15% of the general population have this disorder, and employers can provide much-needed supports
When I found myself locked in my work’s bathroom cubicle, blasting white noise through my headphones, I figured that maybe I should go see a doctor – and that my hatred of noise was more than just a personality quirk.
I have misophonia, a disorder that means certain noises can trigger intense emotional and physical reactions. And it made working in an office absolute hell.
The sound of incessant tapping, breathing, eating, slurping and phones ringing made it seem like there was a fire in my head and I had to run away. To combat it, I would wear heavy duty noise cancelling headphones all day long – often not playing anything through them but just to block out any rogue sounds.
And I’m by no means alone. It’s estimated that 15% of the general population have misophonia, though it often goes undiagnosed in both children and adults. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I had a diagnosis – though the signs were there even when I was a toddler.
I’ve always hated noise. I remember dreading school lunch times because I could hear the other kids eating, not being able to sleep at night because a car alarm was going off or a tap was leaking in the bathroom, and taking the batteries out of household clocks to stop the ticking. Once on a cruise with my parents, I actually slept outside on the balcony, suspended above the Atlantic Ocean, because the sounds of them breathing was too much for me.
Everyone always thought I was being too fussy or acting up, but it was hard to verbalize that mixture of anxiety and anger in my head.
Then the fresh hell of the workplace hit. The general quiet in an office makes those random noises sound so much louder – the tapping of a colleague’s pen, the person sniffling with a cold, the clacking of gum. It was hard to concentrate but I found ways of managing thanks to white noise apps and ear pods.
Now, working from home, my condition has improved massively. I still hate noise, but I can control my environment and minimize any potential issues. And for those with misophonia who have to work in an office, there’s certain ways HR leaders and employers can help.
Flexibility: If an employee has misophonia, it’s important that you’re flexible about where they work. If they need to be in the office, provide a safe space they can retreat to when the noises hit.
Headphones: Some offices have a no-headphone policy which, for people with misophonia, is terrifying. Allow your people to wear headphones when they can or allow them to listen to music when possible.
Noise-free pods: One thing which really helped me prior to working from home was sitting in noise-cancelling pods. A lot of shared office spaces have these – but individual offices can install one or two themselves.
Quiet hour: Try having a dedicated quiet hour where people make as little noise as possible. Put phones on silent, mute your Skype calls, and minimize chatting.
While it’s common for everyone to hate some noise, to hate certain noises to the point of sheer rage isn’t. It’s important to raise awareness around this issue, not to shy away from it, and help employees that’re really struggling.
For anyone who suspects they have misophonia, please contact your local GP to discuss options. There’s a whole host of resources out there to help quieten the sounds inside, and outside, of your head.