Sound can profoundly alter our state of mind and has the power to influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
With much of the global workforce working remotely, background noise continues to be a major threat to our productivity and health. Employees are largely unaware of its effects, so it is only by addressing these concerns that we can begin to unlock new levels of well-being and productivity.
Unlike other senses, the brain is slower to respond to sound as it finds it trickier to switch between stimuli. For instance, when on a conference call that is marred by audio issues such as background noises, the brain works harder to focus on the most important source of sound. Speech perception in adverse listening situations can be exhausting and can easily result in brain fatigue. When audio sensory overloads flood the brain, cortisol (the stress hormone) is released. In excess, cortisol can inhibit the functions of the brain’s prefrontal cortex – the hub of emotional learning and processing that enables us to regulate behaviours such as reasoning and planning.
Exposure to noises that activate a stress response can cause mental and physical problems. When extrapolated over days, weeks and months, this can have a detrimental impact on well-being. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the US reports that intrusive and interruptive background noise can increase stress levels and exacerbate stress-related conditions like high blood pressure, migraine headaches and even coronary disease.
Auditory information plays an important role in guiding our other senses and has a profound impact on what we hear, feel and think. Defining what constitutes ‘bad audio’ is simple. In the most macro of senses, there are loud, interruptive sounds that trigger an instant evolutionary response. For instance, when someone experiences a stressful noise, the brain responds with a distress signal to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream. Then there are the micro, consistent sounds and ambient interruptions that can have a hidden impact on our overall well-being.
We know that noisy environments and external conversations are barriers to productivity. What’s also increasingly apparent is that audio interference can have a stark impact on performance, jeopardising comprehension and time optimisation, and increasing stress levels.
Even smaller increases in unwanted sound can have a significant effect. Multiple studies have shown that living near airports or motorways can have an impact on an individual’s long-term well-being, with one study suggesting that people living in areas with more traffic-related noise were 25 per cent more likely to have symptoms of depression.
There are basic standards and regulations set out in the US to mitigate these scenarios. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration limits noise exposure for employees to 90 decibels over an eight-hour working day. In an increasingly demanding world where individuals are constantly on the move and multi-tasking, people should only be exposed to the sounds that they intend to hear.
However, as we get busier, filtering out what we do and do not need to hear becomes more complex. As technology has proliferated and working habits have evolved, the volume of telephone and conference calls have increased. We are now working from different locations and facing new challenges; your device needs to meet these new needs. Audio is now merging with technology in new ways that harness adaptive technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. We are reaching a place where audio devices can learn about the sounds that a user wants to hear and filter out the rest.
Remote communication encourages flexible working, but also has its downsides. According to a recent EPOS study titled Understanding sound experience, 44 per cent of end users report poor sound quality while making phone calls and 39 per cent the same with internet calls. Conversely, good audio enables an individual to collaborate and communicate clearly and efficiently.
For users in a noisy environment, devices with active noise cancellation offer an effective solution to reducing background and unwanted noise to boost productivity and performance. These solutions are specifically designed to adjust to the noise challenges of open office environments and beyond. Hybrid active noise cancellation uses a four-microphone active noise control system, detecting ambient noise and generating anti-noise to cancel it out before it reaches the user’s ears. The result is a dramatic increase in a worker’s ability to concentrate in noisy environments and boosts general well-being throughout the working day.
Advancements in technology can also now remove all unwanted noises and enhance the users’ voice, for example with headsets that can isolate and pick up only the sound of the person who is speaking. Looking ahead, there are exciting concepts and developments on the horizon. We can look forward to AI becoming increasingly embedded in audio solutions, as well as offerings that provide augmented hearing and an increase in demand for voice-controlled devices.
Jesper Kock is vice president of research and development at EPOS
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2020 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.
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