• Healthcare Organizations Take on Art Therapy to Reduce Employee Burnout, Improve Health 

    By Rachael Zimlich, RN

    The smallest doodle on the edge of a memo. A child’s drawing hung in a workspace. Enjoying lunch next to a sculpture. These are all ways art can creep into workday, and each has a larger effect than one might suspect.

    More than 80 percent of workers polled by a workplace design group say that art is important in their work environment, and there is a wealth of research confirming the benefit of artistic endeavors in spurring creativity, relieving stress, and improving employee wellness.

    Many workers are taking it upon themselves to add a little art to their days, with one in seven adults admitting to coloring at work to help improve productivity and promote relaxation. In the survey, conducted by Staples, 80 percent say coloring relieves stress, 68 percent say it makes them more productive, and 30 percent would like to see more workplaces promote such activities. Last year, several adult coloring books topped Amazon’s best-seller list.

    Michelle DeanWhat is it about seeing or creating art that is so beneficial?

    Michelle L. Dean, MA, ATR-BC, LPC, CGP, an art psychotherapist and co-founder of The Center for Psyche & the Arts LLC, says art can enhance the quality of a workplace and help build stronger teams.

    “Taking time to doodle, color, or create images can reduce stress, promote relaxation, and help solve problems. Group art therapy assists individuals in better understanding and valuing their peers,” Dean says. “While it takes a trained professional to facilitate group therapy, utilizing art in the workplace among teams or departments of workers can help build connections, partnerships, and morale. Art-making becomes a means of getting to get to know one another, identify strengths, and build collegial relationships while honoring individuality.”

    A 2009 study examining the science behind doodling revealed that doodlers were able to recount 29 percent more information presented to them while drawing than individuals who were given the same information while not doodling.

    Dean says drawing for 10 to 30 minutes each day has benefits for both mindfulness and relaxation.

    Girija Kaimal, EdD, MA, assistant professor at Drexel University, says working in an art-filled space is appealing, but the act of making art—including doodling—stimulates even more of the senses and engages different areas of the brain. Keeping a small activity nearby that can be used throughout the day, such as knitting, woodworking, or using a small notebook for doodling, can improve concentration and relieve stress.

    Employee burnout is a significant problem across industries, Kaimal says, but art therapy is a cost-effective way to reduce burnout and improve employee health and well-Art therapy at BP's offices in New York Citybeing. “Giving [employees] the opportunity to safely and creatively express themselves has tremendous physiological and psychological benefits,” Kaimal says.

    Even a short art-therapy session has an impact on a person’s positive and negative affect—a person’s emotional tone, says Kaimal in a recent study she co-authored. In another report, Kaimal demonstrates that a person's cortisol level—the body’s stress hormone—drops after just 45 minutes of art-making.

    Dean says group art-making in the workplace can lead to a greater investment toward common goals, as well as enhanced cohesion in the workplace, greater job satisfaction, and increased employee retention. Art therapists also can be particularly useful in helping workers overcome obstacles, she says.

    “When work teams get stuck solving a problem or need help with inter- or intrapersonal conflicts, the aid of a qualified art therapist can be an effective investment for a company. For example, helping employees connect with others in a meaningful way, see their importance, and feel their value to the company may lead to a greater sense of satisfaction, self-esteem, and pride in their work while decreasing isolation. It also reduces feelings of depression or burnout,” Dean says. “Good work alliances lead to great cohesion and more effective group functioning.”

    And, art doesn’t necessarily need to be performed in the workplace to be effective, Dean adds.

    “Because creativity is an innate drive, in most workplaces, one can observe creative expressiveness among workers. For example, it may be the nurse who adorns herself in the charms of femininity that express her capacity for grace and compassion, the cubicle art that evolves into a personal statement, or even the garbage truck adorned with the sanitation workers’ found treasures in a mobile shrine,” Dean says. “Employers are wise to draw upon such creative inclinations by inviting staff into creative decisions about the work setting and to provide opportunities to utilize the natural urge to experiment and create a synthesis of new and diverse ideas. After all, creativity is the germ that sparks new ideas and great inventions, which can be very profitable for some companies.”

