Soundcheck: The Impact of Acoustics on Staff Wellbeing in the Workplace

Ben Hancock, Managing Director at Oscar Acoustics, explains the benefits of effective acoustics on office occupants, and how workplace interiors can be designed with sound in mind to improve health and productivity.

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Ben hancock

is Managing Director at Oscar Acoustics

One of the obvious advantages of having an open workspace is the ability to fit a large number of employees into a small area. The ubiquitous open-plan office was initially heralded as the solution to improving collaboration and productivity, not to mention freeing generations of employees from working in cubicles. But this concept isn’t as healthy or effective as we once thought. One downside of open space environments is the lack of noise control, which can have a detrimental effect on employees’ health and wellbeing.

Multiple studies and reports highlight that noise pollution is a huge contributor to poor productivity at work. It’s difficult to perform tasks that need high concentration in such spaces, with noise levels marked as the single biggest complaint among office workers today. Whilst noise-cancelling headphones can help, they aren’t the solution, undermining the ability of employees to collaborate, which was the central aim to begin with.

Re-configured spaces will affect acoustic quality

Without adequate acoustic treatment, an office can quickly turn into an unnecessarily stressful environment, directly compromising employee comfort. Navigating this problem without causing colleagues to have to raise their voices and risk potential transmission will become imperative in safely reintroducing staff back to the workplace.

Is unwanted noise really that big a deal? Does it make that significant a difference in the wellbeing and productivity of the workforce? The short answer is yes. A recent survey from estate agent Savills found that 83% of workers say noise levels were important to them – up from 77% in 2016. The Control of Noise Regulations 2005 requires employers to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety from exposure to noise at work. Employers are compelled to address the issue of noise, since an unhappy workforce is an unproductive one. Poor office acoustics can also lead to employees taking more sick days, which has a serious knock-on effect on business efficiency.

Sound absorption is vital for successful business

Some open offices offer desirable amenities, from appealing break rooms to lounge spaces. However, no matter how many beanbags, dress-down Fridays or ping-pong tables you have, an office can quickly turn into an unnecessarily stressful environment without adequate acoustic treatment.

According to the Chief Medical Officer in England, noise is second only to air pollution in damaging public health, while the World Health Organisation highlights subsequent health issues such as tinnitus, sleep disturbance, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and more. According to an Interface study, the noise in question does not have to be overwhelmingly loud; levels start to be dangerous from just 65 dB, about the volume of regular conversation, easily achieved in offices and public social spaces.

Such stress factors have a detrimental effect on employee health and productivity, impacting a company’s bottom line. Creating a high-quality acoustic environment for workers should, therefore, remain a key health and safety consideration. Savills found that only 39% of UK workers said their workplace positively impacted their mental health. There is clearly still work to be done to get these numbers up and provide inspirational, welcoming workspaces that are safe and actually good for employees’ health.

Demand for flexible, healthy, attractive workspaces

With this in mind, there is a growing trend in the architect and interior design community to create acoustically-designed workspaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing but create a welcoming experience for future inhabitants. There is a shift to design offices around the people using them, rather than designing a workspace and expecting people to use them productively.

Acoustics design for engagement and productivity

Acoustic control is an investment that pays for itself through better productivity of employees. Fortunately, a range of architectural acoustic finishes for ceilings, such as sprays or plasters, help designers create calm and inviting spaces that ensure employees don’t struggle to hear or be heard.

Acoustic spray solutions create a healthier aural environment without compromising interior design. And there’s good news for office owners adapting to the new normal: these ceiling treatments allow complete flexibility with Cat A and B configuration and reconfiguration. You can install dividing structures, such as screens or open-topped pods, without disrupting the acoustic spray finish applied on the ceiling above.

Taking steps to provide quality acoustics within commercial buildings will directly improve the comfort and productivity of occupants as they return to work. Simultaneously, building owners stand to benefit as they make progress towards meeting the WELL Building Standard, the blueprint for creating better spaces, as well as other essential wellbeing and sustainability design certifications. Additionally, for employers, there are tools and building certification systems available that architects and contractors can work towards when designing new workplaces, empowering employers to put the health of their employees first.

Wellness and duty of care

Whether it’s for a fit-out, refurbishment, or new build, taking workplace acoustics seriously and removing distractions caused by excess noise will ensure workspaces sound as good as they look. Our survey of 2000 UK employees found that 44% can’t concentrate when it’s noisy at work. Exactly half believe noise and bad acoustics negatively affect productivity.

Employers have a legal obligation to protect their employees and could be lining themselves up for potential future claims if they do not take the issue seriously.

We are making progress, but education is still required to reduce the scourge of noise in workspaces, protect business interests and safeguard the health of employees. It’s time to turn down the noise.

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