The one thing in the workplace that’s damaging your health

Could your open-plan office be doing more harm than good to your health?

When it comes to things that have an impact on your health, noise is not the first thing that springs to mind. However, major studies have and will reveal that noise can be disruptive to us on many different levels.  

With the World Health Organisation about to release a World Report on hearing and the effects of hearing loss in May 2020, Professor and Director of Audiology at Macquarie University, Catherine McMahon, says we need to: "take our hearing more seriously. To do this, we need to raise awareness about hearing and the factors that can affect it - including noise levels and durations that put it at risk."

Does noise really harm you?

To investigate how noise affects us, the latest Sony Sound Report revealed that 80 per cent of Australians encounter unwanted noise in the workplace (otherwise known as 'noise pollution') and when it comes to the most irritating noises, the biggest complaints from Aussies are the sounds of their own co-workers. 

"From colleagues laughing to telephones ringing, these types of sounds we encounter in the workplace are recognised as ‘moderate levels of noise’," Catherine explains. "Open-plan offices are often considered as environments that encourage creativity, employee interaction and collaboration. This may be true in some instances and while these types of offices are also a cost effective alternative, moderate levels of noise can have other effects on an individual including increased stress, decreased motivation and reduced productivity." 

While most people understand the immediate impacts of noise pollution in the work environment (becoming irritated, annoyed or stressed), Catherine says that we are beginning to understand the long-term effects that sustained stress and exposure to noise pollution can have on both our mental and physical health.

"Stress increases cortisol levels, which can affect our weight, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, depression and lead to lower life expectancy," she explains. "Noise can also reduce our ability to sleep, and due to the need for increased attention to what we are doing - listening to someone speaking, reading or writing - we are generally more fatigued by the end of the day. Of course, this can also cause increased effort when thinking, frustration and anxiety."

How do we combat this?

None of those long-term health risks sound good, so how can we minimise the damage?

Catherine suggests that while workplace areas such as open-plan offices are an innovative design, they need to be acoustically well considered, otherwise it could be impact employees’ ability to do their work comfortably. "If your office is full of hard furnishings and flooring, sound can bounce around and amplify as noise is made whereas carpeting and soft furnishings, are a great way to absorb the sound created in the office," she says. 

Since you often can't control too much of the fit out of your office, Catherine also advises introducing an understanding culture.

"Businesses and employers also need to put solutions in place to minimise the distracting noises and make it a productive working environment," she says. "We’re all guilty of stopping by a colleague’s desk to have a quick chat or even asking someone a question from the other end of the office. What we don’t realise is that this can actually impact someone else’s productivity instantly, making it harder for them to regain their focus. Instead, book in regular meetings or morning catch ups with your co-workers in a separate breakout space, or email them with any questions you might have."

Taking control of your environment on step further, Catherine also says you could consider wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. "Noise-cancelling headphones may help to some extent in reducing the impact of noise on a worker, particularly if the office can’t be altered to reduce sound," she explains. "Overall, noise and stress are cumulative and everyone needs a break from noise. Be sure to take regular lunch breaks, or go for a walk during the day, which can be a great strategy for looking after your physical and mental health."

Sony teamed up with Professor and Director of Audiology, Catherine McMahon, to celebrate the launch of the new noise-cancelling WF-1000XM3 truly wireless headphones.

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