What is the impact of noise in the workplace?

Everyone has a different tolerance and opinion on noise in the workplace. For some, music helps them concentrate and distracts from the general murmur of the office, while others prefer total silence in order to be most productive. But does noise really affect how well we can do our jobs?

According to a survey of 1,200 employees across healthcare, retail, manufacturing, financial services, and the government sector by Oxford Economics – an analysis firm spun out of Oxford University’s business college – more than half of employees find noise in the workplace to be an issue. Millennials were found to be particularly vocal about their dislike of noise in the office and most likely to wear headphones to drown out the sound, or leave their desks to find somewhere quieter to work.

However, companies are aware of the problem, and the research by Oxford Economics found that 69 per cent of supervisors said that their workspace had been laid out with noise reduction in mind – 64 per cent said that the workplace had even been engineered to mute noise coming in from the environment outside of the office too.

Dangerous noise

For some within the survey, there’s an additional concern around the exposure to excessive noise – the manufacturing industry in particular can see employees exposed to hazardous sounds at work. Research by the TUC suggests that as many as 170,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions as a result of exposure to excessive noise at work. 

But even for those who work in environments where the noise is far below the decibels which can be considered dangerous, it can be distracting. Research cited by the College of Human Ecology at Cornell found that office workers enjoy decibel levels between 48 and 52dB. For context: whispering is around 30dB, and casual chatting measures around 60 dB. So while open-plan offices with their benefits of collaboration and brainstorming are very popular, for some employees they make it difficult to get to work.

More than volume

However, an analysis of 100 research papers on noise in the office by environment psychologist Dr Nigel Oseland found that just 25 per cent of the effect of noise in the office could be attributed to its volume. In fact, psychological factors are at play here and things like context and attitude, perceived control and predictability and personality type are more likely to be the reason some people find noise distracting.

“Noise is a psychophysical phenomenon,” he wrote. “And as long as we continue to focus on physical metrics and disregard the psychological component, we will never resolve the biggest and often ignored problem of noise in the workplace.”

Noise that helps

Some might swear by a certain playlist to help them get through a day in the office, however, ambient noise (such as the hustle and bustle of a coffee shop, for example) helps the brain to filter material and spot the most important information more easily when doing a routine or moderately difficult task.

Additionally, research has found that this kind of noise is actually ideal for creative thinking. According to the study, moderate noise increases processing difficulty, which promotes abstract processing – basically, because the brain has to work harder to process a problem or a task when there’s background noise it gives us the extra push needed to find more creative solutions. The good news is there are tools like Coffitivity that recreate the ambience of a coffee shop to help boost your creativity and help you to work better, wherever you work from.

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