If you're one of those employees who craves complete silence to concentrate at work, you might want to reconsider. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona and University of Kansas, the key to healthier employees could be a quieter – or louder – office space.
The study, published in the journal Nature Digital Medicine, found that while loud noises at the office have a negative impact on employee well-being, complete silence is not necessarily conducive to a healthy workplace. Instead, the sweet spot for office noise seems to be around 50 decibels, which is roughly equivalent to birdsong or the pitter-patter of moderate rain.
"Everybody knows that loud noise is stressful, and, in fact, extremely loud noise is harmful to your ear," said study co-author Esther Sternberg, director of the UArizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance. "But what was new about this is that with even low levels of sound - less than 50 decibels - the stress response is higher."
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The study is part of a larger workplace well-being research project led by Sternberg, who is a renowned expert on the ways workspaces can influence physical and mental health. In a previous study she led in 2018, employees who worked in open office seating – at desks that aren't separated by partitions – had greater daytime activity levels and lower stress levels in the evening compared to workers in private offices and cubicles.
But open office spaces also come with a common complaint from people who work in them: noise. With this latest study, Sternberg and her co-authors shed more light on employees' physiological reactions to office sound.
To measure the impact of sound on office workers, researchers asked 231 employees from the U.S. General Services Administration to wear two devices for three days. One device measured sound levels in the person's work environment, while another measured participants' physiological stress and relaxation levels using heart rate variability, or the varying lengths of time between each heartbeat.
The results showed that when a worker's environmental sound level was above 50 decibels, each 10-decibel increase was related to a 1.9% decrease in physiological well-being. But when office sound was lower than 50 decibels, each 10-decibel increase related to a 5.4% increase in physiological well-being.
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"People are always working in coffee shops – those are not quiet spaces. But the reason you can concentrate there is because the sounds all merge to become background noise," Sternberg said. "It masks sound that might be distracting. If you hear a pin drop when it's very, very quiet, it will distract you from what you're doing."
The findings suggest that employers looking to build or redesign their office spaces with employee health and well-being in mind might want to consult acoustical engineers to help create optimal environmental sound conditions. Acoustical engineers already take great care in choosing or designing furniture, flooring, wall coverings, and other aspects of spaces, and now they may need to consider the soundscape as well.
So, the next time you find yourself seeking complete silence to focus at work, remember that a little bit of background noise might actually be good for your health. After all, in the office, silence may not always be golden!