The World Health Organisation recently announced that noise pollution is second only to air pollution in terms of the size of environmental health impacts in Europe, with around one in three people negatively affected. 

This impacts urban areas in particular, where the population density means that even the most innocuous sounds, like a car door slamming, can build up to a cacophony with damaging effects on health.

The impact of noise pollution on health 

Despite being one of the most underreported forms of pollution, noise still has a significant impact on people’s health and wellbeing. An estimated 100 million people in Europe are exposed to harmful levels of noise, which can raise blood pressure and increase blood viscosity. As a result, 48,000 new cases of ischaemic heart disease are diagnosed every year, leading to 12,000 premature deaths. 

On a less extreme level, noise pollution can cause high levels of annoyance, with 22 million people suffering from ‘chronic annoyance’ as a result. This may sound trivial, but the annoyance caused by noise pollution can result in increased production of cortisol — a.k.a. the stress hormone — which can be very detrimental to long-term health. 

Noise pollution in urban areas and offices 

During the pandemic, many people got used to a quieter environment, with noise levels in cities like London decreasing by up to 60%. As cities have opened up, the issue of noise pollution has become more apparent. In turn, governments have begun to explore options to reduce the impact of noise pollution. 

For example, Barcelona has implemented sound monitors across the city and ‘acoustically stressed’ areas could face restrictions on outdoor dining and alcohol sale times. Amsterdam’s major hub airport will be reducing its capacity by 20% to combat noise levels. On the other hand, major urban hubs like London haven’t released a new noise pollution strategy since 2004. 

Nevertheless, since the return to the office, whether full time or hybrid, the negative effects of urban noise pollution have continued to seep into office environments. Employees struggle to hear on calls due to building works, transport, and commotion outside, or even their colleagues sitting next to them. As a result, many industries are desperately looking for a solution that can protect their employees from noise pollution as well as enable them to work productively. 

The importance of clarity on virtual calls 

The realisations brought by the pandemic have triggered a long-term trend; virtual calls are here to stay. This is one area in which noise pollution is most acutely felt, with background noise disrupting calls and impacting people’s ability to understand one another. Virtual calls act as the centrepiece of the modern workplace, facilitating the boom in hybrid and remote working models and playing an important role in both internal and external business meetings. 

Today, 79% of first-round interviews are conducted virtually, and even worker layoffs, which can be controversial, are being held via video calls on an increasing basis. Noise pollution risks derailing these crucial moments when call participants need to listen most actively. With 61% of office workers complaining about being interrupted by background noise five to ten times a day, office noise pollution is clearly a major issue that must be addressed. 

Why we need to invest in audio technology 

It’s clear that virtual meetings will continue to play a central role in modern working practices. Great strides have been made in the video technology space, with participants able to blur out or even change the background to their calls. However, the same level of investment and widespread adoption hasn’t happened yet in the audio space. From muting/unmuting your microphone to being misheard, background noise can make virtual meetings a stressful — and counter-productive — experience. 

So how do we protect virtual meetings from noise pollution? Technological solutions like  voice isolation could be the answer. Innovative, bi-directional, AI-based software can cut out background noise and highlight the speaker’s voice. Furthermore, because it only requires one user for both sides to benefit, it’s particularly beneficial in the CX sector.

Simple, flexible SaaS solutions can reduce stress caused by background noise on virtual meetings and allow users to focus on what’s important: the conversation. By removing background noise and increasing clarity, virtual calls can stop being annoying and start being productive.

Tom Darnell is the COO of IRIS Audio Technologies