Posted by: Pamela Kalivas | June 13, 2012

The Productivity Paradox of Ear Buds in the Office

New music technology that is easily portable such as IPODS, MP3’s or other devices require the use of ear buds or head phones. In our previous article we mentioned the wave of new age offices where businesses are using non-permanent stations for their employees.  In offices where there is little private space (even with cubicles), open environments are often noisy, busy, and wrapped in distractions. Employees are turning to head phone devices such as ear buds to reduce distraction and improve the efficiency of their work day.  The ultimate paradox: Employers are turning to free and open office designs to facilitate easier, fast paced collaboration between co-workers looking to boost productivity and lower costs. But according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, individuals in these open workspaces are turning to head phones and other devices to a degree that even questions or advice needed from fellow co-workers are completely shut out by anti-distraction headphones.  In short, what is supposed to be boosting productivity is actually hurting its chances by creating an environment that distracts employees – the biggest premise for designing such a workstation.

To be truly “ergonomically designed”, solutions should reduce risk factors without creating new hazards.  The ability to hear is a safety issue.  We often hear hazards before we see them. Loss of hearing is also a workplace issue.  People with untreated hearing loss are less productive on the job. They make more mistakes because of mis-heard directions.  ( The risks for early hearing loss is greater as the volume from ear buds goes up to block out external distractions.  One way to correct this issue is to turn down the volume and you can listen longer. If you need to turn the volume up, listen for a shorter amount of time and give your ears a break to recover.

As the average age of our working population increases also does the need to provide for the longevity of our hearing.  Age related hearing loss is caused by changes in the inner ear that occur as you grow older. But your genes and loud noises (music headphones) may play a large role. According to National Institute of Health.  According to OSHA, occupational hearing loss costs workplaces an average of $242 million a year in work comp claims.  So while we advocate ear plugs, noise cancelling headsets/headphones to aid in hearing loss prevention, making sure the ergonomic layout of open offices allows for quiet zones can also assist in hearing conservation and better productivity.


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