve respiratory health and self-esteem, and stimulate cognition. And, crucially for the workplace, singing promotes social bonding.

There's a good reason why so many companies set time aside for often-underwhelming team-building exercises. Human beings can't simply spend 8 hours a day as robots; they need to bond with other human beings and be social. Doing so doesn't just make for happier workers, it also makes for more productive ones — both because of improved personal outcomes and because of the interpersonal connections that singing promotes.

Not a new idea

While implementing a choir in the workplace might seem like something of a fad or a product of a modern-day obsession with creating hip workplaces, singing at work is actually quite old — ancient, in fact. Musician Ted Gioia's book Work Songs explores the many different historical contexts where laborers sang during their work, whether that was enslaved plantation workers, miners, chain gangs, oyster shuckers, or any other kind of laborers.

"It made the work less arduous, it made the hours roll by," said Gioia. "It allowed them to have some sort of mastery over their work conditions, which were often very demeaning ones." Though one might make argue that this kind of hard labor differs significantly from the modern, sterile office, the rising rates of worker burnout belies that contrast and underscore the value of music in the workplace.

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Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

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Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

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Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

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With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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