Avoiding Sensory Overload in Open Plan Offices

What’s the first thing you think of when someone says open plan office?

Is it groups of people beavering away at their computers in a quiet, relaxed atmosphere? Or do you imagine total bedlam – office phones ringing, people talking loudly across the office, and the deafening clackety-clack of keyboards?

Even the most organised open-plan offices can get a little noisy at times. This can lead to sensory overload – an unpleasant, overwhelming sensation that makes working life challenging or even impossible.

But what exactly is sensory overload, and how can you avoid it at work?

What Is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload means receiving so much information through one or more of your five senses that your brain can’t process it all. This can lead to a physical or psychological response that ranges from mild to severe.

What sensory overload feels like

Imagine you’re sitting in the middle of a crowded office. You can hear someone talking loudly to a client on the phone while another two colleagues chat about last night’s TV. Your brain is also assaulted with whatever’s on your screen and flickering overhead lights.

Your uniform is chafing like mad, and the smell of chicken tikka masala is wafting from the microwave. Finally, someone asks you a crucial question about your work, and you feel like your head is about to explode.

If you’ve ever experienced this, or something similar, you know what sensory overload is all about. In some cases, it can cause reactions such as:

  • Irritability
  • Feeling wound up
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Increased sensitivity to touch
  • Difficulty focusing

While anyone can experience sensory overload, people with certain conditions may encounter it more often.

Sensory overload and neurodivergence

The British workplace is the most diverse it has ever been. This variety is seen in various ways, including embracing the skills and talents of neurodivergent people.

According to a study published in The Lancet in June 2023, currently, 0.82% of the UK population have been diagnosed as autistic, and a further 2.12% may be undiagnosed. Neurodiversity also includes ADHD, ADD, and dyslexia.

Although anyone can experience sensory overload, it is particularly associated with neurodivergent individuals and people with anxiety, PTSD, and fibromyalgia.

Employers responsibilities

Under UK law, employers have a duty of care toward their employees. This includes making reasonable adjustments to accommodate workers with disabilities and those with physical and mental health conditions.

These adjustments could include:

  • Changes to recruitment processes
  • Physical changes in the workplace
  • Equipment changes
  • Flexible or part-time working options

The government provides guidance through your local JobCentre Plus office. Additionally, talk to your employees about what they need. In some cases, small adjustments could have a huge impact on mental well-being.

How to Stop Sensory Overload in the Workplace

In a busy, open-plan office, sensory overload has three main triggers: audio, visual, and tactile overload. The good news is that there are strategies managers and employees can put in place to help keep this at manageable levels.

Audio overload

Loud noises can trigger anxiety or a startle response in some people, but in others, low-frequency noises are the worst. The hum of a computer fan, the buzz of fluorescent lights, or the constant humming of a coworker may drive us to distraction.

Interestingly, a study by Cornell University found that low-level noise in open-plan offices experienced more stress and were less motivated than those who work in quiet environments. In this study, the workers were not even aware of the stress, but for people with sensory overload, it can make coming to work unbearable.

Managing audio overload

However, there are several things you can do to reduce audio overload. One solution is noise-cancelling headphones. They block out many external sounds and allow you to either listen to music that helps you focus or simply enjoy the quiet. However, in an office environment, they can put up barriers between you and your coworkers.

Sensory earplugs that block out low-frequency noise are another option. You can still listen to a conversation and talk on the phone, but low-frequency noises that include anxiety are kept to a minimum.

However, the best solution is to provide your workers with a soundproof place to retreat to from time to time. An individual soundproof office phone pod is the perfect solution. The high-quality soundproofing materials keep out all the distracting sounds of the office, allowing colleagues to destress and focus on their work.

Visual overload

Flickering lights and bright screens can lead to visual overload. While both are tough to avoid completely, there are a few strategies that can help.

Managing visual overload

While it’s not ideal, wearing sunglasses or glasses with coloured lenses may help reduce visual overload for some individuals. Blue light-blocking glasses and regularly scheduled screen breaks could also help.

Proper office maintenance helps ensure that flickering lights are sorted out as soon as possible. Installing LED lighting could be another option. A soundproof booth with soft LED lighting could be a great option if changing the lighting in the entire office is impractical.

Tactile sensitivity overload

Tactile sensitivity overload, from coming into contact with surfaces, clothing or objects that cause a response, is probably not as well recognised as other triggers. It can be a particular issue in workplaces that require employees to wear a uniform.

Managing tactile sensitivity overload

Some employers allow workers to layer their uniforms with clothing that does not trigger a tactile response. That may work well in our brutal British winters but could be a challenge in summer. Another option is allowing employees to select appropriate garments and branding them to fit in with your uniform style.

Let Soundproof Booths Reduce Sensory Overload

Considerate employers know that to get the best out of their workers, they must prioritise their mental health. Reducing sensory overload could be an important piece of the puzzle. Talking to your team members about their triggers is a great starting point.

If audio and visual overload is a challenge in your workplace, installing soundproof booths could be the perfect solution. They provide tranquil retreats, allowing workers to destress and focus on their work. They could help you retain key talent and make your office a more desirable environment for new recruits.

Click here to check out our range, from the solo office phone pod to the roomy six-person meeting booth.