Your body tenses and your heart rate increases as a telephone at a vacant desk continually rings. Your colleague's background chatter frequently diverts your attention, and you can feel your productivity dwindle. Studies have found that up to 30 million people in the American workforce experience continually high noise levels (1). Whether it's an open-office plan or working from a loud home, noise is distracting and can be detrimental to productivity in any occupation.
The Many Negative Effects of High Noise Levels on Office Workers
A 2011 study investigated the differences between a quiet and loud office space. Participants worked for two hours on tasks involving basic working memory processes - which handles information needed for complex cognitive tasks like language comprehension, learning, and reasoning (2). The results found those working in a noisy office remembered fewer words, rated themselves as more tired, and were less motivated than those who had worked in a quieter office (3).
Open-plan offices with few walls and little employee privacy now account for more than 70% of offices (4). Although this layout is designed to increase collaboration, the large open space reflects sound, creating a noisy environment that, for most, is not conducive to work productivity (4, 5). In these spaces, noise from colleagues laughing, chatting, and talking on the phone are common causes of annoyance and diminished efficiency (5). Noisy offices may also cause headaches, loss of concentration and motivation, and a general feeling of stress (5). According to the American Institute of Stress, 83% of US workers experience work-related stress, which annually causes 120,000 deaths and costs $190 billion in healthcare (6). Recent research also states that open-office noise increases employees' negative mood by 25% and sweat response by 34%, signs they are experiencing stress (7).
Colleagues having background conversations can also significantly impact work productivity and performance. Neurologically, the brain is designed to recognize and process speech, so it's difficult for the brain to tune out (8). One study looked at how background noise - both with and without speech - in open offices interfered with memory and mental arithmetic tasks. The results found that office noise with background talking impedes performance on both tasks, whereas office noise without conversation only affects mental arithmetic (9). A field study that assessed subjective reports of distraction from office sounds revealed 99% of employees found their concentration impaired by office noise, especially phones ringing at vacant desks and background conversations (10).
Noise Impacts on Restaurant staff
High noise levels can also lead to more errors; it can affect mental activities and cause both physical and psychological consequences (1). One study looked at the effect of noise on fast-food establishments and how it affects attention and short-term memory. Restaurant workers often deal with several demands that require memorization in a short amount of time, like memorizing an order. Both attention and short-term memory declined when noise levels were high, resulting in more errors and a longer response time to the tested tasks. The participants also experienced increased discomfort, stress, and annoyance in the noisy environment (2).
Manufacturing Worker Noise Impacts
Stress causes approximately one million workers in the US to miss work every day (6), and studies have linked absenteeism to noise levels. A study examined 2,458 textile mill workers exposed to noise levels ranging from 80 to 99 dBA (decibels) in three different mills and how this affected absenteeism, productivity, work rule violations, and accidents. The study found that workers in departments with noise levels above 90dBA had more disciplinary actions and absenteeism and were less productive than those with lower noise levels (11). The study states that the noise appeared to affect the quality of the work, specifically in the weaving and spinning operations which required more vigilance. The frequency and severity of accidents were also more significant in the noisy environments (11). It concluded that reducing noise in the textile industry could benefit worker productivity and well-being and make it a more economically effective operation (11).
Similarly, a Nigerian study examined noise level impact on technical operators of tobacco processing equipment. The workers were exposed to noise as high as 101dBA, which harmed their health and performance. The study found the overall operating efficiencies of the companies were less than 55% (100% being optimal production efficiency) (12).
Office Noise & Remote Working impacts
Even low-intensity noise can have consequences on employee health. An experiment by Cornell University randomly assigned forty female clerical workers to either a control condition or a low-intensity noise condition simulating the decibel levels of an open office. Afterward, the participants in the open-office situation had increased urinary epinephrine levels and motivational deficits. The workers were also less likely to move around and make postural adjustments at their computer workstation while working in a noisier environment than the control condition, which can contribute to musculoskeletal disorders (13).
Since the start of the pandemic, many employees have had to transition from the office to working from home. However, an escape from the open office plan isn't necessarily a guarantee of improved productivity. A recent study looked at how Italian workers who transitioned to remote work due to COVID-19 perceived noise in their home environment. Almost 2,000 participants completed the questionnaire and over half reported noise sensitivity. The main consequences of the noise during working hours were reduced concentration and difficulty relaxing (5). Noise from the neighborhood and roommates were top irritants because they distracted participants from finishing tasks. Studies have also found that once distracted, it can take up to 20 minutes to regain concentration on complex tasks and error rates increase when work is resumed (14).
The Impact of Noise on Students
Poor productivity is not exclusive to a nine-to-five job. The learning environment of children is also affected by noise. A German study found that the average noise level of a classroom is 65dBA compared to the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommended 35dBA. As noise levels increase, so do heart rate and stress levels (15). Additionally, evidence shows that noise within a school environment significantly affects children's learning abilities and productivity (16). Studies suggest that children attending schools near airports, elevated trains, and highways in Europe experience more distractions and reduced concentration, leading to lower grades and academic productivity than their peers in quieter schools (16). A 2009 study found that classroom and playground noise levels in Nigeria were higher than the recommended WHO levels and were associated with health problems like lack of concentration and fatigue.
Improving Productivity with Better Acoustics
There is a solution to this noise-induced stress and wavering productivity; sound absorptive materials help reduce the distance noise and conversations can travel. For example, one study looked at how sound absorption materials influenced employees' ratings of disturbances, cognitive stress, and professional ability. Employees on two floors of an office building were observed as manipulations were made to the room's acoustics by adding or reducing sound absorptive tiles. The results found that the employees had lower perceived disturbances and cognitive stress when in the improved acoustic conditions (17). The study concluded that improved acoustics in open-plan offices benefit employee health and performance (17).
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Khaienasiri, F., Zamanian, A., Zamanian, Z. (2016). The Effect of Exposure to High Noise Levels on the Performance and Rate of Error in Manual Activities. Electron Physician, 8(3):2088-2093. doi: 10.19082/2088
Monterio, R., Tome´, D., Neves, P., Silva, D., & Rodrigues, M. (2018). The Interactive Effect of Occupational Noise on Attention and Short-Term Memory: A Pilot Study. Noise Health, 20(96):190-198. doi: 10.4103/nah.NAH_3_18
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Stop the Noise! Does Your Work Place Feel Unbearably Loud? (2022, January 23). Retrieved February 2, 2022 from https://www.f-sorb.com/post/stop-the-noise-does-your-workplace-feel-unbearably-loud
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Wang, X., Orelaja,O., Ibrahim, D., & Ogbonna, S. (2020). Evaluation of noise risk level and its consequences on technical operators of tobacco processing equipment in a cigarette producing company in Nigeria. Scientific African. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sciaf.2020.e00344
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Ana, G., Shendell, D., Brown, G., Sridhar, M. (2009). Assessment of Noise and Associated Health Impacts at Selected Secondary Schools in Ibadan, Nigeria. Journal of Environmental and Public Health. doi:https://doi.org/10.1155/2009/739502
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