Should You Wear Headphones At Work? Pros, Cons and When HR Can Get Involved

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Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
Audiophiles, those who enjoy white noise when they work and people who appreciate the noise-canceling benefits of headphones, will often tell you that their headphones are an essential part of their work setup. However, headphones' detractors argue that they're distracting, make it difficult to get coworkers' attention and can even pose a threat to safety in certain environments. 
Learn about the advantages and disadvantages of headphones and how best to determine how you can (and can't) incorporate headphones into your work environment. 

Pros of headphones at work.

First, and most importantly, wearing headphones at work can boost focus and productivity. Many people find that controlling the background noise in their environment helps them focus on the task at hand and get work done more quickly. This is likely to be especially true for workers in open-plan offices, which tend to be a bit noisier and, therefore, distraction-filled than other types of offices. 
Boosting employee productivity is good for both workers and companies. Workers who are able to focus on their work get more done, which helps them avoid burning the midnight oil; and their employers, who don't have to pay overtime or deal with burnt-out, stressed-out employees, benefit as well.
If you're listening to music through your headphones, you may also find that your creative thinking gets a boost. Teresa Lesiuk, an assistant professor in the music therapy program at the University of Miami, explains that music can help people "break out of just thinking one way." Lesiuk's research shows that music listeners not only complete tasks more quickly but also come up with better ideas than non-music listeners. 
The right background music or programming can also boost your mood and help relieve stress. Given that the workplace can be a stressful, hectic place, this could be a pretty significant benefit of headphones for many workers.

Cons of headphones at work.

The most obvious downside of headphones is linked to their most obvious upside. While headphones can block out distracting noise and help wearers focus on the work at hand, they can also isolate their wearers and make it difficult for coworkers to get wearers' attention. They also eliminate the opportunity for spontaneous creativity, exchange of ideas and casual interactions between coworkers.
There's also some risk that music could be a distraction, rather than a focus-booster, if the listener gets too caught up in the lyrics to the detriment of their actual work. Additionally, if a headphone wearer plays their music too loudly, it could be heard by — and become distracting to — the people next to them. 
It's also worth bearing in mind that certain work environments, particularly those involving very detail-oriented tasks or dangerous situations, are poorly suited to wearing headphones. If your job demands that you be as attuned as possible to your environment, headphones are likely a poor choice at work. 
Finally, the potential health effects of playing music too loudly via headphones must be mentioned. Playing music or other audio at high volumes through one's headphones can lead to hearing damage and even deafness over time. 

(When) should HR intervene?

If an employee's headphone use interferes with their own or others' work, it's time for HR to intervene. This can be handled via an individual conversation with the employee in question. Discussing the issue directly and working with the employee in question to address it should suffice in these cases.
However, if there's a broader need for a company-wide policy on appropriate headphone use or a desire to have a company-wide policy on this issue, then it's appropriate for HR to take the lead in crafting such a policy and disseminating it to employees. The employee handbook is a good place for such a policy. 
Some issues that might be covered in a company policy on headphone use include: 
  • Allowable types of headphones (over-ear, noise-canceling, earbuds, etc.)
  • Whether employees should wear one or two headphones
  • Appropriate volume levels
  • A reminder not to sing along or otherwise distract colleagues
To prevent employees from keeping their headphones on at all times, a company could also consider restricting headphone use to only certain parts of the office, times of day or when completing certain tasks.
When crafting a company policy on headphone usage, it's important to keep the two competing issues in play in mind: on the one hand, it's important to ensure that people are able to adjust their work environments to suit their working styles and facilitate productivity, which may mean headphones are a necessity for some employees. On the other hand, it's equally important to ensure that employees have opportunities to work together and collaborate on ideas, which isn't possible if everyone has their headphones on all the time.
Striking the right balance between these competing objectives in both company policy and individual employee behavior is the best way to ensure that headphones are used responsibly and appropriately in an office environment.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.