Stressed employees? Try crafting at work

Sunset painting and T-shirt dying may be more associated with middle school than American corporations, but such artistic pursuits are finding their way into workplace well-being.

Twitch staff braided friendship bracelets. Tinder Personal wood-fired cheese boards. And over 100 Zynga employees took part in a glass etching course.

A look at the Zodiac painting at a CraftJam event in downtown LA

(Hector L. Puig / CraftJam)

Craft business company CraftJam hosted a watercolor painting session for current and potential clients — namely, HR managers — in the courtyard of the Manuela restaurant in the Arts District in April. Participants twirled brushes in watercolor palettes to paint their zodiac sign while the instructor explained how to layer colors. As they worked on their masterpieces, attendees discussed how employees are using art for therapeutic relief, a trend that made its debut in 2020.

During the pandemic, Americans rediscovered tactile hobbies and crafting. Some knitted. Others took up quilting. Lots of baked sourdough breads. Now companies have followed suit to prevent burnout.

The arts provide employees with a healthy form of therapeutic respite, says Nora Abousteit, the founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based craft company CraftJam, which runs events in select U.S. cities

“It’s physical,” Abousteit says, pointing to the sensory satisfaction that comes from making something or even just touching materials. “There’s this connection between your hands and your brain.” Simply sitting down and working with your hands undoubtedly appeals to workers who would otherwise be tied to computers all day.

Although excessive stress and fatigue are generally caused by larger systemic issues, workplace initiatives attempt to address some of the symptoms. Craft, hiring managers hope, is just one of many potential stress relievers.

For the past two years, CraftJam has hosted company workshops across the country: needle felting, embroidery, floral wreath making, and watercolor painting. The majority of CraftJam’s clients are in the technology, consulting, real estate and media sectors. Workshops were virtual when the pandemic began, but have now morphed into fully live or hybrid options, with some staff meeting in person while others zoom in with kits sent home.

Participants, including those from home via video conference, vouch for the calming effect of tinkering. Participants can become so engrossed in their project that workplace stressors melt away and prompt them to focus on the present. CraftJam even coined a new term, “Craftcare,” a combination of crafting and self-care.

“When you’re crafting, you’re in complete control,” explains Abousteit. “You don’t have endless emails, an endless Twitter feed, or whatever distracts you.”

People are tinkering around a table.

Impactive Capital employees at a CraftJam event at the investment management firm’s office.

(MacKenna Lewis / CraftJam)

Studies have found that creative arts can improve people’s moods, reduce fears and manage emotions. One craft workshop workers find particularly therapeutic is marbling, which involves swirling colors and then brushing the mixture onto leather, fabric, or paper, says Denise Ambrosi, founder of Culver City-based collective studio These Hands Maker. Ambrosi, whose studio hosts corporate events for companies like Rivian Automotive, says marbling “drives you completely insane.”

Carolyn Mehlomakulu, a licensed art therapist in Austin, Texas, attests to the mental health benefits of fully engaging in a project where repetitive movements can lull people into a meditative state. Art can also help people express emotions and harness their creativity, all benefits that are in short supply these days.

But perhaps more importantly, art workshops bring employees together and foster stronger bonds. “It takes people out of their normal, everyday interaction,” says Mehlomakulu. “Hopefully, through this shared experience, they bond in a different way.”

Victoria Steger, studio director and chief operating officer at Makers Mess in downtown LA, has noticed an increase in corporate demand for virtual and in-person off-site events. Law firms and big tech companies sign up for tie-dye, watercolor, and woodburning workshops. According to Steger, hiring managers became regular customers after seeing how effective crafting workshops were in “encouraging team building and encouraging team members to think creatively.”

For some companies, crafting may be preferable to company mixers, which can be sociable or held at inconvenient times.

“We have a lot of people who aren’t necessarily looking for the average after-work happy hour but want to connect with their co-workers,” says Ashley Horton, officer manager at accounting software company FloQast, a Makers Mess client. FloQast employees previously painted wooden birdhouses and designed tote bags. In the coming weeks they will be making DIY kites.

Ronit Rozen is surrounded by some of her paintings and bottles of paint that she uses in her studio, The Artsy Backyard.

Ronit Rozen at her studio, The Artsy Backyard, in Los Angeles on June 16, 2022.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Ronit Rozen, art teacher and owner of Artsy Backyard in Los Angeles, works with a wide range of clients, from tech start-ups to school staff. Most sign up for painting and drawing classes, but all end up the same way: employees and managers sit side-by-side, equal in artistic ability (or lack thereof).

“There’s no such thing as ‘I’m better than you,'” Rozen insists.

Some women might feel that the craft is more inclusive than traditionally male-centric activities like golf, which could put them at a competitive disadvantage. Other employees may just feel uncomfortable wearing gym clothes and sweating among co-workers.

Hiring managers, meanwhile, should also appreciate that workshops are likely to have fewer liability issues than after-work drinks.

“It’s accessible and suitable for everyone,” said Chloe Tsakiris, senior associate of employee engagement at Olo, a B2B company focused on digital solutions for restaurants, and a CraftJam customer. “We wanted something more robust and something that people can take away from the experience.”

Olo’s staff painted succulent pots, for which CraftJam also provided soil and plants. “It was a huge hit,” says Tsakiris. The colorful potted plants now adorn the work tables of the Olo employees.

Mental health experts point to the creative arts as a pillar of wellbeing, although mainstream wellness culture — and by extension, most workplace wellbeing — tends to emphasize a narrower focus: nutrition, fitness, meditation, and the like. Craft experts believe this stems from childhood experiences.

People stand around a table with handicrafts.

During the pandemic, Americans rediscovered tactile hobbies and crafting. Companies that want to prevent burnout have followed suit. Above, a CraftJam event.

(MacKenna Lewis / CraftJam)

“A lot of people were taught art wrong and they lost confidence. They think they’re not creative,” says CraftJam’s Abousteit. Art classes can sometimes be counterproductive, she notes, pointing out grades that might trigger insecurities in some people about their artistic abilities. “It’s almost like grading your personality.”

Adults may believe that some people are artistic and some just aren’t, or that crafts require a certain level of skill. “We often lose the sense of making art just for fun and enjoying the sensual and expressive aspects of it,” says Mehlomakulu. “You end up focusing more on that [final] Product.”

Workshops like CraftJam emphasize that art is not about competition or perfection, but about cognitive enhancement and well-being. Over time, participants could become more confident and discover a self-control they never knew they possessed.

The skill-building aspect is very appealing to companies who hope that different areas of work will show employees confidence and motivate them to break new ground or take innovative risks.

“Employees realize that they might be able to do things they thought weren’t good,” says Steger of Makers Mess.

The craft might not appeal to all employees, but as Mehlomakulu notes, the more wellness options, the more likely someone will find one that appeals to them. And, it turns out, a lot of Americans resonate with nostalgia.

“Many people have great memories of their childhood when they do crafts,” says Abousteit. “It’s fun to return.”

Rina Raphael is a journalist and the author of the forthcoming book The Gospel of Wellness.

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