• Home
  • /
  • Blog
  • /
  • 6 Ways to Reduce Unwanted Noise in Your Workspace

Wherever you are, noise can make it difficult to get work done, adversely affect your mood and cause you to have trouble concentrating. There’s plenty of research that backs up why you should actively try to reduce unwanted noise in an office, in your college residence hall or your home workspace.

Traffic Noise Could Increase Your Heart Disease and Diabetes Risk

It’s no secret that the sound of continually passing traffic outside your door is annoying, but researchers have found it could also make you more likely to suffer from heart disease. They looked at blood markers from 144,000 adults in The Netherlands and Norway and determined how those possible indicators of heart problems connect to noise from cars and the associated air pollution.

They found that an increase of only 5 decibels led to a rise of 0.3 percent higher blood sugar levels compared to people who lived in quieter places. Furthermore, the scientists clarified that noise pollution causes long-term risks to heart health due to related issues like the increased production of stress hormones and disrupted sleep cycles due to the noise.

The Link Between Noise and Rodents’ Mental Health

If you’re particularly sensitive to noise, being exposed to it could cause you to feel edgy or otherwise upset, and you probably didn’t need scientific proof to confirm that fact. However, scientists have also shown similar effects in mice.

After exposing them to noise over prolonged periods of time, the researchers found that the rodents had brain chemistry changes linked to anxiety and depression. Plus, they became increasingly less active.

Indeed, the same effects seen in rodents don’t always appear in humans. However, if you’re wondering about the precise issues caused by excessive noise, this animal study could provide a glimpse. It involved mice exposed to sounds of 90 decibels.

Noise Pollution Reduces the Productivity-Enhancing Effects of Nature Sounds

You may have listened to the sounds of falling rain or chirping birds to help you calm down at night before trying to sleep, but what about while at work?

The results of a small study indicated when people heard nature sounds, they performed better on tasks and experienced mood boosts compared to when they didn’t receive that auditory stimuli. Perhaps that’s why some workplaces have outdoor areas where people can take their laptops and get things done.

Although you can listen to recorded nature sounds while at work, it’s arguably more pleasant to experience them in real-time by going to an area that’s filled with them. Unfortunately, though, another study revealed that noise pollution drowns out nature sounds even in protected areas like national parks.

People investigating the matter focused on nearly 500 protected areas throughout the United States. They found that human-produced noise pollution was double the loudness of background sounds in approximately two-thirds of the places studied.

That’s strong evidence for visitors to those destinations — or any associated with nature — to carefully pay attention to the noises they make and try to tune into the existing ones instead of adding to the sounds by talking or playing music. This is especially true if they retreat to those spaces to reap work-related benefits, such as while brainstorming for upcoming projects.

Loud Sounds Make People Report Feeling Stressed

Most people agree that even the most beautiful and beloved songs become annoying when played too loudly. A researcher associated with Duke University had test subjects complete sudoku puzzles while listening to music through headphones.

Surprisingly, the research did not show a drop in productivity tied to higher levels of sounds. There was a correlation between higher volumes and increased levels of stress, though, according to self-reported measurements during the exercises. All participants also found the music most preferable at its lowest output levels.

The researcher concluded that the findings could encourage college representatives to keep soundtracks at lower-than-average levels during times when students are likely to be under extra stress, such as while preparing for midterms or finals.

Sounds Made by Noisy Colleagues Are the Hardest to Ignore

Have you ever noticed it’s easier to tune out the hum of an air conditioner or water cooler than the noises of people talking to each other face to face, having phone conversations, coughing, sneezing, rustling papers and otherwise being too loud?

Research from Cornell University showed that noises from other humans are more distracting than machine-made sounds. It’s because people are social creatures, and they naturally tune into sounds made by fellow humans.

Furthermore, overheard conversations provide other elements of distraction, especially if people are talking so loudly that it’s impossible not to hear what they’re saying.

Research from a meta-analysis of over 240 studies found that conversational noise is particularly distracting when it’s intermittent. The conclusion was that continuous speech has comparatively fewer variations in rhythm and is less distracting than broken-up speech patterns when people engage in cognitive tasks.

