There's no such thing as tone deaf, apparently, which is music to my ears as I stand in a corner of my bedroom on a January morning preparing to belt out a song. I've been told I have a nice singing voice, but I'm not sure my children count as reputable judges. It's my first singing lesson from the comfort of my own home with two of Ireland's leading teachers, former opera singers, Linsey Dempsey and Ross Scanlon.
The pair recently set up Sing at Work, a virtual business that allows you to take a break from the four walls of your home and enter a world akin to X Factor, if just for an hour. Having spent years performing and teaching, they realised the potential of using singing to help motivate and improve productivity and well-being in individuals and employees.
Music has always played a significant role in combatting fear and stress, as far back as the Black Death era when people sang hymns for spiritual healing, right through to modern-day Covid-19 lockdown balcony concerts. "There's nothing like music for your well-being, whether you're listening or performing," says Scanlon. Right now, it's become a source of soothing for those riddled with Covid-19 anxiety, along with a glut of online health and well-being services such as yoga, fitness, counselling and personal development courses, all designed to promote well-being and boost morale - and all being provided by employers.
This month, the Government published its National Remote Work Strategy to make working from home a permanent option for employees. Launching it, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that the aim was to make remote, blended and flexible working a bigger part of life in Ireland going forward. The Government also intends to move 20pc of public sector workers to remote working this year.
But as working from home becomes a permanent feature, what can employers do to ensure that team morale doesn't get left behind in the empty office?
Both Dempsey and Scanlon have worked with companies in the UK and Ireland and have seen first-hand how a musical 'gap' in the day can help not just the individual but the company. Rather than going out for a cigarette or a coffee, workers get an hour-long adrenaline boost and a chance to switch off their working brains and recharge.
In fact, studies have shown that regular breaks help to improve productivity and overall job satisfaction. A survey by Deloitte in the UK showed that 80pc of workers engaged in employee assistance programmes (EAP) felt more valued and, as a result, more positive about their employer.
"I remember one client, a CEO of a major corporation, would let loose on the piano for about 20 minutes," laughs Scanlon. "I could see the stress actually leaving his face as he played and sang."
Like the majority of the population, Covid-19 has meant having to pivot for Dempsey and Scanlon. With their performance calendars being "wiped out", the long-term friends decided to rely on their teaching abilities, moving to a digital platform to teach employees working from home.
Sing at Work offers team building and company events such as rehearsal and recording of group songs and 'Family Days', where employees and their kids sing together, as well as public-speaking packages. For now, however, the main focus is one-on-one singing lessons with workers via Zoom.
They are just one of the services springing up for companies looking to maintain and improve well-being among their workforce. Where once EAP programmes comprised of counselling sessions and legal and financial advice, they now also include the likes of mindfulness resources, group fitness challenges, wine tastings, murder mysteries, virtual away days and escape rooms.
With personal and professional worlds merged for many people since the first lockdown last March, the impact on our mental health is palpable. Research by Laya Healthcare found a staggering 91pc of Irish workers are struggling with anxiety during Covid-19, yet only 10pc are seeking assistance from a mental-health professional - a red flag for future workforce issues such as absenteeism, burn-out and fatigue.
Another study carried out at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick found that 51pc of employees feel less connected to their teams. "We're collaborative creatures by nature," says Martin Rogan, CEO of Mental Health Ireland (mentalhealthireland.ie). "We achieve more collectively and now we have to do that remotely or in parallel with others, using technology as the bridge."
Zoom has seen its corporate subscriber numbers grow 350pc since last March and while it's been a lifeline for many, signals required for good mental health fall through the gaps when we are not interacting physically, says Rogan. Working at home may mean greater flexibility and fewer interruptions but it is through those interactions with colleagues that connections are made.
"Some people enjoy good mental health because they architect their lives in a way that supports good habits, such as team sports, for example. But we're finding that these people are now suffering in lockdown because their coping mechanisms are no longer as accessible," Rogan explains, illuminating why services that help boost office morale are vitally important in the current crisis.
According to Rowena Hennigan, remote-work expert and lecturer at TU Dublin (rowenahennigan.com), home working is often unsustainable long-term. Add to that an external crisis, bad weather, travel limits and isolation and you have the potential for mental-health issues.
