Combating provider burnout and stress with music

Health care providers, long susceptible to burnout, have turned to music to alleviate the stress of the pandemic.

When we encounter a stressor, our adrenal gland starts producing cortisol, a useful hormone that in the short term helps us focus and summon the energy we’re going to need to navigate the moment. But when we remain in this state for long periods—a condition referred to as chronic stress—we put ourselves at increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder, depression, and burnout.

Headphones and a stethoscope on a table.

Health care providers have long been susceptible to burnout. But since the COVID-19 pandemic, those rates have reached staggering new highs. In a 2020 survey conducted by the American Nurses Association, 62% of nurses reported experiencing symptoms associated with burnout. Among physicians, 47% reported feeling burned out in a 2021 survey that included more than 13,000 respondents across 29 specialties.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, some have leaned on their passion for music. Listening to and playing music have been shown to have a number of physical and mental benefits, including helping people cope with the pandemic. Music has also been found to reduce cortisol levels, help with sleep, reduce depression, and even reduce burnout.

None of these benefits come as news to four lifelong musicians who work at Chester County Hospital (CCH), which is part of Penn Medicine. Long before the pandemic, their talent provided an escape for them from the everyday rigors of their responsibilities. And they aren’t alone—across Penn Medicine, providers have utilized their love of music, from the Penn Med Symphony Orchestra (made up of medical students, faculty members, researchers, nurses, and more) to creative music therapy programs.

Lead pharmacy technician Cheryl Toney’s favorite place to sing is in her church choir, standing right between her two daughters, ages 14 and 19. In those moments, she’s doing something that’s brought her immense joy throughout her life with two of the people she loves most in the world.

But there’s more to it than that.

“A lot of people in my family struggle with depression,” says Toney, who is a lead technician in the outpatient pharmacy at CCH. “I’m Black, and there’s a stigma among the Black culture about asking for help with a mental health condition. However, I know that singing and listening to music can trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin, the same chemicals found in antidepressants.”

Every Sunday morning, her immediate and extended family attends church together, and she sees it as “a chance to encourage them.” She also sings at family get-togethers.

“I think it just helps us all cope and feel closer to each other,” she says.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.