Noisy Neighbors and the Health Effects They Cause

You’ve already learned about how traffic noises could be detrimental to your health, but what about the sounds from neighbors who act like they’re the only ones in the vicinity and remain utterly oblivious to the need to respect others?

Data collected about the health effects caused by noisy neighbors found that too much exposure to them brings about fatigue and joint disorders, as well as cardiovascular problems. Not surprisingly, the research also pinpointed a connection between loud neighbors and increased headaches.

One problem is that it’s often difficult for people to determine the overall noisiness of a neighborhood before moving to it. Some of them might plan to set up expansive home offices for remote work and realize their intentions are unreachable because the people living around them are just too loud to allow for adequate levels of concentration.

The Potential Rise in Sick Days at Open-Plan Offices

People who get sick and need to take time off from work often feel extremely anxious due to the mere thought of how much time it’ll take them to catch up again once they return. Sick days impact productivity by making people spend more time getting back on track than taking care of new tasks.

As it turns out, working in an open-plan office might make you more likely to need sick days than if you worked in a private environment — and increased noise is one of the reasons.

Researchers say people in open-plan environments are more likely to take short-term leave, constituting a week or less, than those in other kinds of work setups. The probability was higher for women than men.

The people involved in the study believe background noise hurts overall health, thereby making the immune system less able to fight illnesses. They also emphasize that open-plan offices make it easier for germs to spread.

Separate research from MIT found that the clouds of droplets that occur when people sneeze could travel up to 200 times further than previously thought, making it especially necessary for individuals to cover their mouths.

Turning back to the open-plan office and sickness study, scientists said the lack of visual privacy also wreaks havoc on the immune system, causing abnormally prolonged activation of the fight-or-flight system.

The amassed research indicates that if you want to achieve your best productivity output, feel healthy and stay in a good mood, you can’t go without taking some steps to get rid of unwanted noise in your workplace. Try these suggestions to start.

1. Urge Your Employer to Offer Quiet Work Areas

The open-plan office trend isn’t going away anytime soon, and that’s because the setup offers economic benefits for employers and looks visually appealing. If you work in such an environment, talk to your boss about practical ways to give workers relief from the din as they get things done.

For example, soundproof office pods are an easy way to create modern-looking quite spaces throughout an open office and don’t require remodeling.

Additionally, if you’re lucky enough to work in an environment that has many additional rooms or multiple floors, you could suggest turning some of those rooms into quiet areas, or designating entire floors as quiet areas.

2. Wear Noise-Canceling Headphones

You may have inserted earbuds into your ears to get a bit of peace during a busy commute on public transit or to block out the noises of an overexcited toddler as you try to accomplish tasks in your home office. That’s a good start, but it’s even better if you can use noise-canceling headphones.

They adapt to your environment as new sounds enter it, making them less likely to cause distractions that interfere with concentration on work. Also, remember the study cited above that discovered when music is too loud, it stresses people out. Noise-canceling headphones are a great way to tune it out.

Research related to developers at Canadian software companies found listening to music could boost work performance. This coincided with an earlier study carried out by other scientists that revealed music makes repetitive tasks more bearable. However, be careful with the volume level and try to keep it at 70 decibels, which is an ambient or moderate level.

Curious about the typical noise level of your environment? Download the NIOSH Noise Meter App for iOS. It uses the built-in microphone on your device to give you a reading, allowing you to determine whether the noise in your environment might be hazardous to your health and productivity.

3. Try Listening to White Noise

If you work in an environment where traffic or noisy people are unavoidable, turning on a white noise maker could help. Some people find white noise helps them focus at work because it makes them stop anticipating future sounds and concentrate on the consistent drone of the white noise.

One thing you can do is turn on a fan, whether it’s a standalone unit or one inside an air conditioner. However, that option may not be feasible, mainly because you could potentially cause disruptive temperature changes for people sitting close to you. Additionally, some of your co-workers may not find the same benefits associated with white noise that you do.

