Global Issues TEDTalks

9 ways that sound affects our health, wellbeing and productivity

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Julian Treasure takes the stage at TEDGlobal 2009, sharing the shocking fact that — when you can hear others talking in an open office — productivity dips by 66%.

Julian Treasure cares very deeply for your ears. That’s why he’s given TED talks like “The 4 ways sound affects us” and “Why architects need to use their ears.” Treasure is on a mission to make policymakers, engineers, architects and, well, Julian Treasure: Shh! Sound health in 8 stepsJulian Treasure: Shh! Sound health in 8 stepseveryone think more about what they hear around them — because the way things sound have a tangible, measurable effect on how we feel, how we heal, how we work and how we live.

To this end, Treasure’s The Sound Agency has teamed up with Biamp Systems to create a whitepaper called “Building in Sound,” a look at the data linking sound and well-being.

“This paper is based on exhaustive review of academic papers, and reports from national governments and multinational bodies, going back some 40 years,” it begins. “The research examines the causes and impacts of sound on our health, recovery from illness or surgery, our ability to absorb information and learn, our productivity, and general sense of wellbeing.”

Read the paper in full, or check out some of the most fascinating facts below.

  1. The estimated cost of noise pollution is $30.8 billion a year — and that’s just in Europe.  The World Health Organization Europe’s 2011 report, “Burden of disease from environmental noise,” analyzes the relationship between environmental noise and health. In this study, they calculate the financial cost of lost work days, healthcare treatment, impaired learning and decreased productivity due to noise. The total they came up with is staggering, considering they’re looking at just one continent.
  2. Each year, noise pollution takes a day off the life of every adult and child in Europe. This same study also looked at the cost of noise pollution in terms of lost life expectancy. Shockingly, they determined that every 365 days, one million years are taken off European’s collective life expectancy — averaging to a day per person.
  3. If you can hear someone talking while you’re reading or writing, your productivity dips by up to 66%.  Open floor-plan offices distract workers without them even noticing it. In a classic study published in the British Journal of Psychology in 1998, researchers found that employers were highly distracted when they could hear conversation around them, and less able to perform their duties. Another classic study found that noise in the office also correlated to increased stress hormone levels and a lower willingness to engage with others. According to Sound Agency case study, when sound masking technology was used in an office, there was a 46% improvement in employees’ ability to concentrate and their short term memory accuracy increased 10 percent.
  4. The average noise level in many classrooms is not just associated with impaired learning — but with permanent hearing loss. Noise can deeply affect learning too. The WHO recommends a noise level in classrooms akin to that you’d find in a library — 35 decibels. However, a study in Germany found that the actual average noise volume in classrooms is 65 decibels — a level associated with permanent hearing loss. As Treasure outlines in this talk, for a student sitting in the fourth row of a traditional classroom, speech intelligibility is just 50 percent — meaning that they only hear half of what their teacher says.
  5. A 20 decibel increase in aircraft noise is enough to delay a student’s reading level by up to 8 months. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2006 looked at 2000 students between the ages of 9 and 10 in schools in The Netherlands, Spain and the U.K. — many in schools near airports. They found that aircraft noise was associated with impaired reading comprehension.
  6. 50% of teachers have experienced damage to their voice from talking over classroom noise. A study of teachers published in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research in 2004, noted another side-effect of noise pollution in classrooms — 50% of teachers have suffered irreversible damage to their voices. Why? Because as the environment gets noisier, we speak more loudly.
  7. The average noise level in some hospital wards not only impedes healing — but could legally require hearing protection. The WHO recommends noise levels in hospital wards to stay around 35 decibels. But a study in the US found the average noise level in hospital wards is actually closer to 95 decibels — just 10 decibels beyond the noise level at which U.S. federal law requires ear protection for prolonged exposure. Sleep is crucial for patient recovery, and yet with the constant beeps, tones and shuffling, the body feels that it is under threat. Not to mention that staff errors increase the greater the level of distracting noise.
  8. 3% of cardiac arrest cases in Germany have been explicitly linked to traffic noise. Treasure found this alarming fact in a 2009 press release from the Environmental Protection UK.
  9. Noise pollution may possibly even contribute to crime. When the city of Lancaster, California, installed a sound system featuring birdsong along a half-mile stretch of a main road, there was a 15 percent reduction in reported crime, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal. Similarly, when the London Underground started playing classical music at a crime-heavy station, robberies fell by 33% while assaults on staff dropped 25%, says The Independent.

Below, an infographic further outlining the problem.


Comments (32)

  • Joseph Ting commented on May 24 2013

    With more success than a camel trying to squeeze itself through the eye of a needle, boisterous office banter manages to seep past the music rendered through air-tight noise cancelling headphones tightly clamped around my head. With limitless appetite for self-referencing talk and need for constant attention, contemporary social life is mostly about the explication of what “I” did, feel, plan, feel good or sad about. At a social function, I would perhaps even welcome animated extroversion from a significant other, family or close friend, offer a shoulder to cry on or share the happiness of others.

