Jillian Ireland and Sara Fripp

Singing it loud

Jillian Ireland and Sara Fripp, award-winning former union learning reps at Poole Maternity Hospital, convinced shy colleagues to join a choir and it had a remarkable impact on stress levels and mental health.

Sara: We wanted to offer learning opportunities that weren’t work-related, but would boost morale, bring people together, and promote health and wellbeing.

Jillian: By the next week, we had a choir!

Sara: A choir is a safe space – you can hide a little if you need to; you don’t need to be an extravert or super-confident. We never put the members under pressure. There’s no auditions to join, you don’t have to do a solo, and you can sing boldly or quiet as a mouse!

Jillian: In the beginning, it was quite a lot of work for us.

Sara: We were kind of feeling our way. It took us a while to get to grips with the financial side – figuring out how to make it viable without excluding people for financial reasons. Over time we’ve learned to delegate.

Jillian: Somebody stepped up to be the treasurer. And then we got new people coming in with new ideas. With the new choir leader we’re quite happy to let her choose the music.

Sara: We do still say we were established by the Royal College of Midwives learning reps, but it’s now a community choir. We’ve done a big drive via social media, and put posters up in cafes and post offices.

Jillian: We avoid talking about work – we have to do that for confidentiality. But also, if you’re with workmates, it’s very easy to moan about work and we didn’t want to do that.

Sara: A lot of us will say at times, I really can’t be bothered to go to choir tonight, I’m just too tired. But it’s one of those things, you push yourself and by the end you’re really glad that you did. There’s a lot of good endorphins you get from singing. We laugh a lot as well.

Jillian: It lowers your cortisol, the stress hormone. And there’s a special benefit from singing in a group – the sense of community.

Sara: I had to have some time off work a few years ago because of stress. The only thing that I could do was choir. Because you can switch off, leave the house, be in a safe environment where you don’t have to make small talk if you don’t want to. You’re just busy singing. For me it was a bit of a lifeline.

Jillian: Mums need to sing to their babies as well. And some say mental health starts in the womb. If mums are relaxed, babies’ brains develop better. So I suppose the next big thing would be to get more pregnant women singing… Maybe that’s our next mission!

Jillian and Sara jointly won the RCM members’ champion award in 2014 for their work on behalf of union members.