Office noise: Can headphones and masking sound attenuate distraction by background speech?

Jahncke, Helena, Björkeholm, Patrik, Marsh, John Everett orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-9494-1287, Odelius, Johan and Sörqvist, Patrik (2016) Office noise: Can headphones and masking sound attenuate distraction by background speech? Work, 55 (3). pp. 505-513. ISSN 1051-9815

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BACKGROUND: Background speech is one of the most disturbing noise sources at shared workplaces in terms of both annoyance and performance-related disruption. Therefore, it is important to identify techniques that can efficiently protect performance against distraction. It is also important that the techniques are perceived as satisfactory and are subjectively evaluated as effective in their capacity to reduce distraction. OBJECTIVE: The aim of the current study was to compare three methods of attenuating distraction from background speech: masking a background voice with nature sound through headphones, masking a background voice with other voices through headphones and merely wearing headphones (without masking) as a way to attenuate the background sound. Quiet was deployed as a baseline condition. METHODS: Thirty students participated in an experiment employing a repeated measures design. RESULTS: Performance (serial short-term memory) was impaired by background speech (1 voice), but this impairment was attenuated when the speech was masked – and in particular when it was masked by nature sound. Furthermore, perceived workload was lowest in the quiet condition and significantly higher in all other sound conditions. Notably, the headphones tested as a sound-attenuating device (i.e. without masking) did not protect against the effects of background speech on performance and subjective work load. CONCLUSIONS: Nature sound was the only masking condition that worked as a protector of performance, at least in the context of the serial recall task. However, despite the attenuation of distraction by nature sound, perceived workload was still high – suggesting that it is difficult to find a masker that is both effective and perceived as satisfactory.

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