The Noisli app is free, and it generates noises for you while you work. There is even a productivity category of sounds meant to help you maximize your workflow. Consider combining white noise with the tip you learned above and play it through noise-canceling headphones. Then, you can get all the perks of white noise for productivity without disturbing other people.

4. Invest in Quiet Office Furniture

Whether it’s because of its primary material or the mechanical design of the piece, you’ve probably come across furniture that’s loud no matter what you do.

For example, upholstery made from real or imitation leather could become loud if peoples’ bare skin creates friction with it. Also, maybe a couch in your office is past its prime and includes squeaky springs that squeal whenever people shift their weight while sitting.

Then, there are chairs with casters. Although intended for convenience, they could add noises to an office setting when people scoot across the floor while sitting in them, especially if they move across hard surfaces.

When testing office furniture before buying it, move around in the ways you would if working. Then, pay attention to any noises that result.

Soft cushions may be quieter than smooth ones because they’ll reduce or remove the friction issue. Also, steer clear of pillows that have beans or similar kinds of particles in them. They might seem ideal at first since they naturally adjust to the curves of a person’s body. However, as the internal contents shift, noise results.

You don’t necessarily have to avoid buying chairs that are easy to move around, though. When buying them, make sure to also pick up some plastic mats that dampen noise and help chairs glide over the surface.

A federal initiative called Buy Quiet encourages the executives associated with industrial workplaces to buy or rent exceptionally quiet equipment to cut down on the noise pollution exposure their employees receive. There’s no reason why you can’t take a similar approach whether buying stuff for your home office or giving input on replacement furniture at your workplace.

5. Encourage Workers to Give Feedback to Each Other

One of the problems related to noise pollution and workplaces is that people often have ingrained habits — such as talking too loudly or tapping their fingernails on their desks — that contribute to overly loud work environments. Unfortunately, many distracted colleagues weigh in to say they feel trapped in such situations because if they speak up, the offending persons won’t do anything to change their behaviors.

It could be helpful to foster a culture change at work involving colleagues giving feedback to each other and making people more aware of their overly noisy habits. If everyone participates, the likelihood of someone feeling singled out is greatly reduced. It’s also helpful to ban specific practices that inevitably increase noise pollution, such as having lengthy conversations via speakerphones.

Researchers in New York City have started installing noise sensors around the vicinity and hope to use the data they produce to reduce complaints about excessive loudness. For example, using such a sensor at a construction site could allow the company in charge of ongoing work to realize that the noise produced causes significant disruptions to urban dwellers.

It’s possible that construction workers wouldn’t immediately notice the noise problems without access to those collected statistics. After all, supervisors typically require workers to wear hearing protection. Furthermore, merely being used to loudness as a characteristic of the job itself may make loud sounds seem less bothersome.

6. Plan a Companywide Quiet Period

If noise becomes extraordinarily upsetting for most of a workforce, the best approach to take might be to cut it out altogether. Milanote, a company that developed a planning app for creative projects, moved forward with a bold experiment that involved having quiet periods — without talking, phone calls or meetings — for half of the workday.

Workers at Milanote also don’t use tools and devices, such as smartphones, email platforms and Slack, during quiet time.

Realistically, quiet time isn’t achievable for every person at the company. The general manager is one individual who cannot disconnect from the outside world for half a day. Even so, that person makes sure to take care of noisy activities behind closed doors to limit disruption for other team members.

Statistics show that the quiet periods made the Milanote team 23 percent more productive. The increase in performance paved the way for employees to take Friday off, too.

Deal With Disruptions Without Delay

Unless you go work in a cabin in the woods that’s 10 miles away from the nearest road and 5 miles away from the nearest human, it’s difficult to do away with all noise disruptions. However, you now have several strategies to help reduce them — and the research indicates you should undoubtedly try those options out.

You may also Like

Read More

Last Updated: March 14, 2023

Read More

Last Updated: October 20, 2022

Read More


Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. I like your advice to invest in office furniture that is easy and quiet to move to reduce noise in your workplace. In my opinion, it would also be smart to find ways to make office equipment quieter. You could easily do so by hiring a professional noise consultant to help.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}