Cognitive performance and restoration in open-plan office noise
Abstract: This dissertation presents four experimental studies (in four papers) with the overall aim to investigate the effects of office noise on cognitive performance and restoration. In the first two papers the focus was on the effects of different sound levels (i.e., the mean level from all sound sources at an office, such as speech, phones, people walking) on performance, fatigue and stress. In the last two papers the focus was on the effects of background speech, as this has previously been shown to be the most disturbing noise source in open-plan offices. Paper I demonstrated decreased word memory performance, increased fatigue and motivational deficits when the background sound level increased by 12 dB, from 39 to 51 dB LAeq. Paper II showed that the sound level effects were more pronounced for individuals with a hearing impairment. Unexpectedly, no effects were found of acute noise exposure on the participant´s stress hormone levels (Paper I and Paper II).Regarding effects of irrelevant speech, Paper III showed that cognitive performance decreased as a function of background speech intelligibility, the higher the intelligibility depicted by the Speech Transmission Index (STI), the worse the performance. The results indicated that the STI-value must be less than 0.50, to avoid a negative influence on performance. Further, both Paper III and IV showed that performance is more impaired by background speech if the focal task requires episodic memory and rehearsal—such as word memory and information search. Interestingly, some tasks were insensitive for speech.The restorative effects of a break were addressed in Paper I and II (i.e., directly after the work sessions in noise). The break period differed in content between the participants. Paper I showed that a break with a nature movie with corresponding sound increased energy ratings compared to just listening to river sounds or office noise. Continued exposure to office noise gave the lowest ratings of motivation after the break. Paper II showed improved arithmetic performance and motivation after the break with a nature movie and decreased performance and motivation after continued noise exposure. For the hearing impaired participants, however, continued noise during the break increased motivation and performance, while the movie did not.Taken together, the current thesis demonstrates that open-plan office noise can have a negative impact on fatigue, motivation and performance. How much performance is impaired varies with the cognitive processes required by the tasks performed and hearing status. Moreover, continued noise exposure during a short break can further decrease motivation and subsequent performance.
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