There’s an invisible danger lurking in workplaces across the country that can damage employees’ health and hamper their productivity as it attacks the brain. Believe it or not, it’s sound. Not even loud sound, like a jackhammer, but just the ordinary background noise that most any busy office tends to generate.
Occupational noise is something that few people in management ever think of, but Northwestern University Professor of Neurobiology and Communication Sciences Dr. Nina Kraus certainly has. Her book, Of Sound Mind - How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World (opens in new tab), explains how it can take a nasty toll on your staff.
‘Safe Noise’ Isn’t Safe at All
I spoke with Professor Kraus recently. Her excitement for the magic of sound, how our brains make sense of the auditory world, her joy in what it all brings to us just permeates the book, complemented by her YouTube videos (opens in new tab). She began our interview with this observation:
“All employers want to reduce the incidence of health problems, absenteeism, burnout, health insurance, workers’ compensation claims and insurance rates. They study ways to reduce risk, but are generally not aware of how safe noise is connected to all these things.”
I’ll bet you are wondering, “Safe noise? What’s that?”
“Most of us are aware of the risk in listening to music that’s too loud – in fact cellphones display a warning when we approach a level where we can do actual damage to our hearing,” she observes.
“Dangerous levels of noise are all around us. Just think of the poor gardener with a leaf blower or lawn mower and not wearing any kind of hearing protection. Over time, real hearing loss will likely develop.”
Injury to Your Sound Mind
“But there is another kind of noise – safe noise – that is not loud enough to physically damage your ears, won’t give you a hearing loss, per se, but will damage your hearing brain, or, as we call it, ‘your sound mind.’
“It is called ‘safe’ because it is below the noise levels the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health says requires hearing protection. These are quieter sounds, like the beeping truck outside, a refrigerator, the sounds generated in a typical office environment.”
And that’s one of the concepts Of Sound Mind develops through examples taken from everyday life. “Our hearing brain determines how we think, feel, move and interact with all of our senses. Safe noise can very much damage the hearing brain – not the ear, the brain.” Kraus underscores.
I had never heard the term before, aware of hearing damage from dangerously loud sounds, but not what it does to the brain. This made me think of Rod Serling’s opening remarks in The Twilight Zone: "There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.”
To Kraus, that fifth dimension is the hearing brain, “As our world has become filled with persistent levels of safe sound, our ability to think, to concentrate and to feel has been compromised as our brain – the hearing brain – sustains actual, provable injury.”
She cited a study of children at a school, where half of the students were in a room facing subway trains. Test results showed them to be far worse off than kids in a quiet room.
“In a typical office, ambient office noise includes the irritating sound of computer fans, chairs scraping on the floor, background noise of people talking who are not part of the conversation you are involved in, music, a radio or the TV. Phones are ringing, people are getting texts on their phones and on it goes.
“Our hearing – the hearing brain – is connected to cognition, to how we think, feel, move and engage other senses, our sensory motor and reward systems.
“These ambient noises harm employees in the typical office, as they cause significant physiological stress, which interferes with the ability to focus, to think, to pay attention, to remember. And, it is all on an unconscious level, worldwide costing billions of dollars due to decreased productivity and increased absenteeism.”
What to Do about Workplace Noise?
When I built my own office years ago, I had ambient noise in mind. It is quieter than a library, and we face a noisy street. We have carpeting, sound-absorbing baffles, cloth paneling on the walls, acoustic ceiling tile. All of these solutions are available to business offices too.
“When an employer is aware of the problem,” Kraus maintains, “so much can be done to provide employees an acoustically healthier work environment. We need to value quiet and noise reduction.” Here are some ideas on how to identify and fix problems with annoying sounds in the workplace:
- Avoid florescent and other buzzy lights.
- No background music or TV.
- Good insulation from neighboring rooms and the outdoors if on a busy street.
- Cloth wall-hangings.
- Everyone can silence their phones and notifications.
- Listen to the sounds of your workspace, giving yourself time to become aware of the irritating sounds. When you identify an annoying sound, ask yourself, “Is this necessary?” Come to honor the sounds you wish to hear.
- Zoom calls can be quite loud sometimes – use headphones, or keep volume down when possible.
In addition, I’ll throw in my own tip: I bought a pair of 3M Peltor X4A earmuffs, which can be worn on an airplane, office or at home when trying to sleep. They virtually eliminate all ambient noise.
Of Sound Mind will change your understanding of our acoustic world and provide justification for business owners to develop a noise-reduction strategy. I encourage visiting the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory’s website to learn more: https://brainvolts.northwestern.edu/ (opens in new tab).
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."
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