Performance in the workplace: what’s dance got to do with it?

Summarizes a recent study on the effect of dance on well-being and productivity at work

Rehearsals at Counterpoint dance company.

An economist, an expert in sustainability and a marketer ‘walk’ into a zoom room to discuss ways to improve performance in the workplace. The economist is interested in how many widgets per hour a worker is able to produce. The sustainability expert is searching for ways to improve well-being while the marketer is ready to promote whatever the first two come up with. This is the beginning of a successful story of transdisciplinary cooperation which led to the first study on dance, well-being and productivity published in Journal of International Marketing.

Why dance?

Incidentally, the economist is also a recreational dancer who has often advocated the importance of dance as a form of physical exercise. This originated not only from personal taste on how to burn one’s calories, but mainly from a rich psychology and neuroscience literature showing that dancing has important benefits for the brain and is increasingly used to promote mental health and well-being particularly among healthy seniors and people affected by degenerative conditions, such as Parkinson’s.

Although any form of physical exercise is good, dance provides additional benefits. Dance blends the positive effects of music, which stimulates the reward centre of the brain that hosts the motor, sensor and coordination regions of the brain. Dance also involves memory, emotion and creativity making it a more complex physical activity compared to other types of physical exercise. Lastly, dance holds the potential to be very inclusive and often allows us to engage with people from diverse backgrounds and across age groups. Various studies have confirmed the positive effects of recreational dance on relieving stress, improving relaxation and overall well-being.

Mental health and well-being are not just important for individuals, their friends and family but also have important economic outcomes. Studies have shown that people suffering from mental illness have lower labour force participation and lower employment rates, lower educational attainment, lower income and higher probability of criminal convictions.

Most importantly for our study, mental issues are related to lower productivity, particularly via a phenomenon called ‘presenteeism’. This describes a situation where workers are present at work but they not perform at the best of their abilities. Presenteeism is a very common phenomenon among people affected by mental illness as they are more likely to hide their condition and carry on working even though they are generally less productive than colleagues without mental issues.

Dance, well-being and productivity performance

Putting together the contributions from these different disciplines, two main questions motivated our study: is dance effective in improving well-being in the workplace? Are recreational dancers more productive than those who are engaged in other types of physical activities?

After several zoom meetings – the study was entirely carried out during the pandemic – the economist, the sustainability experts and the marketeers put together a survey to gather all the necessary information. The survey was launched in November 2020 and by January 2021 we had collected data for three countries – the UK, Italy and Brazil- and we were ready to start our analysis and find answers to our two questions.

Figure 1: Differences in well-being between recreational dancers and non-dancers

For well-being, respondents were required to answer whether they agreed or disagreed to each of the statements reported at the bottom of figure 1, by indicating their response on a 7-point Likert scale (1 = disagree strongly, 7 = agree strongly). With the exception of the statement ‘I have the important things in my life’, all responses indicated significantly higher levels of well-being among recreational dancers compared to non-dancers.

We could not quite measure productivity in terms of number of widgets per hour worked, but we could measure individuals’ assessment of the quality of their work during the week prior to the survey, using a well-established set of questions – see figure 2. Answers ranged from 1 = all the time to 5 = none of the time, with higher scores indicating a better performance.

Our findings show that average productivity of dancers was significantly higher compared to non-dancers. When we checked for differences across countries, we found that, although dancers reported higher levels of well-being and productivity in all countries, the largest differences were among UK respondents. 

Figure 2: Average productivity for recreational dancers and non-dancers. In the past week how often:

These initial results were confirmed by more sophisticated statistical techniques (Structural Equation Modelling and Mahalanobis nearest-neighbour matching). We also found that recreational dance affects productivity indirectly, via improving well-being, but also directly, beyond the mediated effect of well-being. Drawing on insights from the psychology and neuroscience literature, we suggest that the direct effect of dance on productivity is due to higher cognitive skills among dancers facilitated through the greater complexity of dance as a physical activity.

Recommendations and future research

Our results suggest that promoting dance more widely as a recreational/physical activity for all ages can have beneficial effects not only for individuals but also for their organizations. Companies should consider introducing dance programmes for their employees because of the positive effect on well-being and productivity. Looking forward, we are working towards the development of a dance workplace intervention to further check the robustness of our results.

Another recommendation stemming from our study is for national statistical agencies to start collecting more information on different physical exercise practices, including dance, to complement existing well-being surveys.  This would allow us not only to expand our analysis using nationally representative samples but to also explore other economic outcomes. For example, dance is a very creative form of exercise and creativity is related to innovation, which is crucial for countries’ growth performance, competitiveness and sustainability.

Another promising area for future research is the relationship between dance and non-cognitive skills such as personality traits (for example, conscientiousness and extroversion). The economic literature shows that non-cognitive skills are very important for labour market outcomes (such as wages and employment). One might speculate that dancing could therefore play a role in enhancing individuals’ careers. The evidence on these issues is still very limited and further exploration is needed to further uncover the benefits of dance on individuals, the economy and society in general.

We believe that our study has laid the groundwork for what we consider a fascinating and important area of inquiry. Until then, keep on dancing.

More info?

For more information about the project, please visit the Dance, Well-being & Productivity website

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