Last reviewed 9 November 2017

Hearing loss caused by excessive noise at work is preventable but once your hearing is gone, it’s gone for good, warns the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Meanwhile, research evidence indicates that silence can have positive effects on health, creativity and productivity.

Some 20,000 people a year in the UK suffer from deafness, ringing in the ears, or other forms of auditory problems that are often brought on, or made worse, by exposure to excessive noise in the workplace, according to HSE figures.

The total, based on new and longstanding cases in 2013/14 and 2015/16, was calculated using Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) Labour Force Survey data and showed that there are around 62 incidents per 100,000 workers.

In terms of claims, the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit scheme (IIDB) received 100 new applications in 2015, following 130 in 2014 and 120 in 2013. Of 1630 new claims in the past 10 years, only 10 were from female employees.

Although, increasing workplace awareness resulted in a steady decline in cases qualifying as industrial injuries during the last decade of the 20th century, another report released in 2015, this time from the independent Commission on Hearing Loss set up by International Longevity Centre-UK (ILC-UK), came to a stark conclusion.

It commented that “for too long, hearing loss has been ignored, overlooked and disregarded despite the millions of people experiencing hearing loss and the devastating consequences that it can have on individuals, their families and society as a whole”.

The report went on to predict that an increase in the number of people with hearing loss could account for almost 20% of the total population by 2031. It also highlighted a potential £25 billion loss in economic output to the UK.

Too loud?

Tackling noise is now a priority area for businesses and companies, as well as the NHS. Disabling hearing loss generally refers to a loss of more than 40 decibels in the better hearing ear of adults and 30 decibels for children. The HSE noise microsite provides comprehensive information of regulations, health surveillance, “sound advice”, FAQs and employer responsibilities.

Two types of noise are detrimental. Loud noises — high volumes at pop concerts or from construction machinery — are known to be harmful. Prolonged noise close to busy airports and motorways can also fall into this category.

However, the other more obtuse form of noise is created by the general rumble of conversations, routine interruptions and incidental sounds that are central to many working lives.

In practice, both can adversely affect productivity and mental equilibrium or peace of mind. Studies into the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease problems point to links between chronic noise and high blood pressure. Brain and kidney damage, sleep loss, heart disease, tinnitus and higher levels of stress hormones have also been associated.

Noise and the law

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 came into force for all industry sectors on 6 April 2006, with the exception of music and entertainment sectors where they applied from 6 April 2008. Guidance on the 2005 Regulations can be found in the HSE publications Noise at Work: A Brief Guide to Controlling the Risks and Controlling Noise at Work.

The level at which employers must provide hearing protection, and hearing protection zones, is now 85 decibels. This is measured as either daily or weekly average exposures. Employers must assess the risk to worker health, and provide information and training, at the 80 decibel level. There is also an exposure limit value of 87 decibels. This takes into account any reduction in exposure provided by hearing protection. Employees must not be exposed to noise beyond this level.

For more detailed information, see your topics on Noise and Noise Policy .

Office life

For many workers, noise problems come in the form of interruptions and distractions from colleagues and co-workers, phones’ ringing tones, conversations, meetings, noisy canteens and coffee shops, busy streets and rush hour traffic. The upshot is that many different sounds vie for attention and work against concentration.

Because opportunities to perform focused work are often random, consciously or unconsciously, many employees seek silence, squirreling themselves away in side offices, or finding excuses to work from home.

It turns out that the working environment is frequently the worst place to work. For creatives, work involves a direct relationship between the mind, page or screen. Distractions can occur on average every three minutes, compromising the value of creativity. This flies in the face of the open office concept which assumes that interruptions are worth the price of co-operation. The true balance is often between the benefits of collaboration and the distraction of spontaneous noise.

Silence really can be golden

Noise is an inevitable part of the world around us and our modern relationship to it. Some people argue they work better with a background buzz of “white noise”. However, there are strong indications that periods of silence can be positively beneficial, to the point where some organisations are arranging completely noise-free periods for their staff during the working week.

A January 2017 report in the Huffington Post was just one of many examining the subject. Another carried by the Zapier blog refers to a study by the University of California which found that knowledge workers are on average able to focus for just 11 minutes at a time. Noise is part of the problem.

Researchers have used silence as a pause or control during experiments into the impacts of noise and sound. Now, they are exploring the nature and benefits of silence as an activity in itself. In one example, silence had been used as a control between playing various clips of music to explore their relaxing effects. The experimenters then found that silence itself relaxed the brain more than the music. Further, the effect of silence can be extenuated by the control of sound. In other words, it’s nice when it stops.

In terms of the working environment, it is thought that the brain’s reaction to silence is similar to how it works naturally when not constantly bombarded by external noise. The idea is that brains are never truly “silent” and work continuously, even when not actively busy with deliberate thoughts. The corollary is that brains have to actively override their internal default modes to achieve conscious tasks and engage with noise.

One further study found that “listening” to silence for two hours every day stimulated new cell development in the hippocampus area of mouse brains connected to memory functions.

Importance to work

To reap the hidden benefits of silence, some organisations are introducing totally quiet periods into daily working life — no emails, no phones, chatter, formal meeting or informal contact for a few tightly designated hours each week. One company reported that while it took a few months to institute quiet time, several years on team productivity has increased by 23%. As a result, the team is able to take Friday afternoons off.

On an individual level, the recommendation is to find a few small periods of silence during the day — and savour them.