Noise in the workplace annoys us – a lot.
Surveys show that we care more about interior acoustics than we do about how clean our workplaces are, what we sit on, or the temperature of our offices.
This sucks because the world is getting louder. Much louder. And our workplaces are not immune.
But the volume isn’t being cranked up on its own. A lot of the blame for clamorous offices can be leveled at open plan offices.
Sound affects us psychologically, cognitively and behaviorally, even though we’re not aware of it.
— Julian Treasure, CEO The Sound Agency
These sleek, open spaces are usually comprised of reflective easy-to-clean surfaces (think glass and concrete), which reflect sound, create harsh echoes, and compound environmental noises.
But while the debate between open plan offices and cubicles rages on, there is one thing we are certain of, and that is that open plan offices are almost always the noisiest of the two. Now accounting for over 70% of modern offices, it is safe to say the open-plan phenomenon is here to stay.
This is bad news for workers and employers alike. Excessive noise can mean more than just mild irritation, it can harm productivity, well-being, happiness, and most importantly, our physical health.
Here are 12 ways that workplace noise affects worker well-being and productivity:
1. Noise stresses us out
It’s not just deadlines and office politics that can cause stress at work. Noise is a not-so-silent cause of stress in our bodies.
Loud sounds and prolonged exposure to certain noises trigger physiologic stress responses in our bodies – spikes in blood pressure and heart rate.
Even sounds that office workers are exposed to – ringing phones, conversations – affect the rhythm and rate of our hearts.
Research has shown that even intermittent exposure to loud noises can lead to higher long term stress hormone levels and hypertension.
2. Productivity plummets when it’s noisy
Workers can be up to 66% less productive when exposed to just one nearby conversation.
A British Journal of Psychology study found that whether reading or writing – background noise is a productivity killer. In one experiment that aired on Channel 4’s The Secret Life of Buildings, architectural critic Tom Dyckhoff wore a cap that measured his brain activity when in an open plan office. The test revealed “intense bursts of distraction” in Dyckhoff’s brain activity.
With over 70% of offices now open plan, with little to no worker segregation, think of all that lost productivity.
3. Conversations are especially disruptive
The hallmark of open-plan offices is the absence of partitions and cubicles. According to the head of The Sound Agency, Julian Treasure, this is particularly problematic.
“There is plenty of research that shows that the most destructive sound of all is other people’s conversations,” says Treasure. “We have bandwidth for roughly 1.6 human conversations. So if you’re hearing somebody’s conversation, then that’s taking up 1 of your 1.6. Even if you don’t want to listen to it, you can’t stop it: You have no earlids. And that means you’ve just .6 left to listen to your own inner voice.”
4. It’s a costly business
The European Union calculates a financial cost of over 40 billion euros ($52 billion US) a year, in terms of lost working days, healthcare costs, impaired learning and reduced productivity. The World Health Organization estimates the annual cost to Europe from excessive noise levels is £30 billion ($44 billion U.S.).
Buried within that figure are a whole lot of sick days. Don’t believe us? Workers in open plan offices take 70% more sick days than home workers.
5. Multitasking becomes (even more) difficult
The more you attempt to multitask, the more likely you are to be distracted by environmental noise.
Habitual multitaskers, according to Stanford University neuroscientist Anthony Wagner, are not only more likely to have their attention disrupted by noises, but they also found it harder to get their head back into their original task once distracted.
6. Speech intelligibility isn’t necessarily a good thing
A University of Sydney study found that speech privacy was the greatest concern of office workers across all office layout types. Open plan offices are designed so workers can collaborate, share and communicate openly. Yet their very design can harm work performance.
A study conducted by ICBEN using simulated office noise demonstrated how greater speech intelligibility is actually detrimental to worker performance. Using three different office conditions: a cubicled office, an acoustically treated open plan office, and an untreated office, the study demonstrated that in spaces with a high Speech Intelligibility Index (indicating good speech intelligibility) such as open plan offices, workers’ performance actually suffered. The study revealed that memory and complex cognitive functions suffered in environments with an STI (speech transmission index) of over 0.30, where it is easier to distinguish the content of surrounding conversations.
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Untreated open-plan offices have an STI of up to 0.65.
7. Noise can be tiring work
Noise is a stressor.
Scientists are in agreement that exposure to excessive noise levels stimulates our nervous system – raising blood pressure and releasing stress hormones. But even if you try and block it out, as psychology Professor Airline Bronzaft explains, this means you Have to work harder to complete tasks because you’re actively working to try and ignore the sound.”
At the end of the day, this is tiring work.
8. Plugging in your earphones can make matters worse
An easy solution to blocking out unwanted sounds is to reach for the nearest pair of headphones and get lost in your own world. Unfortunately, this can also have its perils. While repetitive tasks can benefit from listening to music – tasks that require the retention of information actually suffer.
Not such great news for creatives.
9. Earbuds can lead to irreversible hearing loss
Music as an escape from the office hum carries its own health risks.
Earbuds sit within the ear canal, putting sounds closer to your inner ear and cochlea, boosting music levels by 9 decibels.
This increase in decibels can damage tiny sensitive hair cells located in the cochlea, which are responsible for relaying sounds to the brain.
10. Noise can affect our ergonomics
It’s not just laziness that can make us slouch and hunch over our desks – noise has been shown to affect our ergonomics.
A study published in The Journal of Applied Psychology found that workers exposed to prolonged noises typically found in open plan offices were less likely to make postural adjustments and were more susceptible to slumping at their workstations – risking musculoskeletal disorders.
11. Our motivation can suffer
The same workers were also less likely to concentrate on complex tasks following exposure to the same sounds. The workers recorded higher than normal epinephrine levels – a hormone associated with a spike in stress levels. They also displayed behavioral after effects, including fewer attempts at completing unsolvable puzzles.
12. Even moderate noise can damage our hearing
While you are unlikely to experience a lawnmower or chainsaw in a modern office, prolonged exposure to moderate noise levels can even lead to hearing damage and loss.
If you think the acoustic environment in your office could be harming employee productivity and wellbeing, consider taking some steps to reduce noise levels in your space with the use of acoustic panels.
For more information about noise in the office, check out this great infographic from Ecophon.