Can a Jam Session Help Healthcare Workers Battle Burnout?

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained the entire healthcare system and the first responders treating those who fall ill.  Even before the outbreak, half of all doctors and a third of nurses in the United States experienced symptoms of burnout, which the World Health Organization (WHO) defines as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”  Burnout is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, feelings of detachment or cynicism towards one’s work, and reduced efficacy on the job.  On the front lines of the pandemic, healthcare staff face a higher risk of burnout now more than ever.

The physical, psychological, and occupational consequences of burnout syndrome are detrimental for both healthcare providers and their patients.  For providers, burnout is associated with health problems such as cardiovascular disease, changes in immune function, and depression.  As a result, patients may receive a lower quality of care, and the healthcare system as a whole may be further strained by decreased provider productivity and increased turnover.

Managing chronic stress is key to addressing burnout, but it can be difficult to find the time and energy. Making music can be one simple, effective way of relieving stress—with fellow staff or whenever you have a moment to yourself.

How Making Music Reduces Stress on the Job

Recreational music-making, even using simple instruments like bells, maracas, and electronic keyboards, has been found to improve mood and reduce burnout in long-term care workers after just six sessions.

Making music can have long-lasting positive effects on both mind and body.  Group drumming, for example, has been found to improve social resilience and mental wellbeing, lasting for up to 3 months.  The drumming sessions reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol within participants and even changed their immune systems by decreasing pro-inflammatory cytokines, some of which are associated with major depression.  This biological boost to the immune system may explain the mental health benefits of drumming.

And remember, you don’t need instruments to make music.  Singing was found to improve mood and modulate immune system activity in cancer patients and their carers. This may be because singing, like other forms of music-making, has the power to reduce stress hormones.  It can also help healthcare workers take a well-deserved break to celebrate successes.  When a COVID-19 patient was discharged from Northern Westchester Hospital, the staff gathered to send her off by singing Here Comes the Sun.

How Healthcare Workers Can Get Started Making Music

The stress of patient care during a pandemic can be overwhelming, so it is important to acknowledge that feeling burnt out at times is natural, okay and to be expected.

As our healthcare heroes work tirelessly to heal others, we hope they can take small steps to support their own health and wellbeing.  These music intervention recommendations are organized from lower to higher levels of commitment, so you can figure out for yourself what you have the time and energy for:

This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions?  Are you already using the arts to help you cope?   

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at  Be well and stay safe.

Written and reported by IAM Lab Communications Specialist Richard Sima. Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland. 

Lead Image: Jonathan Borba / Unsplash

COVID-19 Mental Health Music Neuroscience Public Health