On July 27th this year, I wrote an article titled The Hidden Strengths of Silence. Within 2 months’ time, we are here to talk about noise that has once again surrounded us at the workplaces. For the past 20 months or so, many of us have gotten a respite from noise as the world slowed down in response to the pandemic. But as life slowly revs back up, it’s a good time to stop and think just what we stand to lose from an increase in volume around us. Indeed, loud noise is more than just a threat to our hearing and to our quality of life.
Surveys indicate that we care more about interior acoustics than we do about how clean our workplaces are, what we sit on and the temperature of our offices. This sucks because the world is getting louder, much louder than we could imagine. And our workplaces are not immune. The volume around us isn’t being cranked up on its own. A lot of the blame for clamorous offices can be levelled at the trend of open plan offices. These sleek, open spaces are usually comprised of reflective easy-to-clean surfaces, 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. The bad news for the employers is that excessive noise can mean more than just mild irritation — it adversely affects our productivity, well-being, happiness, and most importantly, our physical and mental health.
In this article, we shall discuss how the workplace noise affects employees’ well-being and productivity with a few suggested remedial measures:
1. Noise Create Stress
It’s not only just being workaholic and surviving in the workplace 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 i.e. spikes in blood pressure and heart rate.
Research has shown that even intermittent exposure to loud noises can lead to higher long-term stress hormone levels and hypertension. To prove the heart rate increase, try and sit closer to the stage at a concert. After a while, you would realise how uncomfortable it could be to your ears and heart. Even sounds that professionals are exposed to at the workplace i.e. loud ringtones, loud conversations, overexcited laughter affect the rhythm and rate of our hearts.
2. Constant Disruption
The open offices are trending everywhere because of a variety of reasons. Some connects open offices with egalitarian culture while others consider it cost effective. One can accommodate more employees in lesser space and lesser costs.
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.
3. Health Suffers
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the annual cost to Europe from excessive noise levels is £30 billion. This includes “lost working days, healthcare costs and reduced productivity”.
Buried within that figure are a whole lot of sick days. Employees in open plan offices take 70% more sick days than other categories of office spaces.
The more you attempt to multitask, the more likely you are to be distracted by environmental noise around you. By the way, the real issue is that multitasking, at least for humans, doesn’t really work well anyways. “We know from the psychology literature that multitasking is bad for you,” says Gal Zauberman, a professor of marketing at Yale SOM.
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.
5. Noise Exhausts Us
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”.
In order for you to save and retain some energy for your work, try the following remedial measures before, during and after the work. These will help you focus and enhance your attention span.
- Shut car windows while driving to avoid traffic noise. Take fresh air at home.
- In open offices, try and keep your cellphone on vibrating mode. Interesting ringtones are too distracting. Also minimize or get rid of landlines in open office landscape.
- Find yourself a quieter cafeteria corner or a restaurant to dine in.
- Plug it out and use noise-blocking earplugs to protect your concentration. Maintain bearable volume even with earplugs on.
- Don’t shy away to use hearing aids if you really feel difficulty in hearing people.
We must understand that noise pollution is an invisible danger. It cannot be seen, but it is present nonetheless, around us. The above remedial measures are tried and tested by the organisations and have proven to be beneficial for reducing noise pollution.
We see that a way to increase the impact of noise mitigation measures while optimizing costs and efforts could be to design combined strategies for mitigating noise and air pollution from traffic. If noise measures are not implemented to address noise problems, it is unlikely that the number of people exposed to noise will significantly decrease in the future due to urban growth and increased mobility demand.
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Muhammad Sajwani is the Founder, Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Evolve HR which aims at transforming, enriching and evolving Human Capital of Pakistan. At Evolve HR, him and his team thrives in challenging assumptions that hinder organisational aspirations, by creating innovative solutions that yield maximum impact, scalability & benefit to a wider base of stakeholders. As a Business Coach and Organisational Consultant, Sajwani knows how to combine business insights with people insights to transform organisations and put them on the path to growth.