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The importance of good office acoustics

Between the chatter of colleagues, phone calls and trips to the toilet, there are many sources of distraction in the office, and noise has become one of the most important.


Indeed, since the advent of open-plan offices in the 50s, noise levels in the workplace have risen steadily and are now at record levels, and this is bound to have repercussions not only for your teams, but for your business in general.


Noise in the office


Man shouting into a megaphone
Man shouting into a megaphone

We came across some intriguing figures in IFOP's latest "Noise and hearing health at work" barometer, published in October 2023. These figures confirm the trend towards increasingly noisy workspaces.


  • Firstly, "almost half of working people (45%) say that noise at work has at least one impact on their daily lives." (IFOP, 2023). This proportion is even higher among the under-35s (52%).

  • Then, between 50% and 60% of respondents mention "fatigue, weariness, irritability, and stress due to excessive noise exposure at work." (IFOP, 2023). A situation which not only has a major impact on workers' health, but also on their productivity, and therefore on the health of your company.

  • Finally, the barometer also reveals that "the solutions proposed by employers are deemed insufficient" by teams, who expect more from the company (IFOP, 2023).


If, as an employer, you want to provide a healthy working environment and put an end to noise pollution in your company, it's important to take action on a number of different aspects, such as corporate culture, office layout and design. It's this last point in particular that we'll be examining in greater detail in the remainder of this article.


Noise in the workplace, a major stress factor


Stress at work can be caused by a number of factors, such as excessive or insufficient workload, lack of recognition, work-related insecurity or social relationships, to name but a few (BeSWIC, 2006).


But of all the factors likely to cause stress in workers, noise is often overlooked, even though it can be a major source. Noise, insofar as it is unpredictable, uncontrollable and chronic, can be a stress factor for those confronted with it.


Stressed man working at a desk
Stressed man at work

Indeed, depending on the level of noise exposure, the consequences for health may differ. According to INRS, the effects of noise exposure can be of two types.

If exposure is intense but short-lived (> 135dB), the effects are mainly auditory, such as hearing fatigue or deafness of varying severity.

If exposure is less intense but prolonged (> 80dB), the effects are termed "extra-auditory" and include cardiovascular disorders, sleep disturbances, increased risk of work-related accidents and stress.


Of course, some professions are more exposed to noise pollution than others. Construction workers, for example, tend to be subjected to intense but shorter-duration noise, while restaurant staff are subject to less intense but longer-duration noise.


It should also be remembered that stress at work, whether caused by noise or not, is itself responsible for 50% to 60% of absenteeism from work (Prevanticip, 2024). So there's plenty for all players in the economy to work on.


Belgian and European regulations on noise at work


As an employer, you are obliged to take the necessary steps to ensure that your workers have adequate hearing protection.


In concrete terms, European Directive 2003/10/EU of February 6, 2003 stipulates that "the employer is required to assess and, if necessary, measure the noise levels to which workers are exposed" (EC, 2024), whereas Belgian regulations "first require the employer to take all measures to ensure the protection of workers against noise-related damage (health, hearing, safety)." (BeSWIC, 2024).


The exposure limit values above which you are required to take action are 80 dB (A) for prolonged exposure and 135 dB (C) for shorter duration, while the values which may never be exceeded are 87 dB (A) for prolonged exposure and 140 dB (C) for shorter duration.


By way of example, our ears can only be exposed for 3 hours to a sound intensity of 80 dB. 3 decibels more and the amount of acoustic energy is doubled, halving the exposure time. In comparison, we can only be exposed to a sound level of 100 dB for a maximum of 5 minutes! (Decilo, 2024).


How to improve office acoustics ?


As we mentioned earlier, it's important to tackle noise nuisance as a whole, taking into account various aspects such as corporate culture, building condition and office layout.

While all these aspects are important, it's on the last point that we focus here, giving you three easy-to-implement tips for reducing noise levels in your company.


Front desk of Zuiderpoort Business Center in Gent
Zuiderpoort Business Center in Gent

Acoustic panels


Sound reverberation has a major influence on acoustic comfort in a room, which will deteriorate as reverberation increases. Thanks to their composition, acoustic panels can absorb part of this reverberation, reducing the overall noise level of a space.


Plants 


Plants have many virtues, including helping to reduce noise levels in the office. As well as creating a natural barrier against noise, their leaves help absorb some of the sound waves. Among the most effective anti-noise plants are the weeping fig, the margined dragon tree and mother-in-law's tongue.


Soundproof office booth


Soundproof office booths isolate loud conversations from the rest of the workspace, drastically reducing noise levels for the rest of the teams and providing a talking space for those wishing to hold meetings or make calls.


 

In conclusion, office acoustics represent a major challenge for companies today. The latest figures revealed by IFOP clearly show the significant repercussions of noise pollution on workers' daily lives, and this situation calls for immediate action on the part of employers.


Some measures can be implemented quickly and effectively. Acoustic panels, plants and soundproof booths offer practical solutions for reducing noise and creating a pleasant working environment for teams.


By taking strong measures to reduce noise in your company, you are also demonstrating your commitment to the well-being and productivity of your staff, while helping to establish a strong corporate culture based on respect and comfort at work.

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