Work Health / Employee Care

Why Silence Is Golden: 5 Ways Quiet Time Can Improve Your Work Life

Monday, March 12, 2018
Catherine Morin

Ceaseless exposure to sound stimuli is part of everyday life in modern technological society. Amid the roar of cars, trains and airplanes, the noise of construction and the beeping of digital devices, quietness has seemingly become a luxury. Cultivating silence may yet have several overlooked benefits that can extend to professional life.

A wide range of sounds can be experienced daily in all kinds of locations, and most people seem to adapt to continuous noise exposure. Popular music or radio chatter resonate in any conceivable public place, and it is now unusual to go into a house without hearing a television playing in the background, even if the residents are not actually watching it. These ingrained habits project the image of a society that is hostile to silence.

Paradoxically, the very experience of quietness seems to be highly sought after. Noise-canceling headphones are sold for hundreds of dollars, and people increasingly go on expensive silent retreats.

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board even based a huge marketing campaign on silence. This promotion  aimed to entice people to visit Finland to experience the “beauty of the silent land” and “take in the sound of quiet.” Marketing experts released a series of photos of single figures in nature along with the headline “Silence, Please.”

Image Credit : Visit Finland

The usage of silence as a marketing technique clearly illustrates the increased attraction for quietness, and it is possible to think that repeated exposure to noise has somehow become overwhelming for many people.

Workers and Harmful Noise

Each year, 30 million people in the United States are exposed to dangerous noise levels at work. Thousands of them endure hearing loss as a result.

Constant exposure to loud sounds can induce stress and reduce productivity. It also affects focus and communication. By making it hard to hear warning signals, high noise levels can even cause accidents or injuries.

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We may first think of construction sites, factories, airports or concert venues as the main workplaces with hazardous noise levels. Prolonged noise exposure can however be equally harmful in offices.

According to the International Facility Management Association, 70% of American offices were  open-plan as of 2013. This layout consists in a wide space divided by short freestanding partitions. It is usually designed to accommodate a large number of employees.

Open offices seem ideal for maximizing a company’s space while minimizing costs. They also allow bosses to keep a closer eye on their staff.  Many managers consider that this type of plan facilitates interactions between people and makes team work more effective. By promoting dialogue and exchange of creative ideas, this increased collaboration can possibly improve productivity.

In his book How Google Works Google executive chairman and former CEO Eric Schmitt explains that open-office plans significantly contributed to the famous company's success by fostering effective cooperation between employees.“Smart creatives thrive on interacting with each other. The mixture you get when you cram them together is combustible,” he writes.

However, recent research on open-plan offices has found several negative effects of this configuration, such as excessive levels of noise, increased stress, conflicts, high staff turnover and reduced productivity.

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A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2013 revealed that many people working in open environments are frustrated by distractions that impair their performance. Nearly half of the surveyed employees considered that the benefits of enhanced  “ease of interaction” purportedly provided by open-plan offices were smaller than the penalties of increased noise levels.

The researchers noticed that those who worked in private offices were less likely to identify their ability to interact with colleagues as an issue. Open-plan spaces reportedly tend to reduce confidential  or private conversations between employees.

In a 2014 review of research on open-plan offices, The New Yorker  determined that this kind of environment damages employees' productivity, attention spans, creative thinking and satisfaction.

People working in open offices may feel like they are part of an innovative company that promotes team work and collaboration. This configuration also gives them the opportunity to form meaningful bonds with colleagues. However, it can make them more vulnerable to distractions.

The promotion of more immediate interactions with others often comes with increased interruptions. Loud coworkers, spontaneous brainstorms and meetings, fingers drumming on desks, unexpected questions from colleagues and incoming calls can easily distract employees from their tasks at hand.

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A study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, revealed that a typical office worker only gets an average of 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes roughly 25 minutes to return to the original task after an unscheduled disruption. These estimations give a good idea of how uncontrolled interactions experienced in open offices reduce productivity.

A noisy work environment can also indirectly affect employees' performance by harming  their health.

Constant exposure to noise has been associated with high levels of cortisol, the body's main stress hormone. Just like bright light, noise is a signal to the body that there is something going on that it needs to be alert for. This type of stress triggers cortisol production, which raises blood pressure and blood sugar.

These changes help people survive short periods of stress, but can cause serious damage if they are constantly triggered by daily-life stressors like constant noise. Chronically high cortisol levels have been associated with hypertension, heart disease, insulin resistance, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

A Cornell University study on office noise revealed that people working in loud environments can be less likely to ergonomically adjust their work stations for comfort, which can contribute to physical problems. Exposure to constant tumult can also impact sleep quality by disrupting circadian rhythm.

A poor health can obviously be detrimental to an employee's performance, and it is possible to think that many people are not at their best in buzzing, noisy workplaces.

Some people dislike a silent environment, equating it with being isolated and lonely. Many claim to be more productive when working with music or background noise. Having the chance to interact with colleagues when needed is also a great source of motivation for some employees.

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While ceaseless noise can harm work performance, absolute silence throughout the day may seem a little intimidating. Establishing a balance between complete silence and constant cacophony may possibly be the key to a harmonious work life.

Bringing Balance With Quiet Time

In an article published in 2015, co-founder and CEO of Milanote Ollie Campbell explains that he was able to make his company 23% more productive by introducing periods of quietness to the work schedule.

