Furniture Fridays: An Introduction to Noise & Wellbeing

  • Posted: August 17, 2018

An Introduction to Noise & Wellbeing

Today we’re looking at a major source of anxiety in our daily lives. Noise is one of the most widespread environmental concerns in the workplace that not only puts stress on our ears, but also on our mind – and more literally, on our hearts.   

What is Noise?

When we think of noise, pneumatic drills, low-flying aircraft and fire alarms are often the first examples that spring to mind. However, the definition of ‘noise’ is actually much more straightforward and means any unwanted; disruptive or irritating sound.

On this understanding, everything from buzzing headphones, squealing train breaks and overly loud conversations can be included – and that’s just on our morning commute!

“noise is the most frequent complaint with office workers” [HSE, 2018].

A common workplace risk?

While the risk of hearing damage is lower, office noise can still cause serious problems in performance, efficiency and job satisfaction.

One of the problems with the common definition is its subjectivity: what is noise to one person might be easily ignored by another. Not to mention silence – who has not experienced the distraction of a depressingly quiet room? So, you might ask, where’s the middle ground? Experts suggest that the jumping-off point is when noise first becomes disruptive.

How do you measure noise?

Most offices with open-plan spaces document noise levels at a low of 40 – 45 dBA to a high of 60 dBA (or Decibels Adjusted) and in a recent study by the Swedish Health and Safety Board, office workers found volume levels between 48 and 52 dBA as the ideal work settings.

What do these numbers mean? The table below provides some context as to how that might sound to you. The effects of intensity are doubled for every additional 10 dBA, so the difference between 45 and 55 dBA would sound twice as loud. Furthermore, noisy environments only get worse over time with people speaking louder and louder as the sound intensity increases. This is known as the ‘Lombard Effect.’

Typical noise levels

How does noise affect our work?

As noisier environments are likely to interrupt and hinder an employee’s ability to focus on a particular task, they reduce performance and productivity.

This is known as ‘Cognitive Impairment.’ A recent study by Ipsos and Steelcase found that office employees lost as much as 86 minutes work-time per day due to noise distractions.

Noise also can lead to increased stress responses. In the short term, these may lead to lower job satisfaction and morale. Over a prolonged duration they can cause very serious health conditions such as heart disease and memory loss. With this in mind, it’s certainly worth evaluating what solutions might be available.

Office Noise Solutions

The move towards large, open plan offices to increase teamwork; communication and collaboration have increased noise exposure for employees. Fortunately, office designers, furniture specialists and sound engineers have developed many noise reduction strategies to counter these effects. These include:

Sound Absorption

Sound absorbing solutions reduce the level of echo and sound waves that travel within the space. The products do not prevent the travel of sound, but instead absorb any frequencies to improve the acoustical properties heard from within the room.

Materials such as sponges and foams are excellent sound absorption materials because their construction softens the surfaces of your surroundings. In effect, this dampens the production of airborne sounds.

The Private High Back - A quiet retreat. Included in the NBC Universal project. The sofa acts as both a barrier and sound absorber.

Sound Barriers or blocking

Materials crafted to block sound are often heavy and durable, unlike sound absorbers which are usually spongey and lightweight.

Fiberglass provides a substantial sound barrier between the noise created internally and externally from your room. In effect, this form of soundproofing produces an environment in which noise generated within the space stays inside while sound from your external surroundings is kept out.

Sound Masking

With the creation of smaller speaker devices, a recent development in reducing noise complaints are sound masking devices. These systems emit familiar, unobtrusive background sounds that cover up unwanted noise – often at the frequency of human speech (known as ‘pink noise’). This allows staff the option to focus on those cognitive tasks or collaborate with colleagues, and be more motivated and productive.

While it’s difficult to completely rid the office of noise, providing solutions that offer a variety of methods for different environments – from loud to quiet – are a great way of reducing the negative aspects of a noisy office in giving staff the ability to choose where they work.

GRID - acoustic panels incorporated into the design.
Rugs & carpets - reduces echoes and footfall through sound absorption. Pictured: Fenris by Fabula.