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Work in noise or in complete silence? Neither one nor the other

May 16, 2023

Choosing to work in a library-level silent place instead of a busy coffee shop is certainly better for a healthy workday, right? Not exactly. A new study by researchers at the University of Arizona and the University of Kansas found—at first unsurprisingly—that loud noises at the office have a negative impact on employee wellbeing. But the study also suggests that complete silence is not conducive to a healthy workplace.

“Everybody knows that loud noise is stressful, and, in fact, extremely loud noise is harmful to your ear,” said study co-author Esther Sternberg on the University of Arizona’s website. “But what was new about this is that with even low levels of sound—less than 50 decibels—the stress response is higher.”

The sweet spot 

The study, published in the journal Nature Digital Medicine, suggests that if employers intend to build or redesign their office spaces with employee health and wellbeing in mind, they might want to consult acoustical engineers who can help them dial in conditions for good environmental sound. 

And they should have in mind the sweet spot: about 50 decibels, roughly equivalent to birdsong or the pitter-patter of moderate rain.

“When we think about wellbeing, typically we think about emotional or mental wellbeing,” the paper’s lead author Karthik Srinivasan, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, said. “We hardly ever consider the physiological wellbeing or the actual ‘what’s happening in our body,’ which is also important to understand when we’re continuously exposed to environmental factors such as sound.”

Key points to consider

Indeed, the impact of sound in the workplace can have both positive and negative effects on employees’ productivity, health, and overall well-being. Here are some issues to discuss:

Distraction – Loud and constant noises, such as ringing phones, conversations, and background music, can be distracting and disrupt concentration. This can result in decreased productivity and increased stress levels.

Health – Prolonged exposure to loud noises can lead to hearing loss and other health problems, such as tinnitus and hypertension. It can also cause headaches, fatigue, and irritability.

Communication – Communication can be hindered in a noisy environment, resulting in miscommunication and errors. This can negatively impact the quality of work and relationships among co-workers.

Mood – Sound can affect employees’ moods, with some sounds having a calming effect while others can increase stress levels. This can impact job satisfaction and overall well-being.

Creativity – Some studies suggest that ambient noise levels can enhance creativity and cognitive function. However, it can also depend on personal preference and the type of work being done.

To mitigate the negative effects of sound in the workplace, employers can implement measures such as providing noise-cancelling headphones, designing office spaces to adjust noise levels, and creating specific zones for concentration and focused work.

Source: Nature | University of Arizona