According to him, open-plan offices come with an implicit culture that can harm work quality.  “[...] far from being neutral, this type of space is loaded with implicit values — that disruption is an acceptable consequence of togetherness; that serendipity is worth all the interruptions; that collaboration is all that matters,” he writes.

While Campbell values collaboration as a vital tool for effectiveness, he thinks that employees' ability to focus on their respective tasks should be considered as equally important.

In order to create a balance between isolation and loud chaos, his team agreed to divide each day in half, and to spend the first part in silence. During this quiet period, employees cannot talk to each other, answer phone calls or emails and attend meetings. In the afternoon, they get together as a team to share ideas and reflect on what has been done.

Campbell  describes this schedule as a contract, a few hours a week where team members agree to work even if they do not feel like it.

He noticed that since the introduction of quiet moments, staff members are less stressed and tend to produce better work. Because there are much less sources of distraction, employees have stopped avoiding the office when they have an important task to focus on.

This positive experience shows that the main benefits of quiet time can extend to work life.

Five Benefits of Quiet Time 

Recent research reports five tangible advantages of taking time for silence.

1. Silence Reduces Stress

Silence first appeared in scientific research as a baseline, or control, against which scientists compare the effects of noise. Researchers have often studied it by accident. In a 2006 study on the effects on sound, physician Luciano Bernardi investigated the efficacy of music in modulating stress.

He used silence as a control between different music clips. These short silence pauses turned out to be more relaxing on the brain than so-called “relaxing” music. Bernardi thinks this soothing effect of silence is heightened by the contrast with noise.

It can therefore be assumed that short periods of silence contrasted against other sounds can help people deal with stress. Getting away to a quiet place within your work space for a few minutes when you start feeling overwhelmed might be a good way to reduce stress and improve your performance.

Medical  professionals increasingly embrace silence as a way to reduce stress. Many physicians now prescribe the art of meditation to patients dealing with anxiety. This practice consists in remaining silent and calm while focusing on a particular thought, object, or image to increase awareness of the present moment and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state.

Image Credit : William Farlow on Unsplash

2. Silence Improves Cognitive Functions

A study published in the National Library of Medicine in 2013 revealed that exposure to prolonged silence can stimulate the brain to produce new cells. Imke Kirste, a biologist at Duke University, examined the effects of noise and silence on the brains of mice.

Silence was intended to be the control in the study, but Kirste discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day, they developed new cells in the hippocampus, the brain zone associated with memory and learning.

The growth of new brain cells does not always translate into concrete cognitive benefits. However, in this instance, the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

Taking time for silence every day can possibly help you maintain ─ even improve ─ your ability to learn and memorize new things, which can make your work life much easier.

3. Silence Increases Creativity

The capacity to shut out the outside world can possibly increase chances of developing innovative ideas.

In a 2013 review of literature on cognitive and clinical psychology, psychologist Jonathan Smallwood found out that human creativity largely depends on one's ability to  disengage from the external environment and focus on self-generated thought.

Self-generated thought is characterized by internally focused mental activity that occurs when the mind is not engaged with the outside world. This includes day-dreaming, thinking about the future, and letting the mind wander. When we are able to disengage and relax, we can access inner thoughts, memories and ideas.

Neuroimaging  research has identified the brain’s default network as the primary source of self-generated thought.  Increasing evidence suggests that the default network plays a critical role in creative thinking. In fact, several brain imaging studies report activation of default regions during creative problem solving and artistic performance.

4. Silence Enhances Your Mood

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The ability to access self-generated thoughts when the brain is disengaged from external stimuli allows you to acknowledge and analyze your own emotional state. Reflecting on how you feel can help you address problematic situations better, which can significantly improve your state of mind.

Using the brain's default network also helps you focus on the present moment, which reduces negative thoughts and anxiety.

Working in a constantly noisy environment and being frequently interrupted  can become frustrating . Breaking away from that buzzing atmosphere and retreating to a quiet place for a few minutes can enhance your mood and make your day more pleasant.

To minimize interruptions and sensory input, it may be a good idea to turn off social media notifications on your phone and computer.

You can also let your coworkers know precisely when you are available to discuss, and inform them that you would rather not interrupt  your work at certain hours.

5. Silence Helps you Focus

In everyday life, especially at work, the brain continuously receives sensory input. This puts a significant burden on the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in directed attention, problem-solving, and high-order thinking.

This brain zone can become overwhelmed by constant stimuli. As a result, you may get mentally fatigued and struggle to focus.  Fewer distractions allow the brain to settle into a concentrated state. Several studies have shown that the brain can restore its attention resources when we are in quiet environments.

The Attention Restoration Theory, developed by psychologists Rachel and  Stephen Kaplan in 1989, indicates that exposure to quiet natural environments encourages more effortless cognitive function, which allows the brain to let down its sensory guard and replenish its attention capacity.

While it is not always possible to escape to a natural space  during working hours, going  for a walk outside at a quiet moment of the day may help you regain the ability to focus on your tasks.

A Sound Balance

Even though exposure to noise is unavoidable in contemporary society, spending a healthy amount of time away from distractions and daily life's cacophony can be highly beneficial. The ability to shut out the world around possibly provides the best opportunity to create innovative and quality work. Establishing a wise balance between silence and interactions may be the key to a successful and enjoyable professional life.