New research confirms that poor acoustics affect wellbeing

Facility managers know from experience that employees like to complain about noise. The latest scientific evidence based on research with the US federal government validates their complaints

Noise has traditionally been the number complaint in offices and any facility manager will tell you that workers will readily advance the argument that a poor acoustic environment is impacting their health and productivity. Now, a new study from a research team led by Karthik Srinivasan of the University of Kansas appears to confirm this position.

Srinivasan and associates (2023) found that our performance and wellbeing degrade when we’re in a space that’s much louder or quieter than about 50 dB(A). The research team asked 231 US federal government employees to wear devices in the office that collected data related to their physiological wellbeing. The study found ‘that an individual’s physiological wellbeing is optimal when sound level in the workplace is at 50 dBA. At lower (<50dBA) and higher (>50dBA) amplitude ranges, a 10 dBA decrease or increase in sound level is related to a 5.4 per cent increase and 1.9 per cent decrease in physiological wellbeing respectively.’

These results are not surprising as they validate earlier research.

Noise creates job strain

Researcher Jennifer Veitch reported in 2012 that ‘Overall, a workplace noise level of 55 dB(A) or higher may contribute to ill health, particularly for people with complex jobs or who experience high levels of job strain. However, contemporary offices in North America are not typically this noisy.’ In 2018 Veitch shared that at-work sound volumes of 45dB(A) are generally preferred by workers.

As Dina Abdulkarim (2009) points out, sound is a key driver of our experience of place: ‘Sounds enhance our perception of the environment, produce the rhythms of our life and contribute to our welfare. Our sonic space is larger than our visual space because we can hear further than we can see, listening is multidimensional whereas vision is only frontal, and we can close our eyes easier and more readily than we can plug our ears.’

Abdulkarim further describes how just as ‘we form cognitive maps for our visual environment, we also do so for our sonic environment. Also, as our visual mental maps include the five main features of landmark, node, line, district, and intersection (Lynch, 1960), our sonic mental maps are comprised of soundmarks, sound events, sound districts, and time cycles.’

Managing the soundscape

Previous research has shown that any environment should indeed have a managed soundscape and that silent spaces (which are impossible to create and manage anyway) are undesirable. Acun and Yilmazer (2018) found that in workplaces ‘employees were concerned with silence as much as they were concerned with the noise’. Too quiet spaces can be as stressful as those that are perceived to be too loud: ‘Both a very loud and a very quiet office environment can cause a negative effect on factors such as task performance, satisfaction and wellbeing.’

Burkus (2017) reports that ‘some level of office banter in the background might actually benefit our ability to do creative tasks, provided we don’t get drawn into the conversation. Instead of total silence, the ideal work environment for creative work has a little bit of background noise. . . in our offices, we can’t stop ourselves from getting drawn into others’ conversations or from being interrupted while we’re trying to focus.’

Burkus continues: ‘By contrast, a coworking space or a coffee shop provides a certain level of ambient noise while also providing freedom from interruptions. . .Taken together, the lesson here is that the ideal space for focused work is not about freedom from noise, but about freedom from interruption.’

Read more of the latest research insights from Sally Augustin in Research Roundup, her regular column in the Innovation Zone here.

Research Sources

Dina Abdulkarim. 2009. ‘The Sonic Image of the City: An Identity Beyond Tranquility and Nuisance.” Environmental Design Research Association annual conference, Kansas City, MO.

Volkan Acun and Semiha Yilmazer. 2018. ‘A Grounded Theory Approach to Investigate the Perceived Soundscape of Open-Plan Offices.’ Applied Acoustics, vol. 131, pp. 28-37.

David Burkus. 2017. ‘Why You Can Focus in a Coffee Shop But Not in Your Open Office.’ Harvard Business Review.

Srinivasan, K., Currim, F., Lindberg, C.M. et al. 2023. ‘Discovery of associative patterns between workplace sound level and physiological wellbeing using wearable devices and empirical Bayes modeling’. npj Digital Medicine, vol. 6, no. 5.

Jennifer Veitch. 2012. ‘Work Environments.’ In Susan Clayton (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology.  Oxford University Press:  New York, pp. 248-275.

Jennifer Veitch. 2018. ‘How and Why to Assess Workplace Design: Facilities Management Supports Human Resources.’  Organizational Dynamics, vol. 47, pp. 78-87.

Sally Augustin is a practicing environmental design psychologist and editor of Research Design Connections, based in Chicago. She provides regular scientific commentary for the Academy’s Innovation Zone on new academic research in work and workplace.
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