Turn it down: the impact of a noisy office

Is noise causing problems in the workspace you manage? Laura King looks at how unwanted noise might be affecting worker wellbeing and offers some low-cost solutions.

When considering whether a workplace is noisy or not, you’d be correct in thinking that working environments such as construction sites or factories would be on the list. But what about your average office? Can they be described as “noisy”?

Under the Control of Noise Regulations, employees need to be protected from noise that exceeds certain levels. For example, the lowest level at which action needs to be taken is daily or weekly exposure of 80 decibels (dB) and a maximum peak sound pressure of 135 dB. To put these figures into context, the Health and Safety Executive suggests that typical noise levels in a tractor cab are in the region of 80 dB and a power drill is between 90 and 100 dB.

For many industries, this will mean that action needs to be taken to provide adequate protection for employees from damage to hearing. However, in the vast majority of cases, office environments are not going to meet the criteria. So does this mean there is nothing to be concerned about?

Unfortunately, not. Noise is beginning to creep up the list of priorities when considering how our environment affects our health, and several studies on noise pollution are showing that unwanted noise can have a significant impact on our wellbeing at levels well below these legal limits.

Health impacts of low-level noise

Results from the Environmental Burden of Disease project indicate that although air pollution is by far the biggest contributor to disease, noise is the number-two threat to public health on a par with second-hand smoke. Many people experience low-level noise everyday — from the sound of traffic, passing planes, ventilation, office chatter or background music. Although we may not notice noise — or even think it affects us — our evolutionary past means that we are highly attuned to what is going on around us and our ears never switch off.

As a result, continual noise and frequent disturbance can trigger the body’s acute stress response (fight-or-flight), raising our heart rate and blood pressure. This, in turn, leads to an increased risk of numerous diseases, including heart disease, strokes and anxiety. In Germany alone, one study estimated that traffic noise caused over 1600 heart attacks a year.

Based on the latest evidence concerning the impact of urban soundscapes on human health in Europe, the WHO recommends that to ensure a good night’s sleep, noise should not exceed 30 A-weighted decibels (dB(A)) in bedrooms. In learning environments, the recommended sound levels are slightly higher — but not much — with recommendations set at less than 35 dB(A) in classrooms to allow for good teaching and learning conditions.

Are offices too loud?

Although the average quiet office might only reach 40 dB, many offices are unlikely to attain this, with some estimates suggesting average noise levels closer to 50 dB. Considering the recommended noise levels in classrooms, it is perhaps no surprise that surveys on office workers often cite office noise as an ongoing distraction and annoyance.

For example, a 2019 Noise and Wellbeing at Work Survey commissioned by business solution company, Remark, found that less than 4% of the respondents in the UK were never disturbed by noise at work, with over 50% of respondents reporting that they were interrupted by noise more than five times a day. More than 40% said that noise contributed to stress at work, and a shocking 65% said that noise had a negative impact on their ability to complete a task accurately and on time.

Another 2019 study conducted for commercial flooring company, Interface, stated that noise negatively impacts the majority (69%) of global employees’ concentration levels, productivity and creativity.

Although these studies have been commissioned by companies with a vested interest, they are nonetheless in-line with research. For example, a 2000 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that clerical workers in a noisy room were less motivated to complete cognitive tasks and had elevated stress hormone levels, compared to those in a quiet room. This was despite workers in the noisy room (designed to simulate low-level office noise) not reporting that they felt stressed.

How to tell if noise is a problem in the office

You do not need expensive equipment to get an idea of noise levels in an office space — there are many smartphone apps available that are able to monitor noise levels affordably and can be used to provide an indication of noise levels throughout the day.

However, perhaps more importantly, listen to what staff are saying. Have there been complaints received about noise, or is it something people bring up in staff meetings or in appraisals? When making an assessment of the situation, remember that noise is likely to affect people differently, and what is disrupting and intrusive to one person might not have any effect on someone else.

To help understand how noise impacts staff beyond complaints records, or anecdotal evidence, it might be worth considering conducting a broader survey of employees. Through this you can ascertain how the wider workforce are finding noise levels in the office, and whether there are certain aspects that are causing a problem, or whether staff are struggling to complete certain tasks because of disruption.

Solutions to noisy offices

There are a number of solutions to noise in the workplace, many of which are relatively easy and cost-effective to implement.

  • Consider seating arrangements — it might make sense to group people who do “noisy” work, together, such as staff making sales calls or those on a helpline.

  • Provide quiet spaces for people to work, that help facilitate concentration.

  • At the other end of the scale, spaces that can be used for informal meetings and rest breaks can be a good way to take noise away from areas of work and provide privacy if staff need to make a sensitive phone call.

  • Make sure that noisy equipment is located away from work areas.

  • Allow staff to use noise-cancelling headphones, but be cautious of staff playing music at a volume that masks office noise as this in itself can cause hearing problems.

  • Desk partitions and office furniture such as plants can help reduce distractions from noise (although some studies indicate that not being able to see the source of noise can create more stress, so be alert to what staff are saying).

  • Use materials that absorb sound, for example, soft furnishings.

Summary

Although the legislation does not require noise to be actively managed in the majority of office spaces, it is likely that low-level office noise is nonetheless disruptive to staff. For some, it could lead to health problems including increased stress, circulatory issues and higher blood pressure.

To assess whether noise is a problem in workspaces you manage, monitor sound levels and conduct a survey of staff. If regular complaints are being reported, or if the survey indicates that there is a problem, there are a number of low-cost solutions that can be put in place. Some examples include considering how staff are grouped, looking at the acoustic properties of the office, and providing areas dedicated for quiet concentration (or noisy conversations).

For more information on this area see our Noise topic.