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Bad Audio: Managing the Emotional Micro-Frustrations


Frustrated businessman
Image: gstockstudio -
Feeling exhausted and wiped out at the end of a working day is familiar to many workers. This could result from an early morning start, a symphony of mental stressors, or a lack of caffeine. But calls and virtual meetings marred by audio issues can be the culprit, too. What many people don’t realize is that bad audio experiences can impact our overall mental state.
The brain is slower to respond to sound than it is to our other senses, and finds switching between audio stimuli trickier than with visual or tactile stimuli. That means when somebody is on a conference call that is disrupted by background sounds, interferences, or even echoing, the brain works harder to focus on what the most important source of sound is.
These exposures to bad audio can cause micro-frustrations, which, when experienced day in and day out, can contribute to a bigger and more concerning impact on our overall wellbeing. According to new research, 95% of the modern workforce today admits that their concentration at work suffers from audio setbacks. We’ve all been on calls that are far from perfect, but we often fail to consider how this might be affecting us beyond the call itself. Some 35% of respondents surveyed report feeling frustrated, irritated, or annoyed by bad audio experiences. Meanwhile, some workers say they feel stressed (25%) or even embarrassed (15%) when audio quality suffers.
Why Is Audio Bad for Humans?
What has a bigger impact on us: the sound that we hear or how it makes us feel? The answer is a combination — certain sounds strike a chord with us that can be evolutionary or tied to our experience. Sound has the power to influence our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, profoundly altering our state of mind. But how does sound affect the brain when the audio quality is poor or polluted?
Bad audio is more than just annoying, it’s detrimental to our emotional and physical wellbeing. Remote working has shown us that modern life increasingly poses a new subset of challenges. From the background noise of roadwork, roommates, or family, working from home is not always as simple as it seems. These interruptive sounds might be a concentration killer, but they’re also negatively impacting our health.
And lest you think that continued exposure might lead to habituation, it doesn’t. The effects of interruptive sounds can exacerbate stress-related conditions like high blood pressure, headaches, and even coronary diseases.
You Heard That Right
When exposed to audio sensory overloads, the brain releases the stress hormone cortisol. In excess, cortisol can inhibit the functions of the brain’s prefrontal cortex — the very hub of emotional learning and processing that enables us to regulate thoughtful behaviors such as reasoning and planning. Ultimately, exposure to noises that activate a stress response will wear an individual down, causing both mental and physical problems.
The American Institute of Stress estimates that job stress costs U.S. industries more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal, and insurance costs. Individuals and businesses must be aware of the environments within which they’re operating. The incremental buildup of stress is having a profound effect on employee emotional well-being, Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, tells us.
"The last couple of months have proven that noisy environments not designed for work will create more stressful situations, particularly when combined with higher expectations. With remote workers being connected with colleagues through multiple devices (mobile phones, emails, and communication and collaboration platforms) the demand for employees to deliver results almost instantaneously has increased,” he says.
Finding Balance Through the Noise
While working remotely might be the new norm, employers need to ensure that they’re creating and encouraging a culture that prioritizes work and life balance, appropriate working processes, and providing employees with the tools needed to operate efficiently. “There is a clear onus for employers to collaborate with their employees to find the right solutions for them. By working together, businesses can create best practice solutions that boost team morale, create harmony and optimize work productivity and efficiency,” Cooper says.
Universally, businesses have a duty of care to their employees, particularly while remote working, to ensure they’re not overextending themselves. Employee well-being should cascade from the top down. Research shows 79% of decision makers agree that good audio equipment such as headsets, headphones, and speaker phones can alleviate auditory pain points both on and off calls. To further enhance well-being and avoid the buildup of micro-frustrations, business leaders must act as champions for workplace policies and invest to help dismantle daily stressors — whether these are audio pain points, a lack of work-life balance or concerns about job security.
Technology enables hassle-free communication and collaboration that, as we’ve learned, facilitates business continuity in a world that will remain working remotely. Virtual meetings are here for the long haul and despite the ubiquitous nature of these connective technologies, there are challenges to overcome. No doubt, tech solutions and the environments within which users are operating are becoming increasingly complex. And one thing is clear, the future of work includes more phone calls, more videoconferences, and more opportunities for poor sound quality to disrupt the flow of business. In this environment, individuals and employers need audio excellence and tools for seamless collaboration.