Open-plan office noise increases stress and worsens mood, and it will require a new approach from the profession to tackle it.
IOSH is no stranger to campaigning about the impact of noise in the working environment. Usually, it’s in the context of construction or heavy industry and relates to measurements above 80dB. Even in the UK, where there is ample legislation and widespread knowledge, there is frustration that not enough is being done about noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus. When little is being done for workers going deaf as they dismantle ships on the beaches at Chittagong, what are the chances of something being done about disruptive noise in open-plan offices – even if it is a problem that’s been identified in an ‘OSH-conscious’ European workplace?
With typical offices registering sound levels in the 45dB to 60dB range (Sander et al, 2021) you might think it would be slim, but Dr Libby Sander, of Bond University Business School in Australia, is the lead author of a study that shows noise doesn’t have to be ear-splitting to have repercussions. She says she studied open-plan office (OPO) environments because – although more than 70% of office-based employees work in OPOs, and research on them is rife with employee complaints – there was still much to be done to understand causal relationships.
She says: ‘In our study [Sander et al, 2021], we used sensors to track changes in heart rate and sweat response – both reliable indicators of physiological stress. We used facial emotion recognition software to assess emotional responses. We also had participants self-report their own feelings using a mood scale. Even after a short exposure, we found a causal relationship between OPO noise and both stress and negative mood. Negative mood increased by 25% and sweat response by 34% [Sander, 2021].
‘Employers need to be conscious of this,’ she says. ‘Noise is the top complaint by employees regarding their OPO environment. The costs to productivity, wellbeing and engagement are billions of dollars a year [Fisk, 2000].’
The study included 40 participants aged between 17 and 44. For cognitive performance, the study found there was no statistically significant difference, but for physiological measures of stress, the analysis was statistically significant (F(4,34) = 4.660, p = .004), with five out of nine dependent variables indicating greater stress/lower mood.
IOSH immediate past-president Jimmy Quinn agrees. The senior health and safety manager at leading global construction company Multiplex says: ‘If you go to the head office of Multiplex, it’s a large open-plan space and fairly quiet. But at our office in Nine Elms, London, we have 110 people in a smaller space. It’s much louder as there are people working on three different projects side by side. There are always people making calls or sitting on Teams meetings. It is hard if you’re trying to concentrate on something,’ Jimmy says.
‘I can see why people would get frustrated. We have cubicles where you can take a video call, but then the reception isn’t always ideal. And, obviously, you don’t want to take up a meeting room for just one person. All too often, you’re trying to think while people are talking across you. Or people will be having a discussion while you’re on a video call. It’s often a case of going on mute because you don’t want the other participants to be disturbed by what’s going on around you.
‘The welfare implications from the study are concerning. Office noise clearly leads to more anxiety and there’s the potential for an increase in mental health issues, so measurements should be taken by OSH professionals. There could well be a case for increasing the amount of screening in open-plan offices.’
Making open-plan offices work
Effective ways to improve OPOs for less distracting and harmful noise include:
- Flooring with acoustic properties
- Acoustic wall panels
- Artwork/fabrics on walls
- Office plants
- Ceiling baffles
- Booth seating
- Secluded workspaces for concentration
- Dedicated meeting spaces
- Breakout areas for casual conversations
- Idea areas for extroverts/group meetings
- Provision of noise-cancelling headphones
- Ambient noise, such as water features.
A global problem
A recent study examined the impact of noise pollution in pre-pandemic office environments. Oxford Economics interviewed 500 senior executives and non-manager employees from many industries and functional areas, spanning several countries. The majority of those surveyed reported near-constant noise in their workplace. Many said they lacked quiet space for meetings or areas where they could focus (Plantronics, 2018).
- Only 1% of employees (down from 20% in 2015) said they could block distractions and concentrate without taking action.
- 54% of executives believed their employees had the tools needed to mitigate noise in the office; only 29% of employees agreed (down from 41% in 2015).
- 75% of employees said they had to go outside to focus; 32% used headphones to block distraction.
- 63% of employees said they lacked quiet space for focused work.
