Using white noise in the office is a commonly suggested remedy for covering up intrusive sounds at work. But that might be like prescribing a medicine with side effects as bad as the illness it’s designed to treat. Let’s explore a different perspective on whether white noise is really beneficial or if it just adds to the burden of excess noise in the workplace.
Why Is White Noise Recommended?
It’s very well established that noise in the workplace is a major source of stress. Unwanted noise is distracting and can be associated with low morale, poor health, and a number of other issues. Conversation is one of the most intrusive sounds, since the brain automatically tries to listen and understand what’s being said. But everything from whirring printers to ringing phones and clicking keyboards can be problematic.
So, white noise may be used to help mask the hustle and bustle. Some of these sound tracks imitate noises found in nature, such as whispering breezes, waves, or rushing water. Others use specifically selected wavelengths of sound in spectrums known to be soothing. The idea is that the added layer of noise will help filter out or dampen the effect of less appealing sounds.
Not Everyone Likes White Noise
Unfortunately, white noise in the office doesn’t always work as intended. Kery Floyd, writing for forcexinc.com, clearly states his dislike for this artificial sound. He finds that it actually makes concentration more difficult. Floyd points to a couple of studies that have shown mixed results for white noise. In one, individuals who typically had difficulty concentrating were helped by the noise. Those who were usually attentive suffered a decline in performance. White noise was something of an equalizer, but certainly not an overall performance booster for all participants.
A summary of research published over at sonicstate.com offers a grim view of white noise in the office. It uses the research of Mark Andrews, (a physiology professor) to make the case that white noise causes stress and can lead to many harmful stress-related conditions. However, a closer reading reveals that Andrews is discussing low level background noise—which would include typical workplace sounds that we already know are distracting. It’s not specifically about white noise machines. At the same time, the comments on the article show a strong aversion to the use of “sound conditioning”. Complaints include headaches and distraction.
What’s the Takeaway?
Remember that perception is everything. If you do decide to use white noise, check to see if it is actually helping your employees. When you have workers complaining about white noise, it’s not the right solution. When it’s working right, no one should notice that it’s there.