Why reducing workplace noise is good for employee wellbeing

Despite the ongoing trend towards working from home and remote meetings, it is necessary for many of us to spend our working days in places like offices, factories, classrooms and hospitals. As a result, good workplace design is an essential component when it comes to maximising employee wellbeing, health and productivity, says Ben Hancock, Managing Director of Oscar Acoustics.

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However, one of the biggest challenges in getting workplace design right is often ignored during the planning stage; the impact of noise on employees.

Indeed, a recent survey from estate agent Savills found that the proportion of workers saying noise levels were important to them increased to 83% this year – up from 77% in 2016.

In order to understand just how big a problem workplace noise is, we commissioned some research exploring the views of 2000 UK employees across a range of different sectors.

The research reveals some surprising and concerning effects of noise pollution, a worrying lack of action taken against it and a dearth of knowledge about the associated health issues.

Sonic battlegrounds – a productivity problem

The effects of poor acoustics are extensive and could be hurting companies’ bottom lines, especially as they are compelled to address the issue. The Control of Noise Regulations 2005 require employers to prevent or reduce risks to health and safety from exposure to noise at work.

However, our survey found that nearly one-quarter of us know someone whose hearing has been impacted by working in a loud environment. This means businesses are potentially opening themselves up to lawsuits in the long term. It’s an issue that is only set to rise up the corporate agenda.

Strikingly, our research found that 59% of UK workers believe they work in a loud environment, while 44% of respondents say they can’t concentrate when it’s noisy at work, and 50% believe it negatively impacts productivity.

Not only this, but the research has also shown evidence that incessant din is shredding people’s ability to work as a team. A fifth of employees (19%) state it’s the reason they’ve had a breakdown in a relationship with a co-worker. 29% have even snapped at colleagues, including 11% at a superior.

It doesn’t end there though. Nearly one in 10 had left passive-aggressive notes for their colleagues, and even more alarmingly, 6% have resorted to physical violence, rising to 16% of millennials.

The results of these surprising stats also varied according to where people work across the UK. It showed that if you are working in London, you are over three and a half times more likely to leave passive-aggressive notes and over seven times more likely to resort to violence.

The most common way people avoid the racket at work is wearing headphones (25%); however, this can boost noise levels by 9 dB, creating even more noise and further impacting on your hearing.

This is backed up by our survey, which found that one in five participants say they’ve known someone to ignore their boss and have missed phone calls due to headphone usage.

Taking health and wellbeing seriously

Noise pollution is also a serious health problem. The Chief Medical Officer in England says it is second only to air pollution in damaging public health while the World Health Organisation (WHO) highlights issues such as tinnitus, sleep disturbance, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, adverse birth outcomes and cognitive impairment in children.

However, our research shows that people are worryingly unaware of these risks. 90% of survey respondents do not realise noise can cause heart attacks and strokes, both of which can be deadly.

Given the potentially disastrous effect noise has on employee productivity and team morale (as well as workers’ respect for their boss), you’d be forgiven for thinking that employers are pulling out all the stops to fix this problem.

Unfortunately, over half of respondents (54%) said their employer has taken no action to combat it, and 42% said they don’t even take the issue seriously.

It’s somewhat concerning, given the problem impacts not just profit margins but also people’s health.

Workplace sound absorption is vital

So, what can be done? We’ve always known about the dangers of noise pollution, and hopefully, this research will drive it home to others too. It highlights that it’s increasingly harder and harder to avoid excessive noise in any workplace as the UK has become a ‘sonic battleground’.

It also shows that an unhappy workforce due to poor acoustics can be very unproductive. It can lead to employees becoming distracted, arguing with colleagues, missing important calls and taking more sick days, all of which could have a seriously negative impact on business.

Luckily for employers, there are tools and building certification systems available that architects and contractors can work towards when designing new workplaces.

The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) is leading the global movement to transform buildings. Their WELL Building Standard is a blueprint for creating better spaces and empowering employers to transform their workplaces and put the health of their employees first.

As a result, there is a growing trend in the architect and interior design community to create workspaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also create a welcoming experience for future inhabitants.

Change is on the horizon

With the rise in open-plan offices and increasingly mechanised production lines/distribution centres, employers are increasingly looking at acoustic design to keep their people safe and increase productivity.

Whether it’s for a fit-out, refurbishment or new build, taking workplace acoustics seriously and removing distractions caused by excess noise will ensure these workspaces sound as good as they look with a calm and relaxing atmosphere.

However, there is still a long way to go, and our research shows that companies need to act now to reduce the scourge of noise in workspaces if they want to protect their business interests, and more importantly, the health of their employees.

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