Those ugly, isolating cubicles of yesteryear may have made for great fodder for Dilbert comic strips, but they served an important purpose in the office. These barriers may have made some workers feel a bit claustrophobic, but they did a terrific job of keeping office noise to a reasonable level.

The modern office has transitioned to a more open and airy workspace—a setup that offers for more aesthetically pleasing design, loads of natural light, and affordability, but sacrifices privacy and noise levels. That noise is becoming an increasing concern for those who work in these spaces. They may not reach levels that can damage your hearing, but open office noise can still cause some serious problems. If not kept in check, this office noise pollution can wreck productivity, or even your mental health.

 

How Much Sound Is Too Much?

Amy Meister, President of MedExpress Worksite Solutions, reveals some surprising data about the levels of noise we may be subject to in an open office. While it takes noise at a level of 85 decibels or above to damage hearing over time (something that’s common in industries such as construction or manufacturing) office workers aren’t exempt from possible harm.

“A large office often has a noise level of about 50 decibels, which not only is more than enough to cause significant distraction, but also may result in workers plugging in their headphones and turning up the music, which can cause hearing problems if the volume is loud enough to drown out office noise,” says Meister.

Consider also the loss of productivity that noisier offices can cause. It can be difficult to focus on the task at hand when we pick up bits of conversations from coworkers who are on the phone or chatting near our desk. Noise can also lead to additional stress. Meister adds that “prolonged exposure to certain noises in the office—especially when paired with the stress of making that deadline—can actually trigger a stress response in the body and cause health issues like high blood pressure and hypertension.”

There’s also a consideration that should be made for workers with various invisible disabilities. Greg Bullock is a Marketing Manager at TheraSpec, a company who develops products for those with migraines, and reminds us that chronic illness sufferers are more prone to hypersensitivity to noise, even between attacks. “Excessive noise can be a leading trigger for migraine, headache disorders, and other problems associated with these conditions; the presence of these types of sensory sensitivities often lead to a higher risk of disability and emotional side effects such as anxiety or depression.”

 

How Loud is Your Office?

The average office isn’t likely to reach the levels that OSHA recommends hearing protection, but monitoring levels can still help you improve the working environment for your team.

Dr. Debra Trees, Audiology Supervisor at St. Peter’s Health Partners in Albany, NY, reminds us that people in our offices may already have some level of hearing impairment and may respond to noise differently. “Hearing loss is the third most prevalent health condition in the USA, after heart disease and arthritis. My patients with hearing loss are more affected by the noise of varying levels in their work environments. This affects their productivity and their satisfaction in the workplace.  When we address the noise issue for these employees, they are more productive and engaged.”

 

Noise Management Tips

Even if you’ve spent a small fortune on creating the perfect, open-air office, it’s not impossible to keep background noise at a reasonable level. These suggestions from our experts can have a positive effect on productivity, hearing wellness, and mental health.

  • Create dedicated “quiet” spaces. Give workers a chance to step away from the noise for a bit each day. Conference rooms should be made available for phone calls and meetings. Consider creating a respite room for those who need an opportunity to rest, recharge, and refocus their energy.
  • Utilize white noise. If you can’t get rid of noise, try masking it. White noise machines can be incredibly effective at blocking some of the more distracting elements of an open office and promote a calming work environment. If you can, allow workers to use noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Monitor noise. You don’t need fancy equipment to check sound levels. Many smartphone apps can do the job affordably.
  • Be accessible. Ensure that any meetings and trainings are accessible for all, including using microphones, speakers and visual enhancements and captions, if possible.
  • Create solutions for everyone. Noise levels affect each worker differently, and what may be distressing for one employee may not be noticeable to another. Encourage dialogue around noise in the office and make it easy for workers to bring their concerns to management. Enlist their help in coming up with ideas that work for everyone. Provide hearing protection when requested.

Remember, not all offices—or workers—are the same. Your unique environment will require special handling. Bullock recommends HR teams and corporate leadership account for both objective data (such as direct sound level measurements, prior noise-related complaints or disability notices) and subjective analysis (such as employee surveys on noise impact). If they identify a potential issue, then it would make sense to explore small changes that can reduce these levels over time.