    The belief that tight acoustic reverberation in a shared office militates against the bar and restaurant ethos of basking in loudly declared mutuality couldn’t be further from the truth. The out and proud dissemination of juicy gossip and one’s latest romantic entanglement/disaster appears to be a freedom too often indulged by effusive talk-casters one has the misfortune of being within ear shot of. Like a caged animal, I am subjected to the noise annoyance and repeated disruptions to work focus from my fellow workers’ conversations and phone calls.

    There is no escape from our rampant ear-splitting “culture of personality.” Aside from impaired work performance and intensified cognitive demands to filter out loud, persistent and often startlingly unpredictable distractions, unwanted indoor noise is associated with adverse health outcomes, reduced self-rated health and job satisfaction. Far from enhancing work collaboration, a large amount of office banter occur within social cliques in implied zones of exclusion and have nothing to do with work. Head phones and other strategies like retreating to quiet zones, viewed as unsociable by free range talkers, predispose to conflict at work. The greater worry is that higher mortality risk observed in residents living close to busy highways or underneath noisy flight paths could apply to long-term exposure to noisy workplaces.

    We need to set some ground rules so that those of us who live by the increasingly rare principle of maintaining a dignified silence are not pursued and berated into extinction. Non-work related conversation, whether in person or on the phone, is to be conducted outside the sacrosanct confines of the open-plan office, out of hearing range of those they do not concern. If no alternative venue is available, try to keep the voice volume and dramatisation to a non-operatic level. Remind yourself that over-the-top talking mercilessly permeates an enclosed space and holds those in your proximity captive without necessarily captivating them. Lessen the spell that self-love and wanton self-expression has cast over you-remember that your indiscretion, misfortune, joyful reunion, TV and book raves are not necessarily welcome and/or of interest to others. If only we had the equivalent of “Quiet Carriages” at work; ear-battered and soul-bruised, I retreat into the blessed haven of the boss’ room on his days off, close the door behind me or wait for the workplace convent/ contemplation room to become free. Quiet everyone, I can’t hear myself think!

    • Jim Ryan commented on May 24 2013

      Try putting soft ear plugs inside your ears and inside the headphones. It may be uncomfortable.

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  • Shehzad hameed commented on Apr 30 2013

    I think the life is created by sound and everything relies on it.

  • commented on Apr 29 2013

    Reblogged this on tiltabilities.

  • commented on Apr 28 2013

    Reblogged this on drbausman's Blog.

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  • elayne dublin commented on Apr 25 2013

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  • commented on Apr 25 2013

    Reblogged this on patricktsudlow and commented:
    Noise is something that is not really taken into account by the authorities. A perfect example here in Manchester is Old Mill Street, Ancoats. Urban Splash (Tom Bloxham) was allowed to lay the road with bricks, which makes the road unsuitable for motorised traffic. It is an extremely noisy road surface which must have a detrimental impact on the local residents. There is also the councils policy of felling mature trees for no reason, they help absorb noise, It is time the authorities took more notice of the potential noise pollution of any development.

  • Julian Treasure commented on Apr 25 2013

    In education, alongside the massive social effects of millions of children leaving school without having been able to hear a lot of their education, an even more worrying fact is that long term exposure to a noise level of 65 dB SPL (the average noise level in the German study we quote and not atypical these days with constant groupwork in bad acoustics) is the threshold for producing myocardial infarction. In other words, teachers working in that environment may well be reducing their life expectancy. See my TED talk on designing with our ears for details.

  • Razvan Si Lidia Mihalcea commented on Apr 25 2013

    Reblogged this on La Razvi' – Razvan Mihalcea.

  • Graeme Harrison commented on Apr 24 2013

    For anyone who wants to know more about this subject, here’s a link to a PDF of the book ‘Sound Affects!’ that Julian and Biamp did together:


  • Jim Ryan commented on Apr 24 2013

    Music is a distraction to those that have more to offer.

  • Jim Ryan commented on Apr 24 2013

    Just someone speaking softly, but still audible while you are speaking is a big distraction.

  • Jim Ryan commented on Apr 24 2013

    Tell that to the new CEO of yahoo.

  • Casey Treffinger commented on Apr 24 2013

    Um… you guys realize db is relative right? +1200db (or any other number) can still be almost silent.

    • Jim Ryan commented on Apr 24 2013

      Not necessarily.

    • Graeme Harrison commented on Apr 24 2013

      Casey, you are entirely right. In the white paper itself, we make it clear that when we refer to dB, we are meaning dB(SPL) as indeed we also do in the book, but as the infographic is shown here in isolation, this is not clear. Sorry for any confusion.

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  • commented on Apr 24 2013

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