Having a hearing impairment in the workplace can have a detrimental effect on how our communications and interactions with others. Now is the time for employers to take action and help make the work environment as inclusive as possible for the deaf and those with a hearing impairment.
Hearing Impairment in the Workplace
According to prweek.com, one in six people in the UK are currently experiencing some kind of hearing loss. The Health and Safety Executive estimate that in the UK alone, approximately 17,000 employees " ...experience deafness, ringing in the ears or other ear conditions caused by excessive noise at work".
For the deaf and hearing impaired, the workplace can be a difficult and frustrating environment to navigate. The noise generated can be overwhelming. Noises such as telephones ringing, the ping of emails, the radio playing in the background, the purr of the photocopier and the constant chatter make it hard for a person with a hearing impairment to concentrate or hold a conversation.
Which Factors Cause Hearing Loss?
There are a variety of reasons why hearing loss can occur:
- Natural ageing
- Genetic disposition
- Exposure to harmful noises
- Tinnitus - a permanent ringing in the ear that can make it difficult to hear certain sounds
The effects of hearing loss can in some cases be permanent and incurable. The condition can remain stable, fluctuate or worsen, depending upon the underlying cause and can be difficult to quantify. Often technology can help, such as the use of hearing aids that amplify sound. Despite this, increased levels of background noise can make it difficult to hear speech sound in large public spaces.
What Impact Can Hearing Impairment Have in the Workplace?
Hearing loss is invisible to the eye, so it can be difficult for employers to establish when they need to offer specific help and to whom. Certain activities such as meetings, networking events, interviews and telephone conferences can be particularly challenging without the necessary support functions in place. Office banter and important information can be particularly difficult to capture for those with hearing loss, which in turn can lead to social isolation and low morale. As always, communication is paramount in order to establish a happy, balanced and inclusive workforce.
5 Top Tips on How to Make the Workplace More Accessible:
In the UK, as per the Equality Act 2010, employers are legally bound to make reasonable adjustments in the work environment to enable those employees with a hearing impairment or other disability to continue working.
1. Provide training and an empathetic ear
It takes a certain amount of empathy and understanding from senior management to recognise the daily challenges faced by employees with hearing loss. Specific training is essential to help successfully identify those in need and to implement the appropriate support. Communication is key in the workplace and often, for the employee, admitting there is a problem is a hard obstacle to overcome. As such, it's important that the needs of those with a hearing impairment are met with tact and diplomacy.
2. Make your meeting rooms more accessible
A team meeting in a large, open space can be a daunting prospect for the hearing impaired. Although digital hearing aids are far more advanced these days, background noise can make it exceptionally difficult to focus on what is being said. Sound quality can be greatly improved by taking just a few simple steps:
Reduce the chatter
Try to keep excessive chatter outside of the boardroom. One voice speaking at any given time is much easier to hear. The constant hubbub of multiple people talking can cause confusion and frustration.
Shut the windows before a meeting
Outside, external noise and the clatter of street life can be a problem for those wearing hearing aids, as background noise is often amplified. Help by shutting out the noise and closing the windows before a meeting.
Turn off the air conditioning
The constant whirring of an air conditioning unit can be incredibly distracting, making it hard for people to focus on what is being said during a meeting. To rectify the problem - simply turn it off.
Improve the acoustics with soft furnishings
Meeting rooms with no soft furnishings and hard, bare floors will inevitably have sound bouncing off the walls. This is why large function rooms in hotel chains are invariably carpeted, with padded ceilings that soak up any excess noise. For those businesses on a budget, a strategically placed rug and some scatter cushions can be a cost-effective way of helping to improve the sound quality for everyone.
3. Utilise technology
Technology has transformed the way we work. The Internet and mobile phones have meant that it's never been so easy to communicate with colleagues and transfer data. Although there are specialist programs available that can make a real difference in supporting those with hearing loss, you can also make the most of your existing technology and equipment:
- Use built-in, amplified sound alerts found in PCs.
- Flashing screen alerts on mobile phones can notify users of any incoming calls.
- Bluetooth can stream sound directly to hearing aids.
- Create videos with captions included.
- Video calls are helpful for lip-reading.
- Voice recognition speech-to-text software.
- Powerpoint presentations, texts and emails aid communication.
- BSL interpreter can be used if required.
4. Other hearing solutions for the workplace, available via HearingDirect include:
- Extra loud telephones, both corded and cordless
- Bluetooth, amplified mobile phones with vibrate function
- Personal Bluetooth microphones, particularly useful in the boardroom or lecture hall
5. Wider teachings
Authors Gordon Eddie and Adrian Hill have written a book about hearing loss and the workplace. They offer some innovative ideas on how to navigate the office environment with hearing loss.
By ensuring the workplace is as accessible as possible for those with a hearing impairment, you will not only be carrying out your obligations as an employer, but will be on track to maintain a happier, more productive and inclusive workforce.