Traffic whirs outside. The incessant buzzing and chiming of electronic devices filter from every room. And there seems to be no escaping the tumult of your coworkers' noisy conversations. So, if you’re one of the millions making the transition from remote work back into the physical office, it’s little wonder that you’re not only having trouble concentrating, but you’re feeling just wretched overall.
Noise pollution in your office doesn’t just steal your peace of mind and set your teeth on edge – it also threatens your productivity. That can take a devastating toll on your physical and mental health, on your family’s financial wellbeing, and on your professional future as a whole. That’s because noise is more than a mere annoyance. It also poses a significant threat to your health and functioning. The effects may feel intensified when you have become used to working remotely, in a quiet environment that you can control. More significantly, constant noise exposure profoundly and detrimentally affects the nervous system, not only undermining your work performance but also putting you at risk for a range of serious, chronic, and even life-threatening diseases.
Architects face the challenge of mitigating noise pollution and helping clients understand why this is a necessary concern. If you are reading this as an architect, we have outlined the many ways you can help your client understand how, exactly, noise in the office impacts the nervous system and what can you do about it.
Our Vigilant Brain
Anyone who has ever battled anxiety or insomnia knows that our brains are always working, and are always on-call. This is partly because even when we are relaxing or sleeping, the brain is alert to the noises in its environment. This is, above all, an evolutionary defense mechanism, ensuring that we remain ever vigilant to signs of danger.
The problem, however, is that the same biological mechanisms that evolved to keep us safe end up harming us when we are exposed to chronically noisy environments. The brain enters a state of near-constant hyperarousal, its alert systems continuously triggered by the ambient noise. As a result, the body is flooded with stress-induced neurochemicals and hormones tied to the body’s fight-or-flight reflex, including adrenaline and cortisol (1, 2, 3).
These stress chemicals cause blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration to spike. Over time, such a chronic state of physiological arousal can cause substantial damage to both the neurological and cardiovascular systems. And that’s going to substantially increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, and even Alzheimer’s and related dementias (4, 5, 6).
For at-home and in-office workers alike, chronic noise exposure while working doesn’t just put their physical health at risk, but it also threatens the health of their careers. Indeed, chronic illness is one of the leading causes of unemployment and underemployment in the United States (7, 8).
Cognitive and Emotional Impacts
The physiological and professional impacts of a noisy work environment don’t simply emerge over the long term. The effects can also be felt immediately. The reality is that noise exposure dramatically and directly impedes cognitive functioning, with the most profound effects on concentration, learning, and memory. The brain’s emergency alert mechanisms are embedded deep within the limbic system and particularly in the hippocampus. These also happen to be the nervous system’s principal centers of emotion, attention, and perception (8, 9). That means that in tumultuous surroundings you’re not only going to have trouble focusing, but you’ll also struggle to keep track of what you’re doing, to learn new information, to remember what needs to be remembered (12). Your stressed hippocampus simply can’t manage it.
In addition to the changes to deep brain functioning and their effects on cognition and memory, your mood is also almost certain to be detrimentally impacted. As previously noted, the limbic system is the locus both of memory and of emotion. And when the ambient cacophony is stressing you out, it’s going to manifest not just in how you think but also in how you feel (10, 11).
Studies show that the impacts of stress on the hippocampus are strongly linked to significant mood disorders, including anxiety and depression (10, 11). For workers, this can prove highly detrimental to productivity and performance. Indeed, studies show that depression costs the US billions of dollars in lost productivity each year.
Hearing and Auditory Processing
Your office doesn’t have to be located near a busy airport, highway, or train tracks to produce enough ambient noise to negatively impact both your health and your work performance. In fact, research suggests that by far the most detrimental form of background noise for work productivity and performance is background conversation. After all, the human brain specializes in the recognition and processing of human speech. This means that, no matter how hard you try to tune out the chatter and focus on the task at hand, neurologically, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to do so.
That’s a problem, particularly for formerly remote workers transitioning back into on-campus work because, unless you’re forcing your coworkers into a vow of silence while you’re working, chances are there’s going to be a lot of talking going on in the background. Even if your colleagues aren’t talking to each other, your office is still likely to be filled with the sounds of telephone calls, digital devices, and other media.
Not only is your attention divided and your ability to focus undermined when your brain is tasked with processing massive amounts of background noise, particularly human speech, but you’re also likely to have significant challenges with hearing and communication. Chronic exposure to loud noises, of course, contributes to a host of hearing challenges, from tinnitus to hearing loss (13, 14, 15), but even commonplace noise, from the traffic outside your home or office to the hubbub of daily life inside it, can affect workers’ ability to process speech and communicate effectively.
If you’re tasked with talking to clients by phone or video, for instance, you may struggle to parse the sounds you hear, differentiate between voices, and filter out ambient noise. This, combined with the attentional deficiencies that noise-related stress exerts on the deep structures of the brain, means that not only are you going to have difficulty hearing and understanding what is being said to you, but you will also be challenged to focus on and engage in the conversation. Indeed, because of the sweeping impacts of noise on the nervous system, you may have difficulty not only in processing language/speech but also in producing it–not exactly the best recipe for work success.
How F-Sorb Can Help
At F-Sorb, we’re committed to providing high-quality, environmentally-friendly acoustic products to meet the needs of our clients. We specialize in offering customized noise mitigation solutions to suit every client and every business. We can design a noise reduction or soundproofing package for your office to meet and exceed your expectations. Similarly, if you work in architectural design or environmental engineering, we offer a range of sustainable acoustical solutions to bring your commercial spaces to the next level.
F-Sorb’s eco-friendly, customizable acoustical products are particularly beneficial in this important period when thousands of physical offices across the nation are reopening each day, and once-remote workers now find themselves tasked with adapting to the office environment. After a prolonged period of home-based work, where remote workers could more readily control noise levels in their home offices, employees are likely to be less well equipped to thrive in a noisy workplace. Given the profound impacts of ambient noise on the nervous system, once-remote workers can be expected to be more sensitive to and affected by noise pollution in the physical office. That means that employers, architects, and building engineers alike would do well to construct or retrofit office and workspaces for noise mitigation. It may, indeed, be one of the most important steps that can be taken to support employees’ transition back into the workplace. Contact your F-Sorb rep today to discuss how our team of experts can help you create the calm, quiet office space you, or your clients, have been dreaming of.
Find FSorb sales reps or distributors near you by clicking here.
At FSorb, we are motivated by improving human health and do so by creating eco-friendly acoustic products. Our mission is to help designers build beautiful spaces that reduce excess ambient noise while calming the human nervous system. With over 25 years in the acoustic business we stand behind FSorb as a durable, environmentally friendly, and low-cost product. If you want an acoustic solution that is safe to human health at an affordable price, then we are your resource.
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