When Sound Hurts
Sound can be a beautiful thing. Laughter has an amazing power to heal, the blend of music harmonies and dissonant chords evoke emotions, and the rustling of leaves, the cheeky call of the Tui and the ebb and flow of the tides can help ground us.
But sound can also hurt. The constant hum of the heat pump, the screeching of nails on a chalkboard, background chatter and the ringing of telephones in an open office, the sharp clang of a tray when it hits the ground in an already crowded kitchen.
Tempers flare, voices raised, and the sound of your coworker chewing gum suddenly feels... exhausting.
Fatigue. The first sign of too much noise.
If you're going home exhausted at the end of a workday and feel overwhelmed without really knowing why, it could be due to the amount of noise that you were exposed to. Headaches, an increase in stress and anxiety, the inability to concentrate can all be a subconscious warning that the "hustle and bustle" in your environment is just too much. Remember that your ears are trained (from caveman days) to look out for any jarring sounds. So that constant background ringing of telephones in your open office? That was engineered to alert and warn. It also causes stress and high blood pressure. Too much of it leads to anxiety, high cholesterol, and the inability to concentrate on the simplest tasks. The sensory overload can even trigger headaches and tinnitus.
Research (showcased on "The Secret Life of Buildings") from Exeter University showed that noise in an open office creates a 32 percent drop in "workers' well-being" and 15 percent reduction in productivity. That's a huge drain on resources! As your ears get worn out listening to sounds and speech, they work harder to hear, decipher and interpret speech, noise and sound all at once. The need to escape from the noise leads to social isolation, poor performance, and even depression.
Too much noise exposure, even at "safe" levels, causes mental and physical damage. Some examples are:
Mental: Fatigue, anxiety, stress, headaches, poor performance, social isolation, depression
Physical: High blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain, tinnitus, hearing loss
In fact, noise torture is one of the effective techniques used to disorient and break the will of prisoners and detainees. These sounds were kept under 79 decibels - Not loud enough to cause a hearing loss, but constant and jarring enough to break and beat a person down.
Ironic that we subject ourselves to the same torture when we willingly go to a "bustling restaurant", or sit next to the espresso machine at a cafe.
We have a whole page dedicated to noise-induced hearing loss, but I'd like to emphasize that we only have 18,000 ear hair cells (cilia) to last us for a lifetime. When exposed to relatively loud sounds over long periods, they die. With extremely loud sounds above 140dB, they die instantly. And they never grow back. Hearing loss is permanent and 100% preventable.
So what can we do about it?
Take quiet-time breaks during the day to relieve your ears. Find a quiet place to sit and be alone or take a walk outside.
Wear acoustic-filtered office earplugs instead of headphones. While music can be comforting, the temptation to turn the volume up inadvertently takes up more of our noise dose, and isolates ourselves from our environment. Reducing the volume by 10dB or 15dB allows you to stay connected with your team, while letting your concentrate on your work.
At the end of the day, it’s ok to just remove yourself from a situation and take a break from listening. Take a walk with a couple of friends along one of New Zealand's beautiful nature trails. Mute the TV or radio and find some quiet time at night to just read a book alone. Silence can go a long way in relaxing your ears and yourself.
Read more about
Is annoyance noise harmful? Heat pumps are the top complaint from New Zealand's noise control.
At what point does sound actually become dangerous?
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