How loud is too loud? Well, that depends.
Workplace noise (and its effects on employee health and performance) has been a topic of research since at least the first half of the 20th century, but despite the attention given to the issue, the challenge remains a thorny one.
People are different, and they respond to sound in different ways, which makes one-size-fits-all solutions hard to come by, says James Szalma, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, whose work includes research on workplace noise.
He cites, for instance, a meta-analysis of the topic that he and his colleagues published in 2011 in the academic journal Psychological Bulletin. “When we started our review, we thought, well, we’re going to find that the louder [the noise] is, the worse it is,” he recalls.
Instead, the researchers found that noise at any level could be stressful “if it’s unwanted,” Szalma says. And what qualifies as unwanted? Well, again, that depends.
“If you look at personality traits and response to noise, some individuals work better when there are sounds around them, and others work better when it’s just nice and quiet,” he notes.
But just because the issue is complicated, doesn’t mean it should be ignored. “Anywhere there’s acoustic noise, you have the potential for either health problems or problems of performance, or both,” Szalma says.
Some studies have shown significant hits to the bottom line, as well. For instance, a 2013 study from The Sound Agency, a U.K.-based consulting firm specializing in optimizing soundscapes and sound levels for commercial properties, found that urban noise distraction costs European workplaces an estimated $52 billion per year in lost productivity.
In terms of health effects, the connection to unwanted noise is indirect, at least at lower decibel levels, Szalma says, but it’s worth taking note of all the same.
Noise can be at a level where it’s not actually a physical hazard to a person’s ears, “but it can still cause chronic stress, and chronic stress is well known to cause long-term health problems,” he says.
As noted above, the different individual responses to different noise levels present a challenge for workplaces looking to mitigate these effects. That said, there are a few basic strategies employers can keep in mind.
Generally speaking, unpredictable and intermittent noise is more disruptive than continuous, unchanging noise. “So if you’re in an environment where there is noise that is by its nature brief and intermittent or just occasional noise that comes at unpredictable times, I would focus my efforts on designing that out,” Szalma says.
In a perfect world, of course, workers would be able to customize their soundscapes to whatever best suited them. However, he notes, “that’s much easier said than done, because there are always design constraints that prevent you from customizing too much.”
Given that, he suggests that workplaces aim to keep sound levels as low as possible to accommodate those who work best in quiet settings, while employees who prefer a somewhat nosier environment can use headphones to add a bit of buzz. Noise-canceling headphones can also help those who’d rather work in silence.
Of course, headphones can create their own problems in terms of workplace communication, Szalma says. Particularly in today’s age of open offices, there’s perhaps no perfect solution.
“There is going to be a trade-off no matter what,” he says.