Turn it down!

We’ve probably all got a story about a noisy co-worker: someone eating carrots loudly or humming in a shared office. But what effect does work noise have on us?

I was in a hospital ward this week (not for any bad reason – everyone’s fine!), but I really noticed the noise in there. There was a low background hum which was probably the machinery or air con, and there was a repetitive, loud, beep which just kept on and on and on. I really felt for the nurses working there – already doing a stressful job, with the added uncontrollable loud beep on top of it all.

Some people are more sensitive to noise than others, and misaphonia (extra sensitivity and dislike of certain sounds) can be a huge problem, but studies suggest that our soundscape affects us all to some degree.

Sound has been described as a “nonspecific stressor”, which nicely indicates how pervasive it can be. Our sonic backdrop is always there even though we might think that we tune it out a lot of the time. Sound activates the autonomous nervous system (ANS), a system involved in our reaction to stress of many kinds and which has many knock-on effects. Studies suggest that chronic low levels of noise impact on our physical wellbeing, our sleep, our communication ability and our activity.

It can also make us annoyed and stressed, sometimes without us even realising it, like in one study where stress hormones increased in participants when they were in noisy environments, but the participants themselves didn’t rate themselves as more stressed.

Why are sounds like this so annoying?

It’s not necessarily the loudness of a noise that is the thing that is tricky to manage, although really loud noises can be bad for our hearing. It’s also the context of the noise: is it something we want to hear? One co-worker’s noise is another’s favourite jam.

Whether we feel we can control the noise also matters. Out of control noises that we feel we can’t escape are stressful.

With this in mind, what can we do about it?

  1. Try to get some control over the noise – noise-cancelling headphones are definitely worth a try if you can invest in some and if you work in a situation where you can use them.
  2. If the noise comes from other people in an open plan, then it may sound obvious, but… ask them to be quieter. They probably don’t realise the impact they’re having. This ability to chat is one of the points of open plan – it forces us to interact with each other, even though in the UK at least we usually find this type of conversation excruciating.
  3. If you’ve got control over the building in any way then try to put soft furnishings or sound absorption in that can stop sounds bouncing about so much. This is obviously really hard in a hospital, where clinical cleanliness makes this impossible.
  4. Take time out – use a side office sometimes if you can, take a walk in a park at lunch.
  5. Reduce noise when you can (at home) with lower ring tones on your phone and less background noise. Give your ears and ANS a break!

What other things have you tried that have been helpful? Give us your top tips in the comments.

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