The arts and work-related stress

'The Ultrasounds', Cork University Hospital. Photo courtesy of

By Dr Val Huet

Anyone who has experienced work-related stress knows that it can have a devastating and lasting impact on emotional and physical health, and financial security.

We may work in many different organisations but the impact of working within one with high levels of work-related stress is depressingly similar. This is because high levels of work-related stress can lead to burnout, which reduces compassion and increases cynicism and detachment. As a result, trust in colleagues disappears and people feel isolated; there is often an oppositional culture: ‘I/we are the only ones that do the real work here’ together with a feeling that no one appreciates or values individual contributions and efforts. Often, there is a disinvestment in doing a good job, a race ‘to the bottom’ where employees adopt a ‘work-to-rule’ hostile attitude with each other, which also increases stress.

So why consider the arts to improve this bleak work landscape? It may seem like an optimistically naïve proposition to suggest that introducing participatory arts could make any difference at all. However, experience and evidence tell another story: for instance, work choirs have become extremely popular, as have lunchtime ballroom dancing and art classes. Employees are starting to connect with their creativity and importantly, with each other. When we cast away the notion that the arts (any arts) are the exclusive domain of the exceptionally gifted, we can give ourselves permission to engage in enjoyable and playful activities.

Our ability to engage in play is significant: play is what we use as children to make sense of the world, learn how to be with others, develop imagination and empathy. As adults, our ability to play and be creative supports how resilient we are (humour being an intrinsic part of playfulness). Participation in arts-based activities at work provides a playful way to (re-)connect with others and build the support networks that have often disappeared. Research recently completed with employees from four health and care organisations indicated that their participation in art therapy-based groups had some positive impact not only on their own experience of work-related stress but on their views of other colleagues (Huet & Holttum, 2016). The arts have a profound relational quality and are of our best tools to improve our levels of resilience, counter isolation and lessen conflict within the workplace. Best of all, work-based participation in the arts often becomes a personal passion, with many employees making time in their own lives for it.


Huet, V., & Holttum, S. (2016). Art therapy-based groups for work-related stress with staff in health and social care: An exploratory study. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 50, 46-57.

Image: ‘The Ultrasounds’ at Cork University Maternity Hospital. Courtesy of

Dr Val Huet has worked in adult and children’s mental health services and has been an art therapist since 1986. She is also a trained Group Psychotherapist and Organisational Consultant. Since 2003, Val has been the Chief Executive Officer of the British Association of Art Therapists. In 2015, Val completed a PhD on art therapy groups for work-related stress. Val’s art practice remains active and at present focuses on life drawing.

The author is writing in a personal capacity. The views contained in this article do not necessarily reflect those of LAHF or the organisations described therein. Copyright is retained by the author. 



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