The recent article in The New York Times raised an issue of the noise at work in the office. The author noticed an obvious thing: the noise make people less productive and more distracted. He even bought up my favorite, evolutionary, standpoint:
Mammalian hearing developed primarily as an animal-detector system — and it was crucial to hear every rustle from afar. The evolved ear is an extraordinary amplifier. By the time the brain registers a sound, our auditory mechanism has jacked the volume several hundredfold from the level at which the sound wave first started washing around the loopy whirls of our ears. This is why, in a reasonably quiet room, we actually can hear a pin drop. Think what a tiny quantity of sound energy is released by a needle striking a floor! Our ancestors needed such hypersensitivity, because every standout noise signified a potential threat.
There has been a transformation in our relationship to the environment over the millions of years since the prototype for human hearing evolved, but part of our brain hasn’t registered the makeover.
Every time a siren shrieks on the street, our conscious minds might ignore it, but other brain regions behave as if that siren were a predator barreling straight for us. Given how many sirens city dwellers are subject to over the course of an average day, and the attention-fracturing tension induced by loud sounds of every sort, it’s easy to see how sensitivity to noise, once an early warning system for approaching threats, has become a threat in itself.
For those who are not satisfied by the common sense and evolutionary speculation, here are results of two studies performed in 2000 and 2011.
The results of the first one were published in October 2000 by Journal of Applied Psychology. Female clerical workers were exposed to low-intensity noise designed to simulate typical open-office noise levels. The noise elevated their urinary epinephrine (but not norepinephrine or cortisol) levels and decreased their motivation. The latter, called by researchers “behavioral aftereffects”, was demonstrated by the facts that participants tried fewer attempts at unsolvable puzzles (a classic test to check motivation) and were less likely to make ergonomic, postural adjustments in their computer workstation. Failure to adjust your workplace is not a fun fact; it is a risk factor for musculoskeletal disorder.
As for the increases epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, this hormone, besides regulating heart rate, blood vessel and air passage diameters, is a crucial component of the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. In plain English, it means that the body is getting ready to act, but it does not. It leads to all kinds of stress-related problems like heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes, headaches, depressions, and, ultimately, premature death.
Another study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health in 2011 found that Danish workers sharing an office were taking 62% more sick days than those who work in their own closed spaces.
Are any other reasons needed to avoid open office environment or, at least, try to reach silence hours whenever possible?