The healthiest noise level for the office is about 50 decibels.

According to research findings, too much or too little noise in the office can harm our health.

The ideal amount is about 50 decibels, comparable to moderate rain or bird chirping.

“Everyone knows loud noise is stressful, and actually, overly loud noise is harmful to your ears,” says Esther Sternberg, director of the Institute for Location, Fitness, and Performance at the University of Arizona. “But what’s new about it is that even at sound levels lower than 50 decibels, the stress response is higher.”

According to the study’s findings, Sternberg says if employers plan to build or redesign their office space with employee health and well-being in mind, they may want to consult with acoustic engineers, who can help them look for good environmental sound conditions.

The research appears in the journal Nature Digital Medicine. Sudha Ram, professor of management information systems at the Eller College of Management, is the senior author of the study. Karthik Srinivasan, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, led the research when he was a doctoral student at Eller and is the lead author of the paper.

“When we think about well-being, we usually think of emotional or mental well-being,” Srinivasan says. “We hardly ever take into account physiological well-being or the actual ‘what’s going on in our body,’ which is also important to understand when we are constantly exposed to environmental factors like sound.”

A 2018 study by Sternberg showed that employees working in open office seating (undivided desks) have higher activity levels during the daytime and lower stress levels in the evening, after office hours, compared to those working in private offices and cubicles. .

But open office spaces also come with a common complaint from the people who work in them: noise. With this latest study, Sternberg and his co-authors shed more light on employees’ physiological responses to office noise.

The new work was part of Sternberg’s larger research project, Wellbuilt for Wellbeing, in partnership with the U.S. General Services Administration, the federal agency that oversees the core operations of all non-military federal government buildings, including building and purchasing real estate and managing buildings. systems and managing government-wide re-entry into the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To measure the impact of noise on office workers, the researchers asked 231 corporate employees working in four buildings in the US to wear two devices for three days. A device worn around the neck measured the sound levels in the person’s work environment.

Another, worn on the chest, measured participants’ levels of physiological stress and relaxation using heart rate variability, or varying lengths of time between each heartbeat. The chest-mounted monitors were developed by Aclima, Inc., which also contributed to the study. Designed by.

Heart rate variability is a direct result of breathing, says Sternberg: Heart rate increases slightly as a person inhales and decreases as the person exhales, causing variability between heartbeats.

The more variable the spacing between heartbeats, the healthier the person.

“One way to think of it is a straight line with the least variable heart rhythm,” Sternberg says, referring to the straight line on the electrocardiogram—a sign that someone has died. “You don’t want that, you want a variable heart rate.”

The researchers measured heart rate variability alongside environmental sound, then used mathematical modeling to determine how changing sound levels affect a person’s physiological health.

Participants also answered questions sent to their smartphones about how they were feeling at random times throughout the day.

The results show that when an employee’s environmental noise level is above 50 decibels, every 10 decibel increase is associated with a 1.9% decrease in physiological well-being. But when office noise is below 50 decibels, every 10 decibel increase is associated with a 5.4% increase in physiological well-being.

Sternberg says that people’s tendency to become distracted is a result of the brain’s stress response to potential threats. Our brains are “difference sensors,” which note sudden changes in sounds so we can decide to fight or flee, he said.

This may explain why low, steady sounds help mask distractions in the workplace, he adds.

“People work in cafes all the time – they’re not quiet places. But the reason you can concentrate there is because the sounds all combine to become background noise,” says Sternberg. If you hear a pin drop when you’re very, very quiet, it takes your attention away from what you’re doing.”

Sternberg says the study provides precise data that can guide employers in designing office spaces to maximize employee well-being. Acoustic engineers already take great care when selecting or designing furniture, flooring, wall coverings and other aspects of spaces such as concert halls, recording studios and museums.

If employee health is a priority, Sternberg says, “There’s no reason why these simple interventions shouldn’t be installed in office spaces to reduce the distraction of sound.”

Source: University of Arizona, on behalf of the University of Kansas Jon Niccum

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