Open Office Noise Increases Stress

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 26, 2002 -- Overhearing your co-workers' conversations from across the cubicle may help you keep tabs on office gossip, but it also may increase your stress level. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychologyeven found low-level noise produced in open-style offices can increase stress and decrease motivation among workers.

Cornell University researchers say those findings suggest that even moderately noisy open offices may contribute to health problems like musculoskeletal problems.

"Our study is one of the few to look at low-intensity noise," says study author Gary Evans, professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell. "Yet our findings resemble those in studies of very noisy environments in that we found that realistic, open-office noise has modest but adverse effects on physiological stress and motivation."

Researchers randomly assigned 40 experienced female clerical workers to either a quiet office or one with low-intensity noise -- such as conversation segments, typing sounds, and ringing phones -- for three hours. They found that workers in the noisy office experienced higher levels of stress, as measured by levels of the stress hormone epinephrine, and made 40% fewer attempts to solve a puzzle.

Interestingly, researchers say the workers themselves didn't report higher levels of stress in the noisy office, although lab tests showed they had higher levels of epinephrine in their system. Elevated levels of the stress hormone have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

The study also found that workers in the noisy office setting made only half as many ergonomic adjustments to their workstations -- changes intended to make working more comfortable and less fatiguing -- compared to their colleagues in quiet offices.

Ergonomic experts say this study is the first to suggest noise levels can have an impact on things like posture and how often employees make adjustments to their workstation.

Previous studies have shown that noise can affect workers' ability to complete complex tasks, but little research has been done on its impact on musculoskeletal disorders.

Certified ergonomist Lynda Enos, MS, RN, says there are several simple steps workers can take to reduce both stress and the risk of work-related injury.

"If you can control nothing else, you can control to some extent how often you move around and adjust your work station," says Enos, senior consulting ergonomist at Auburn Engineers in Oregon. She says getting up and taking minibreaks from the workstation have been shown to increase productivity and help people work more efficiently.

Noise in open offices can also be minimized by placing equipment like fax and copy machines behind partitions or in enclosed spaces.

Enos says people don't have to invest in costly furniture to have a healthy, ergonomically correct office environment. Here are some low-cost fixes:

  • Keep your computer monitor at eye level, in front you -- not off to the side.
  • Minimize glare on computer screens by switching off overhead lights or by making a hood out of file folders.
  • Use a paper holder to keep copy at eye level when typing.
  • Keep your keyboard and computer mouse flat and roughly parallel to the floor, allowing your wrists to remain in line with the forearm.