Sensitive to Sounds at Work?

Is it just your imagination, or are sounds louder in a post-pandemic world? The answer is that technically sounds aren’t louder, but they can seem more annoying and bothersome than before.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many workers who typically spent their days surrounded by chatty colleagues, annoying ringtones, and humming printers, were suddenly surrounded by silence. Working from home was eerily quiet for many at first, but as the weeks went by, these same workers became used to a quiet work environment, and even came to enjoy it.

Now that those same workers are returning to office environments, they’re concerned about noise levels. In a recent survey by HR Magazine, 52% of office workers said they are afraid the noise levels will make them less productive. And nearly two-thirds of people said they fear they’ll get fed up if their noisy co-workers break their concentration, something they didn’t have to deal with when working from home.

Work interruptions from noise are a legitimate concern. People lose an estimated 86 minutes of productivity each day because of noise distractions, according to a study by Steelcase. It takes another 23 minutes to get back on task after an interruption, according to another University of California at Irvine study.

Not only that, but noise can truly be bad for your health. Research has connected high noise levels to heart problems, loss of sleep, high blood pressure and stress. The World Health Organization has even concluded that excessive noise caused 3,000 heart disease deaths among Europeans.

Tinnitus is another important hearing problem that became more common during Covid. Tinnitus is the perception of sound in the absence of an external sound source. It can take on any number of characteristics and is usually a sound that only you can hear. Tinnitus may vary from soft to loud and from low to high pitched. People describe their tinnitus in a number of ways, including a buzzing, clicking, ringing, white noise, and/or roaring sound. Although these descriptions are typical, each individual’s experience may be different.

Even prior to the pandemic, according to the American Tinnitus Association, millions of Americans were experiencing tinnitus, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 15% of the general public, more than 50 million Americans, experience some form of tinnitus. Roughly 20 million people struggle with burdensome, chronic tinnitus, while 2 million have debilitating tinnitus.

After the pandemic hit, the Hearing Review published a study of 3,103 people from 48 countries with pre-existing tinnitus. A small number of participants also reported that their condition was initially triggered by developing Covid symptoms, suggesting that tinnitus could be a long-term Covid symptom in some cases.

A large proportion of these people believed their tinnitus was made worse by social distancing measures initially introduced to help control the spread of the virus. These measures led to the significant changes to work and lifestyle routines that are now being disrupted again with the return of the office routine.

So, what can you do to cope if workplace noise is distracting you, or the return to work is triggering new or worsening symptoms related to tinnitus?

  • First, take a deep breath. Seriously. Deep breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety levels significantly and is a legitimate first step in meditating, which is also a great way to calm frazzled nerves.
  • Second, don’t suffer. If a co-worker’s voice or other office sounds, like an obnoxious ringtone, are constantly interrupting your ability to concentrate, say something, but be sensitive to others.
  • Third, if your workplace doesn’t offer quiet spaces where you can meet or work, talk with your employer. Today’s employers understand that it’s much more cost effective to make accommodations to keep good employees happy than to lose them and have to train someone new.
  • Fourth, protect your hearing if the noise is loud or very distracting. Noise-cancelling headphones, ear plugs and ear buds can all help reduce noise.

For many patients with tinnitus, the latest digital hearing aids may be particularly useful in managing noise and distractions. Some hearing aids include supplemental sound generator functionality (white noise or other sounds, such as chimes, played directly into the ear) that helps reduce the perception of tinnitus and can minimize other office sounds.

There are also other types of sound sensitivity or decreased sound tolerance.

  • Hyperacusis is decreased tolerance for volumes that are typically well-tolerated by most people. An individual with hyperacusis may experience physical discomfort or pain when exposed to common everyday sounds. The volume at which sound becomes uncomfortable or painful may be different across individuals with hyperacusis.
  • Misophonia is decreased tolerance for specific sounds, regardless of volume. Misophonia is also known as selective sound sensitivity. An individual with misophonia may experience a negative emotional reaction such as annoyance, disgust, and/or rage when exposed to specific “trigger” sounds. Trigger sounds are commonly mouth-oriented (such as breathing, chewing, swallowing) or repetitive (such as dripping, clicking, tapping).
  • Phonophobia is fear that non-harmful volumes will cause discomfort/pain, hearing loss, or tinnitus. An individual with phonophobia may experience a fearful emotional reaction when exposed to common everyday sounds.

The first step in determining if there is an issue is a diagnostic hearing evaluation with one of our doctoral-level audiologists. If there is a sound sensitivity diagnosis, the patient may be referred to Susan Smittkamp, Au.D., Ph.D., with Associated Audiologists, an expert in diagnosing and helping individuals manage tinnitus and other sound sensitivities.

Schedule an appointment with a doctoral-level audiologist if tinnitus or sound sensitivities are making it difficult to be productive in your work or life.