Some companies have been running successful EAP programmes for years, but there are many businesses who have yet to adapt to working-from-home conditions. Paranoid managers imagine employees sprawled out on their couches watching Judge Judy during working hours and, according to Hennigan, it is exactly this lack of trust that's fuelling a disengagement between employees and employers, with » » workers feeling neglected, distrusted and thus, less productive. "Often it comes from the top, so if managers are picking up emails over the weekend, they might expect their staff to do the same. Instead, they could start by being more intentional and explicit about remote working. Tell your employee you trust they'll meet a deadline without you checking on them, or that they don't need to answer emails at the weekend."
But seeing the 'whole worker' is also key: building a community support, whether that's a virtual 'social' meeting to check how their weekend was or allowing for personal development time within a working day.
"Those four walls can really start closing in," says Linsey Demspey. For one of her clients, the singing lesson is the only break she really gets in her working day. "She no longer has the buzz of the workplace or those water-cooler moments. It's groundhog day where she's going from her living room to her kitchen to her bedroom." The lesson gives her that opportunity to escape and a boost of oxytocin, the happy hormone we all need for successful productivity.
For some, working from home has been a positive revelation. For others, perhaps parents juggling childcare and office hours, it's been a source of stress. But it has shone a light on the general dissatisfaction with the nine-to-five grind and proved that, post crisis - as the new National Remote Work Strategy confirms - there will not be a return to 'business as usual'.
"All the research shows that we want choice," says Hennigan, referring to a recent National Remote Working Survey by NUIG, which showed that 94pc of people wanted to work remotely some or all of the time, post-crisis. "Remote working doesn't have to mean 'home', it could be a shared office space, a café, a library or at home for two days of the week." That's one of the points also highlighted in the Government's report, which said it intended to invest in remote working hubs with high-speed broadband around the country.
From my own work station at home today, I can certainly identify with the 'groundhog day' feeling and the need to connect after long bouts of isolation. However, the thoughts of singing in front of two strangers is adding to my Covid-19 anxiety right now.
A critic once described Bob Dylan's voice as like a truck reversing out of a gravel pit, but it never held him back. I'm clinging to that as I navigate my way through Dylan's Make You Feel My Love.
"Room for improvement," I answer when asked if I can sing. There was a singing lesson once 12 years ago when my husband and I decided we were going to perform a little 'ditty' at our wedding.
Not hitting the high notes is my biggest challenge, something Dempsey and Scanlon put down to lack of confidence. "Everyone can sing," encourages Dempsey. "Singing is really an extension of speech and, like any muscle, your voice needs to be exercised regularly."
Early criticism of your vocal abilities is often the reason why people don't pursue singing or why they believe they're tone deaf, explains Scanlon. "It's the things people told us when we were young or that we tell ourselves that stop us singing," he goes on. "Singing is a very emotive thing; we hold a lot of emotions in our voice and it's not going to flourish if we tell it negative things. You have to trust it."
But it also starts with breathing and alignment. I instinctively tilt my head up and puff out my chest until they explain how we need to rely on our bodies more when singing; taking in the air deeply into my stomach and using it to support my voice while tilting my head down. I'm now standing in what Scanlon describes as the 'Superwoman' pose, hands on hips, sensing my ribs move as I breathe. Then we try singing a trio of notes, sounds and scales. They ease me in gently with Happy Birthday which comes out as a squawk until I correct my breathing and then startle myself with its power.
"Now slightly softer," says Dempsey, kindly. Apparently I have a "big voice" so I try it again, but sing less and find my pace, a more natural progression from my speaking tone. We finish with a few verses of Dylan's Make You Feel My Love. But before that, Dempsey reminds me: "Enjoy it, you're not working. Have fun." For the first time, I understand the mechanics of singing, but also let go and trust.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld recently expressed his dissatisfaction with remote working, claiming the energy, attitude and personality of a workplace cannot be "remoted" through even the best fibre optic lines.
He makes a valid point; it won't replace the energy of an office environment, but for now, while the busking may have to wait, I've returned to my desk with a hit of happy hormones, ready to take on my working day with renewed ardour, while not-so-quietly humming to myself. l
For more information, see singatwork.ie