Decibels and Cubicles: The Challenge of Workplace Noise

How loud is too loud? Well, that depends.

Workplace noise (and its effects on employee health and performance) has been a topic of research since at least the first half of the 20th century, but despite the attention given to the issue, the challenge remains a thorny one.

People are different, and they respond to sound in different ways, which makes one-size-fits-all solutions hard to come by, says James Szalma, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, whose work includes research on workplace noise.

He cites, for instance, a meta-analysis of the topic that he and his colleagues published in 2011 in the academic journal Psychological Bulletin. “When we started our review, we thought, well, we’re going to find that the louder [the noise] is, the worse it is,” he recalls.

Instead, the researchers found that noise at any level could be stressful “if it’s unwanted,” Szalma says. And what qualifies as unwanted? Well, again, that depends.

“If you look at personality traits and response to noise, some individuals work better when there are sounds around them, and others work better when it’s just nice and quiet,” he notes.

But just because the issue is complicated, doesn’t mean it should be ignored. “Anywhere there’s acoustic noise, you have the potential for either health problems or problems of performance, or both,” Szalma says.

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