2 December 2019

Is Christmas music bad for our mental health?

Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist, certainly thinks so. A year ago she produced research showing that relentlessly festive tunes can be mentally draining. 
"People working in the shops at Christmas have to [tune out] Christmas music, because if they don't, it really does stop you from being able to focus on anything else. You're simply spending all of your energy trying not to hear what you're hearing.”
At the time the research was widely reported in the media.  But has anything happened 12 months on which makes life for shop staff and customers any less mentally draining?

It certainly hasn’t in M&S. Back in June 2016 M&S told us they were turning off their background music for the first time in 10 years, so that their customers could shop in peace. At the time they said, "We’re focused on putting the customer at the heart of everything we do, this decision is the result of extensive research and feedback from our customers and colleagues." Not for long. By the end of November 2016 the music was back. Anyone complaining was told that M&S had done more research showing that their customers didn’t want music at any other time of the year, but they did want it at Christmas. They took out a 4-week licence in order to play it. This was repeated in 2017 and 2018. 

However, in 2019 M&S started playing their 'Christmas' music on 28 October. According to their Twitter account, this was as a result of even more research which showed that M&S customers didn’t want background music during the year but they did want Christmas music earlier and earlier, which is why they had decided to play it in October. What is going to happen in 2020? Will M&S say they have done yet more research and that their customers are now saying that they want the Christmas music to start in August? If you go into M&S, ask the staff if they are enjoying the Christmas music. Some will like it but more often than not they will tell you that they are either able to ‘switch off’ so that they don’t have to listen to it, or that they hate it.

However, there are hopeful signs elsewhere. The York Gin Shop seems more enlightened. They have banned cheesy Christmas songs for the sake of staff morale. The owner of the shop says that “having to endure such music for hours each day would ruin Christmas for shop-floor employees…[and] the move would be welcomed by shoppers tired of the constant festive playlist pumped through the speaker systems of many high street shops from mid-November”

And the most recent glimmer of hope comes from Tesco in Scotland. Yes, they are playing Christmas music but they are also recognising that many of their customers have sensory problems and would appreciate quieter times when there is no background music. They have decided to offer two mornings when the music will be switched off for three hours at a time - Wednesday 4th December 9am-12pm, and Wednesday 11th December 9am-12pm. The staff will get a break from incessant Christmas tunes and everyone can shop in peace. 

For the sake of our mental health let's hope other stores will follow suit by Christmas 2020...