Cognitive Fitness Chapter 9 – Workplace Noise – Can You Hear Yourself Think?

Our latest research looks at the factors that most impact our cognitive performance – so individuals and organisations can understand and adopt best practices to get everyone’s brain in peak condition. The last 6 blogs have considered “personal” aspects such as sleep and hydration. Now we are turning our attention to environmental factors – starting with workplace NOISE – one of the big disruptors!

Everyone knows that workplace noise is a major contributor to distraction in the working environment, leading to a reduction in mental performance and even an increase in stress levels. The cognitive ability to retain and manipulate information for brief periods of time is a key aspect of effective cognitive functioning (described as “working memory”). It is very vulnerable to interference from a variety of influences and sensory inputs – including different aspects of noise.

Researchers find that when the demands of work are high, workplace noise has a big impact as it is seen as an additional “load”, requiring extra resources to combat its effect. When tasks are easy and don’t need much attention, some distracting workplace noise can actually reduce the demand on the human brain.

Workplace noise is a key aspect of workplace management and managing human performance. Different types of workplace noise and the impact of additional sounds to mask or mitigate the impact of workplace noise have all been studied with mixed results, but there is much that is helpful.

Background Workplace Noise

There’s no doubt, background noise can have a considerable effect on cognitive performance. It’s hard to be precise in terms of the effect, because everyone is different – and the impact will vary depending on the nature of the task, how loud the workplace noise is, and how long it lasts. Another aspect is our personal ability to control the noise or the sources of noise.

Research shows that exposure to continuous noise at 75-80dB (conversation is typically around 70dB) decreases our performance – particularly accuracy, although speed tends not to be impacted.


Being able to clearly hear a conversation elsewhere in the office is distracting, whether or not people actually WANT to tune into what is being said. Research shows the level of “intelligibility” of the speech is directly related to the amount of distraction it causes to working memory. Working memory is particularly susceptible to speech, which seems to take priority over the processing of other information when it is being heard.

Background “babble” is less distracting, as the brain isn’t trying to follow specific conversations. Also, the number of voices has an impact – 3 or more speakers are less distracting than one – as they tend to form part of the babble, whereas one loud person’s voice carries above the babble, disrupting concentration and impacting short term memory. Highly intelligible “halfalogue” speech (overhearing one side of a conversation on a mobile) is more disruptive than being able to hear both sides of the conversation.

It is important to consider the office design and how best to mitigate noisy situtations. For example, an effective way to minimise noise from calls is by installing a phone booth for your employees to take their calls in. This simple addition to the office design will significantly reduce the disruption and workplace noise.

Office Music

Playing music in an office environment doesn’t reduce the impact of office noise (i.e. background noise, people’s voices/conversations), and also has an impact on attention and cognitive performance. Also, the impact on mental performance is increased when the music has lyrics. It seems that the higher the stimulus from the music (music with lyrics produces a complex stimulus), the greater the negative effect on concentration and attention.

So if tasks don’t require a high level of concentration (they are repetitive and routine), music with lyrics may not be detrimental to cognitive ability. But when we need to focus and concentrate on complex tasks (and where accuracy is important), music with lyrics is likely to make concentration harder.

Cognitive Fitness - workplace Noise -advanced workplace associates - awa - cognitive performance

What can be done?

    • Choose a place in the office where you can get the conditions you need for the task at hand – most people don’t need pin-drop quiet conditions all the time. It’s better to look for somewhere else to work than sit at your desk feeling trapped and frustrated by the noise around you. activity based working environments enable employees to be able to work where they want and when they want, empowering them with the flexibility and freedom of working where best suits them and their needs.
    • Take full advantage of quieter parts of your workplace – those areas designated for quiet / concentration – or go to work with a team who are generally quieter than where you are.
    • If you cannot avoid the noise and you really need to concentrate – use some noise cancelling headphones or listen to instrumental music (it’s less distracting than vocal music).
    • Experiment with something to mask the noise for a while –
    • Recognise that using headphones cuts you off from other people – you won’t overhear useful discussions or be able to interact so smoothly with colleagues.
    • Be aware of what noise you create when on the phone / taking conference calls. For colleagues, hearing half a conversation can be more distracting than if you’re talking to someone at your desk! Again, it is critical that aspects of these are considered during office design planning or office relocation projects.
    • Agree with your immediate colleagues how you can signal to each other that they are overly loud! Some people simply don’t realise the amount of distraction they cause.
    • Agree with your immediate colleagues that you will either keep the workplace quiet, and take noisy activity somewhere else… or vice versa.

Finally, anecdotal evidence has shown that people can concentrate very well for short amounts of time when noise distraction is high. Because this is the prevailing condition in many offices, people adapt and “force” themselves to concentrate even harder when noise and distraction are high. They may even be able to do this more successfully than where there is only background noise… possibly because their brains aren’t fully occupied and their minds can wander! And while “forcing” yourself to concentrate may work for a while, the drain our cognition is likely to be high and unsustainable for longer periods.

Give your brain a great day – find the right noise conditions for the task you are undertaking!

Next time we’ll look at the next environmental factors that came out of the research. This is the seventh factor – Temperature – a thorny subject if ever there was one!