Hearing – Part 1: Five Senses and the Work Environment

We continue with our discussion on human body systems and work environment with a focus on hearing. In addition to the level of sound/noise we hear, how we hear the sound also affects the stress and comfort of hearing.

Let us start again with a snapshot of my (Yoko’s) sound environment at my home office.

I am writing this on a late spring morning in New England. I hear robins singing pleasantly outside. I also hear, about every 15 minutes, the noise of hot forced air coming out of the registers (heating outlets). This noise is quite loud making it necessary to increase the volume of the speakers if I am on the phone or in a Zoom meeting. I am also aware of the sound of my typing on my key-board or clicking of the mouse.

Noise in a workplace, such as the forced air mentioned in the snapshot, increases the stress on occupants and reduces their productivity especially when concentration is required.1Witterseh T, Wyon DP, Clausen G. The effects of moderate heat stress and open-plan office noise distraction on SBSsymptoms and on the performance of office work. 2004(0905-6947 (Print)). 2Evans GW, Johnson D. Stress and open-office noise. J Appl Psychol. 2000;85(5):779-783. It also increases the risk of impacts on health such as low blood flow of the heart.3van Kempen E, Babisch W. The quantitative relationship between road traffic noise and hypertension: a meta-analysis. Journal of hypertension. 2012;30(6):1075-1086.

Despite the impact of noise on us, attaining the recommended sound levels at work is not easy. For routine work, it should be below 55 dBA, the same level as a household refrigerator. It is below 45 dBA for tasks involving deep concentration 4Goelzer B, Hansen C, Sehrndt G. Occupational exposure to noise: Evaluation, prevention and control. 2001. 5Passchier-Vermeer W, Passchier W. Noise exposure and public health. Environ Health Perspect. 2000; 108:123-131, almost as quiet as the suburbs at night (about 40 dBA6Yale Environmental Health & Safety, Decibel Level Comparison Chart). ).  It is challenging to achieve these levels due to the wide range of noises, from inside and outside of buildings, its liquid-like nature which permeates everywhere, and perhaps more importantly, humans need to make noise at work.

How can we achieve appropriate noise levels?  It involves much more than just building sound barriers. We suggest an integrated strategy which takes into consideration a) behaviors of humans, b) nature of work, and c) nature of sound.  

Noise and Human Behaviors- Protocols and Mindfulness

The impact of noise is psychological as well as physical. In work environments, a person can be the source of noise as well as its receiver. Anybody can make others suffer and lower their productivity which is why human behavior is important in creating a comfortable sound environment.

The first step for sound comfort is to establish a common understanding among employees by implementing protocols and policies on sound levels to be maintained, what spaces are designated for which tasks, and around which times.  This step should come before any technical approach such as building a sound barrier.  This will prevent unfortunate but frequent incidents such as someone speaking loudly believing incorrectly that the sound barrier is muffling his voice. If working from home, similar steps can be taken with your family members.

Since the issue is also psychological, some people suffer the impact of noises more than others, and the same person can suffer more at one moment than at another. The stress that is associated with noise levels differs depending on one’s age, personal traits, or health. The negative thinking associated with sufferers’ reactive experiences can also exacerbate any adverse health effects. 

The impact of noise is psychological as well as physical.

Y. Kawai & Y. Burton

Introducing mindfulness practices to the workplace can alleviate this extra pain.  The practice can alter the thought processes that feed an individual’s noise reaction, which reduces his or her cognitive and emotional reactivity.7Hede, Andrew J. Using Mindfulness to Reduce the Health Effects of Community Reaction to Aircraft Noise. Noise Health. 2017 Jul-Aug; 19(89): 165–173. Scientists are now developing different mindfulness methodologies and quantifying the benefits of them. This reminds us that we need to take breaks from constant noise, such as attending back to back meetings or webinars, and do other activities (remember eye yoga and other exercises that gives us a break from our monitor?) Shorter exposure to noises not only decreases the stress from it, but also increases our attention to our work.

Noise and Work- Spatial Layout

The next approach is to analyze the nature of various works and create spatial zones for different sound levels. One’s work involves many different tasks, each requiring different sound levels. Writing a report or analyzing data requires focus and a quiet environment. Formal meetings or casual discussions with colleagues require interaction among people, which naturally creates and asks for a more lively sound environment. Tasks and the reasonable sound levels associated with them also depends on the industry and the business goals.

However, these different tasks cannot be completely compartmentalized because a vast majority of interactions at work are opportunistic rather than planned, and they often occur as people encounter one another when moving around the office.8Penn, A., J. Desyllas, and I. Vaughn, 1999. The Space of Innovation. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design. 26: 193-218.

In fact, modern businesses are pursuing and encouraging chance encounters to stimulate the creation of new ideas. We can now use new materials (noise absorbing) and technology to create softer, more controlled, and agile boundaries between the zones.

For example, when you work in an open office zone that fits to the nature of task you are performing, you may still need some speech privacy (i.e. to make a short client call) or some quiet moments to think. To accommodate such needs, we could distribute small quiet spots within an open zone. Such spots could be made in the form of “phone booth” (small glass booth with sound barriers and internet connection) or a half-enclosed cocooning space with furniture made for this purpose.

In summary, sounds are a major part of any work environment. We hear them and we also make them. This is a part of normal human behavior. Therefore, we need to take advantage of sounds, control our noise generating behaviors, and know which sounds contribute to the concentrative or interactive activities we are performing in order to design/create appropriate spatial layouts that support work functions.

We will discuss techniques and technology used for these new interventions in the next article.

(Written by Yoko Kawai and Yvonne Burton)