- 96% of executives saw employee productivity as critical to their financial performance, yet just 40% understood the link between noise, distraction and productivity.
- Only 6% of executives had equipped their office with noise-mitigating features.
- Employees in the noisiest office environments were more likely to say they might leave their job in the next six months.
A complex area
IOSH is a member of the Affinity Health at Work, a health psychology consultancy. Founder and director Jo Yarker says that everyone has different tolerances to noise.
‘If you are trying to do focused work, some may be able to tolerate a background hum, while others will find it incredibly difficult to concentrate,’ Jo says. ‘It’s a complex area, but ensuring you’ve got a safe starting point is key. We know that when there are clear protocols in place about when and where you can have conversations, noise is less distracting. Otherwise, people will talk anywhere in the open-plan space – it’s damaging to concentration and it can feel stressful and disempowering to the employee.’
When it comes to mitigation, Jo says understanding the base level of noise is important, but it is possible to add physical features to soften the noise.
She adds: ‘In the best agile workspaces, you will find different types of work areas designed specifically for different types of conversations: chairs with very high backs absorb sound and create privacy; hubs with sound-absorbing walls for team meetings.’
Another challenge, Jo says, is that as people return to the office post-COVID, they may now ‘find it exhausting, as they’ve become used to working at home, often in relative quiet or more predictable surroundings’.
Beyond monitoring sound, Jo would like OSH practitioners to think broadly: ‘Have we designed our workspace to limit distractions? Do people feel they have control over their work environment? If not, then they may feel like their work demands are higher.’
In Germany, technical rules were introduced in 2018 to control the extra-aural effects of noise. They set out binding requirements for workspaces where noise levels fall below 80 dB(A). They define activity-specific limit values for the rating level according to activity categories, while also setting out requirements for the room acoustics in terms of a workspace’s use.
Distinctions in the rules – ASR A3.7 – between three activity categories exist: activity category one requires high concentration or high speech intelligibility; the rating level must not exceed 55 dB(A).
Activity category two requires medium concentration or medium speech intelligibility; the rating level must not exceed 70 dB(A).
Activity category three requires low concentration or low speech intelligibility; the assessment rating level must be reduced as far as possible in consideration of noise control measures within the plant/company.
Collaboration and design
Back in the UK, no one that we spoke to called for legislative changes, but IOSH content developer Michael Edwards says the Sander study is timely. ‘We’re interested to see how measuring multiple output measures to determine physiological stress effects and negative mood in a simulated OPO space offers data-driven insights that might improve psychological wellbeing.
‘It suggests that OSH and occupational health professionals might collaborate with HR colleagues, designers, ergonomists and others to influence better OPOs that manage background noise more effectively.’
Libby says it’s ‘fundamentally important’ that OSH professionals understand the landscape of work environments and its impact on employee wellbeing and performance. She says having fewer people in the office with increased working from home may help, but more fundamental changes, such as acoustic treatment or breaking up open-plan areas, are important.
‘I suspect we’ll start to see smaller head offices with hybrid models of work in the future,’ she says. ‘The purpose of coming to the office will be different. It may be more for collaborative work and connecting with others in person. This is likely to mean that noise may be more of an issue and employers need to be conscious of mitigating these effects.’
Image Credit | Getty Images | iStock
- IOSH noise toolkit: bit.ly/IOSH-noise-at-work
- Smethurst S. (2021) The silent cost of noise-induced hearing loss. IOSH magazine: bit.ly/IOSH-NIHL
Affinity Health Hub. (2021) Office design for health and wellbeing: summary of evidence. (accessed 8 December 2021).
Fisk WJ. (2000) Health and Productivity Gains from Better Indoor Environments and their Relationship with Building Energy Efficiency. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 25(1): 537-66.
Sander LE, Marques C, Birt J et al. (2021) Open-plan office noise is stressful: multimodal stress detection in a simulated work environment. Journal of Management & Organization 1-17.
Sander LE. (2021) Open-plan office noise increases stress and worsens mood: we've measured the effects. The Conversation. (accessed 17 November 2021).