    Workers can also benefit from art through storyboarding to brainstorm plans before big meetings, or by drawing ideal outcomes of a situation to mentally prepare for success, Dean suggests.

    Linda NaimanArt in the workplace doesn’t need to be limited to solid media, either. Linda Naiman, corporate alchemist at Creativity at Work, says art can also include improvisational games, music, and dance.

    “A five-minute theater improv game at the start of a meeting will do wonders for your team in terms of connecting with each other as human beings, laughing, and having a bit of fun before getting down to business,” Naiman says. “Art in this context is a form of play, which produces flow states in groups, as well as in individuals. The atmosphere changes from the staccato of mind chatter to the spaciousness of being present in the here and now. From this foundation, creativity, connection, collaboration, and transformation become possible. Art has the power to convey beauty, inspire hope, and elevate us from the dullness and stresses of life.”

    Even simply displaying art in the workplace can have a profound effect, Dean says.

    “Public art and having quality art in the workplace are about more than just having pretty pictures on the wall; it can be a form of self-help. Alain de Botton said, ‘Art helps us suffer more successfully.’ What he meant by this is life is full of struggle and suffering; it is an inescapable part of our lives. Art offers us a means to hold the beauty and the ugliness of life simultaneously. It allows opportunities to reflect, understand, grow, and hold hope,” Dean says.

    Particularly in health care, where the human struggle is so evident, art is a critical way for caregivers to recharge.

    Lisa SheaAt the Cleveland Clinic, employee art therapy is offered for an hour each month to all workers in the Taussig Cancer Center oncology program. About 12 employees attend the sessions each month, says Lisa Shea, MAT, art therapist for the Cleveland Clinic. A different intervention and media are used each month, and the classes are offered during employees' lunch breaks.

    “On average—in post-session surveys—employees report a 90 percent drop in their stress level,” Shea says.

    The most common responses about the benefit are that the sessions provide employees with a mental break from the demands of their work. Others identify the most helpful element being the opportunity to spend time with co-workers, enjoying conversation and camaraderie. 

    “Personally, art therapy has been a respite away from the stress that is a natural and expected outcome of assisting my patients on their Art therapy at Cleveland Cliniccancer journeys,” says Lou Ann Brown, RN, a care coordinator who works with patients undergoing treatment for lung cancer. “When in art therapy, we focus on self-care, which re-energizes us to meet the needs of our patients. We also have discovered a creative side we may not have thought we had.”

    Craig Knight, PhD, MSc, of Haddleton Knight Corporate Psychology, says research overwhelmingly supports that workplaces enriched by art are not only more enjoyable for workers but also are more productive. But to use art in a way that truly inspires is not as simple as hanging a poster on the wall, he says.

    Craig Knight“Art is a useful way in which to enrich a space. However, there are also warnings here. Within this work, it has become clear that corporate art is something of a turn-off. Further evidence indicates that inspiring workplace posters such as ‘There is no ‘I’ in team;’ ‘Do something great today; it could make somebody smile’ are actively negative and detrimentally impact people’s workplace satisfaction,” Knight says. “Allowing employees to realize something of their own identities within their own space is better. This means that whether employees make their own art or simply choose articles they enjoy, it should be their choice.”

    Forced corporate activities aimed at improving employee well-being and productivity could backfire if not done correctly, he says.

    “Having to create art—as some sort of managerial company project—would be likely to create more stressors than it relieves,” Knight says. “Some workers may see no value at all in squeezing artistic activities into their day. Making these people pick up a chisel or paintbrush is unlikely to make them feel better. However, furnishing the option of pottery, or painting, or drama groups for those who would like to take advantage of the opportunity may well have the effect of improving workplace satisfaction. Options and choice have always been seen as the best way forward.”

    Rachael Zimlich, RN, is a healthcare writer from Cleveland. 


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