Office noise: long-term effects on stress

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Noise, or ‘unwanted sound’ as it is defined, is a common complaint in offices today. In fact, many studies indicate that office noise is the most frequent complaint amongst office workers. 

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A 2016 study by economic consultants at Oxford Economics found that workers, above all else, wanted a workplace free of distractions. Despite this, the study found that office acoustics were last on designers’ considerations when developing offices. As a result, office noise is endemic.

Office acoustics can be low on the priority list of designers
Office acoustics are an often overlooked area when designing a workspace

Open-plan office design

It’s no coincidence that the rise in employee complaints can be directly linked with the rise in open-plan offices in the UK. 

However, there’s a reason why open-plan design is a favoured choice amongst CEOs and Senior Management Teams. They have been proven to boost productivity, increase teamwork, and promote collaboration. Just look at some of the industry giants such as Google and Facebook, who are prominent advocates of open-plan environments. 

And their sales speak for themselves. 

Both sides of the argument present compelling evidence in favour of their chosen viewpoints. 

With that in mind, Sound Zero is committed to looking for ways in which open-plan offices and employee satisfaction can work in conjunction. This, in turn, will boost sales and increase wellbeing.   

This blog will set out to explore the long-term impact that office noise may have on its workers if it is not addressed in a progressive way.

Office noise causes stress
Research suggests noise in the office cause stress-related illnesses

Workplace noise

You would be forgiven for assuming that noise pollution at work is limited to loud assembly lines or construction sites. Whilst these examples definitely apply, regular offices are not immune.

Workplace chatter, loud conversations, or perhaps even maintenance or building work going on next door are some of the common disturbances’ employees encounter.

In fact, researchers studying the effects of noise on office workers have found that prolonged exposure to noise may have serious health ramifications.

When do office sounds become office noise?

It is recommended that open office plans have a noise range criterion between 49 and 58 decibels (dBA).

We have taken findings from HSE’s Noise at work  – Guidance for employers on the Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 to show the common sounds you may hear and their measurement in decibels. 

Common sounds you may hear and their measurement in decibels
A person with normal hearing can hear sounds at 0 dBA
Points of Reference *measured in dBA or decibels
  • 0 The faintest audible sound a person can hear
  • 20-30 Quiet library
  • 40-50 Quiet office
  • 50-60 Normal conversation
  • 65-75 Loud radio
  • 100-110 Road drill
  • 140 Jet engine taking off (from 25m away)

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Mental health effects of office noise

What may begin as a distraction and an inability to concentrate may progress to irritation, poor job performance, frayed tempers and feelings of anger.

The ramifications of this could surface in the form of latent psychological issues for those enduring noise pollution day after day. 


According to the EPA’s Noise Effects Handbook, excessive noise can create mental fatigue and distraction, impairing workers’ judgement. 

The handbook states that a noisy workplace environment places stress on employees, who must find ways to work around the impediment.


According to the UCLA Health Impact Assessment, excessive noise can have a negative effect on the cardiovascular system and long- and short-term memory

The EPA cites ‘stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption and lost productivity’ as the possible health results of noise pollution. 

Physical health effects of office noise

Interestingly, a Cornell University study on office noise found that those working in noisy office environments are less likely to ergonomically adjust their workstations for comfort, which can contribute to musculoskeletal problems.

Noise can even cause musculoskeletal problems
Workers in a noisy office are less likely to ergonomically adjust their workstations for comfort leading to back pain

Noise pollution has also been found to affect sleep quality by preventing sleep and disrupting sleep cycles. 

Perhaps most significantly, stress can lower your immunity to all disease.

What’s the solution to bad acoustics?

Our previous post identified that staff absenteeism costs employers £30 billion a year. With a figure so alarming, there’s a need for employers to address some of the key contributors to staff absence. 

According to research by industry body Group Risk Development (GRiD), stress and stress-inducing situations are the main causes of short-term absence.

In order to tackle this, Sound Zero create thriving, productive, and stress-free open-plan spaces.

We are committed to enhancing your office space with our range of sustainable, sound-absorbent products that don’t compromise on design.

If you would like to talk to one of our experts about how you can improve your office acoustics with a creative, design-led approach, get in touch here

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