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Noise damaging workplace wellbeing

The shift to open-plan workspaces is having a negative impact on employee productivity and wellbeing

Almost half (44%) of employees feel that noise in the workplace negatively affects their wellbeing, according to research from The Remark Group and environmental psychologist Nigel Oseland.

The Noise and Wellbeing at Work survey, which researched the impact of noise on employee wellbeing, found that more than a third (34%) of employees think noise is not healthy for their performance.

Speaking at the launch of the research, Oseland explained that while the shift away from cellular office space to open-plan offices is largely positive, it is having a negative impact on some of the workforce.

“It’s a mixture of poor design and poor management and behavioural issues, so a lot of organisations don’t want to open that can of worms. But it’s got to a point where they need to resolve it, especially with the [focus on the] wellbeing agenda and stress – it’s all part of that,” he said. “Noise is a stressor and we’ve got to do something about it.”

The research also found that two-thirds (65%) of employees think noise affects their ability to complete tasks at work, suggesting it is directly affecting productivity.

When asked how many times a day people are interrupted by noise at work, respondents on average said they are interrupted five times, equal to 75 minutes of ‘lost flow’ every day. Twenty-five per cent said they are interrupted two to five times a day, while 24% said five to six times. “It’s no wonder that as a society we’re not as productive as the amount of hours we work,” Oseland commented.

Employees cited the most common distracting noises as: colleagues’ telephone conversations, personal conversations, sudden laughter, and telephone ringtones. Speech is the “biggest distractor”, said Oseland, citing what he calls “cocktail-party syndrome”, where “someone says your name across the room and you hear it”. This harks back to human survival mode, he explained, as we subconsciously listen out for key words and interpret speech.

However, different personality types are more tolerant of noisy environments than others, he added, with extroverts more likely to seek out noisy environments and introverts preferring calmer subdued spaces.

Oseland went on to explain that noise in the workplace also affects generations differently. “There are definitely differences between older and younger generations,” he said, adding however that they are not the differences many would expect. Older generations seem to be less affected by noise, Oseland explained, most likely because “older people have more freedom around where they work” – such as in private offices due to being more senior or having more flexibility to work from home.

Oseland recommended HR do two things on this issue. “Most offices, particularly open plan and when people have moved from cellular to open plan – need some sort of office etiquette, manifesto or charter about how we’re going to treat each other with respect and our behaviours. So don’t keep shouting out over the desks, or keep tapping a colleague’s shoulder or use a hands-free phone in the middle of the office… so there’s a manifesto or that sort of thing,” he said.

“And then that needs to be backed up with making sure you’ve got the right facilities. So have we got quiet spaces, pods? Can people go away from their desk and have a chat and have a meal without distracting other colleagues?”

Oseland advised bringing together behavioural changes and technologies such as sound masking to create better office experiences.

The research surveyed 1,030 full-time UK office workers, including those working in open-plan, shared, private and home offices.