Noise Polluters in the Office Stress Workers

James Adonis is one of Australia’s best-known people-management thinkers

Office noise polluters smash the keyboard with their fingers and have their radio set to an unsociable volume.

As I write this sentence, I can hear the roar of a truck (or is it a bus?) barrelling past my home office, one after the other. It’s a level of noise we didn’t expect prior to moving in. But it really isn’t that much of a problem, not when you compare it to a place nearby where the thunder of planes is enough to deaden thought and deafen ears. “Oh, you’ll get used it,” the agent assured us, “and before long you’ll even stop noticing it.”

That’s easy to say when you don’t work from home, a place where the need for a tranquil environment is paramount for concentration and productivity. Not that the home office is different to any other workplace. In an era where open-plan offices are becoming more prevalent, where a construction boom means your job might be next to a building site, where you yourself might be the one actually on the site … well, it’s pretty clear noise may be a bit of an issue for some of us.

It’s estimated that open-plan offices vary between 50 and 60 decibels. 

James Adonis

Which explains why an increasing number of studies are finding a range of associated consequences. One in Europe, for example, found a third of employees say the level of noise is so bad they need to raise their voices to be heard. Another in Asia discovered up to half of workers are exposed to noise so loud it’s a major instigator of stress. And another in South America concluded workplace noise damages attention to such an extent that fatal injuries are more likely.

Those statistics compelled a team of researchers from South Korea to assess over 10,000 people last year to find out the answer to this question: is psychological depression another consequence that can be added to the list? The answer was yes. This is supposedly explained by the role of dopamine – the neurotransmitter responsible for making us feel good – which is apparently prevented from fulfilling its objective by the disruptive nature of noise.

And yet despite all that evidence, there’s something to be said for at least a little clamour in the office. Last month I was touring a corporate high-rise, making my way from team to team and floor to floor. As I walked past Accounts, there was an eerie silence; you could almost hear people inhaling and exhaling, each breath an audible representation that home time was one moment closer.

Then I reached the Sales area where the chatter was noticeably louder, as was the buzz, before my arrival in the call centre where the cacophony of voices immediately lifted the energy of the place. It might have made it more difficult to focus on the task at hand but, gee, it also created a more vibrant place to visit.

That’s the difference, I guess, between sound and noise. The former can be pleasant and motivating; the latter intrusive and deleterious. It’s estimated that open-plan offices vary between 50 and 60 decibels – a conversational hum, which for most people wouldn’t be a big deal. Be seated next to a photocopier, however, which is roughly the same volume, and your constant exposure to noise suddenly doubles.

Today’s post actually stems from a conversation with an exasperated friend who was complaining recently of his new desk at work. He’s now seated near the fire door which, granted, is convenient in the event of an emergency, but is distracting when its heavy frame thuds every minute, heralding the arrival or departure of a colleague avoiding the elevator.

This led to a discussion about the other office noise polluters: the one whose fingers smash the keyboard, the one whose laugh surpasses the sound barrier, the one whose radio is set to an unsociable volume …

But, hey, at least we don’t work in a nightclub.