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Thursday, August 20, 1998 Published at 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK


Shhh! Noisy offices are bad for work

Office noise can drive employees to distratction

Silence may be golden, but in the workplace it's also probably a pipedream.

Now the results of a new study show that office noise can hamper our capacity to do a good job.

The clatter of a computer keyboard or the babble of gossiping colleagues can play havoc with an employee's memory and hinder their ability to do simple sums.

Findings published in the British Journal of Psychology on Friday show that in some cases performance levels tumble by 60% because of the distraction caused by noise.

[ image:  ]
According to Dr Simon Banbury, who carried out the research at Reading University, employers ought to sit up and take notice.

Noise in the workplace is not a new issue and there are strict laws in Britain, governing noise levels.

But while factory workers and those in heavy industry are well protected, the plight of the humble office employee has been largely ignored.

In scientific tests, Dr Banbury found that people's ability to remember a passage of prose or calculate sums were impeded by sounds such as keyboard and printer noises, and talking.

Interestingly, he points out, it didn't matter whether they understood the office gossip or it was being said in a foreign language.

[ image: Work levels can plummet by 60%]
Work levels can plummet by 60%
"We asked people to ignore everything that went on in the background but sound has obligatory access - it cannot be shut out. Even so, we were quite surprised at the level of effect," said Dr Banbury.

As well as affecting mental arithmetic, noise caused short-term memory loss especially where volunteers had to remember something in sequence.

"We cannot say for sure that this would be reflected in offices but it's very likely. Research now has to be done in the workplace."

The effects would be most acute, thinks Dr Banbury, in open-plan offices.

"Open-plan offices are supposed to offer more benefits - increase communication and the ability to move things around easier. But there seems to be an obvious drawback."

Stephen Fulwell, of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Leicester, agrees.

[ image: Prime offender: Ringing phones]
Prime offender: Ringing phones
"In offices it's more likely to be the type of noise rather than the decibel count that is the problem. The high speed motor in an air conditioning machine could let out a slight whistle that could be very distracting."

And if employers are tempted to by the thought that improved efficiency is usually down to speed, Mr Fulwell says the payback is that the faster something is the more noise it tends to make.

He says employers need to be more switched on to the effects of noise.

"The more awareness there is the more people are able to adjust and arrive at solutions.

"Noise is not a major health problem," he concedes. "But it's well documented that it can lead to stress, so the effect must be considered."

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