How are we affected by noise at work?
What is sound?
Sound consists of vibrations in the air, usually illustrated in the form of waves. Hard surfaces such as smooth walls, floors, ceilings and glazed components make the sound waves bounce and cause an unpleasant echo in the room. So when you talk about acoustic solutions in rooms, you often measure the reverberation time. This is the time it takes for the sound to decrease by 60 dB from its original level. So if you want to create a pleasant acoustic environment in a room, you sometimes need to give the hard surfaces some help in absorbing the sound waves so that the reverberation time is reduced.
How do you know if the noise level is too high?
Most people have probably heard that sound intensity is measured in decibels. But when is the noise level in the office too high? Obviously this is subjective to a certain extent; some people are more sensitive to noise than others. But there's quite a lot of research and guidelines that are worth knowing about. For example, there is an increased risk of heart attack at 65 dB; which is a common noise level in our offices. Even at 55 dB, 40% of office workers experience impaired concentration.
The WHO's recommended noise levels for hospital wards and classrooms
40% of office workers experience impaired concentration
Effect on health
Raised blood pressure, sleep disorders and increased risk of cardiovascular disease
Average noise level in classrooms and offices
Effect on health
The risk of heart attack increases
Many countries have legal requirements to use hearing protection in prolonged exposure to noise
Effect on health
Permanent hearing loss and raised cholesterol levels
Acoustic environment and productivity
Noisy workplaces can easily cause irritation and concentration difficulties. For example, one research study showed that our capacity to perform deteriorates when we are surrounded by clearly audible and comprehensible conversations unconnected with the work we are doing. Three different environments were tested and compared:
- an individual office with a closed door
- an open office landscape with appropriate acoustic solutions
- an open office landscape without acoustic solutions
The study showed that capacity to perform was equally good in the open office landscape with appropriate acoustic solutions and the office with a closed door. In contrast, performance deteriorated in the open office landscape without planned acoustic solutions. So it's possible to create better conditions for individual work by reducing the comprehensibility of other conversations taking place around the individual. With sound absorbers and screens, you can create zones for more concentrated work, where conversations and other noise around us don't disturb us, although we're sitting in a more open environment.
How does noise affect our health?
It isn't only the ability to concentrate and perform that's affected by high noise levels in the office. Research also shows that the stress some people experience in a noisy working environment can result in cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure. A connection between noise level and ergonomics has also been found. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology investigated how low-intensity noise in an office environment affects employees, compared with sitting in a quiet environment. Even though no difference in productivity was found, it was observed that the test group in the noisy environment were less inclined to vary their working position. The employees in the quieter environment adjusted their chairs and footrests significantly more often. So the ergonomics were considerably worse among the test group sitting in the noisy environment. It was also found increased stress levels as a result of prolonged low-intensity noise.
How to create a healthy acoustic environment in the office
Start with your organisation and your way of working, and build the office with different zones, each one tailor-made for a certain type of activity. It should always be possible to work in peace and quiet, without being disturbed by other colleagues' conversations. At the same time, there should also be spaces that promote conversation and collaboration. Bear in mind that we all have different personalities, and therefore different needs. Listening to the employees and including them in the process is therefore often a key factor in creating an acoustic environment where everyone is happy and feels good. One simple and effective tool is to work with sound-absorbing and sound-dampening screens. Using connectable floor screens, for example, you can quickly create a separate room in a room, in the middle of an open office landscape. This gives you a flexible office that can easily be adapted to different needs and situations. Fixed wall screens are effective in counteracting noise, which makes for a better acoustic environment in the whole office. With shelves, accessories and colour choices you can also add a personal touch to the environment. In this way, you improve not just the acoustic environment but the office environment as a whole.
We all have different sensitivities to noise, and the offices of today need to be able to satisfy everyone's needs – in every situation. This is exactly why an activity-based office is a good solution: a flexible, dynamic workplace where every space is acoustically optimised for a certain type of activity. Companies that succeed in doing this will have greater opportunities to raise productivity and well-being in the office and, in the long term, profitability. Quite simply, prioritising the acoustic environment should be regarded as a smart investment, which will often pay for itself in the long run.
Kinnarps Next Office®
Research, strategy and advice for creating your ideal office
Our Next Office concept consists of many different elements – we lay the foundation for a new workplace that is specially designed for you using concrete tools, workshops and analyses. An environment that supports the various activities you perform during the day, both when you want to work individually with high focus and when you want to work together.
Haapakangas, A., Haka, M., Keskinen, E.O., & Hongisto, V.O. (2008). Effect of speech intelligibility on task performance-an experimental laboratory study.
Evans, G.W., & Johnson, D.L. (2000). Stress and open-office noise. The Journal of applied psychology, 85 5, 779-83.
European Commission. (2006). Noise Increases the Risk of Heart Diseases. News Alert, issue 5.