Headphones at Work?

I recently read a post in Dave Clemens’ HR Cafe on the issue of whether employers should let employees listen to music or other material on headphones while at work. He noted that surveys  show that employees feel more productive and satisfied while listening to music, books, etc. and that with headphones on, they’re less distracted. He then went on to discuss when it might be inappropriate to let employees do this (e.g., if they’re in customer service) and the dangers inherent in wearing headphones such as failure to hear a fire alarm or co-worker questions.

This got me thinking.  My main thought being: I don’t think employees should be on headphones during work. 

I must confess first that I don’t like the modern habit of listening to music 24/7: on the bus, when walking, when shopping, etc.  I believe in interacting with the world, not being perpetually distracted and separate from it.

That being said, some activities are very boring — exercise at the gym, for example–and even I can’t condemn doing something else while exercising.

So with that as a starting point, maybe wearing headphones at work can be appropriately allowed if: (1) the work is fairly solitary and repetitive; (2) listening to music, news or whatever will not affect accuracy or other elements of job performance; and (3) the employee can still readily hear what’s going on around him or her.  I would also add that the employee needs permission to wear headphones and that he or she should not be allowed to wear them for excessively long periods of time and certainly not all day.

There are (at least) two problems, however, with my criteria: they potentially pigeonhole certain jobs and can create resentment among others who are not allowed to wear headphones.  The answer to the first problem, of course, is not to label the headphone-appropriate jobs as “boring.” Other, more positive descriptions such as those used above are better.  As for the second problem, if the criteria are clearly stated and consistently applied, theoretically there will be no grounds for complaint. Or maybe an employer can institute “Headphone Friday.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s just easier to ban headphones altogether. Your thoughts?  ~Amy Stephson

10 responses to “Headphones at Work?

  1. A ban on headphones is not a good idea. There are some of us who can only drag ourselves to our jobs because of what we are listening to.
    Your criteria for allowing people to listen to headphones at work are OK, but may I suggest a slightly different approach?

    An employee can wear headphones at work when:
    1) Human interaction is not required, or only required very little, say less than 5% of the time.
    2) The person has mastered the job they are doing to such an extent that listening does not lower their productivity.
    3)The job being done is not dangerous, or at the very least the person has mastered the job to such an extent that the job they are doing has been made safe by their level of expertise.

  2. I work in a noisy office where I edit important documents all day long. I need focus. Every time my coworker interrupts my concentration with personal conversation, my productivity goes down. I have deadlines to meet and should have a place to get things done. I can’t prevent the woman in the cubicle next to me from yapping all day long, but I can block out her noise with music. Thank God for headphones.

  3. I am a cleaner and have recently taken to listening to my music whilst doing the cleaning….cleaning toilets isn’t the nicest of jobs but listening to some music makes it bit more bearable but now I have been informed that I’n not allowed because it’s company policy, health&safety etc. I don’t have it on throughout the shift, I don’t have it on loud, I take earphones out when I see people and fire alarms are deafening most of the time and I can barely hear my music when I’m hovering so shall I stop hovering incase I don’t hear the alarm. So I’ve got into bit of trouble in work in regards to this as I refuse to stop listening to my music. I am trying to find any written law that state listening to music on your headphones is not allowed in the workplace…..cleaning department but can’t find any info yet so if anyone has any info in regards to this problem I would appreciate it….even though I’m commenting on an old post!! desperation!!

    • Workplace Insiders

      Hi Dean–I do not know of any laws specifically governing listening to music at work and think it is a management call. What if you asked if it was OK to listen with only one ear pod in? Or to listen without headphones at all, that is, from your music player? Neither is as good, but either may be better than nothing. ~Amy Stephson

  4. In the software industry you’d get laughed out of town if you told your employees they couldn’t listen to music while working.

  5. I work in an extremely high risk environment. That being said…… I listen to books on tape religiously and have learned 3 languages and am on my way to a fourth. Just a hobby and dont see it leading to any furthering of my career. Point is that some people are capable of multitasking and in my case I have ADHD and I’ve found that it helps me focus on the tasks at hand. I would think that common sense would dictate that people who need to interact with people regularly would know not to wear headphones. Blanket bans are never the answer.

  6. Pingback: Headphones at Work: Part 2 | Workplace Insiders

  7. I’m a cleaner, and listening to headphones is really important to me. It’s an isolated job, and pretty easy and repetitive, and I love to learn as I work, listening to audiobooks and lectures, etc. I’m also a musician, so listening to music is important to me too. My ability to do my job isn’t impaired, my employers rate me as an excellent cleaner. Infact, personally, I think my performance would get worse without headphones. I always listen with just one ear piece in, and will courteously take it out when appropriate. But after 6 years, my new area manager has told me I’m not allowed to wear headphones, and it’s a pretty big deal to me to be honest.

    At the moment I’m thinking I’m just going to carry on and hope my area manager doesn’t catch me again. I can’t find any mention of a headphone ban in the company handbook. I also have a strong bargaining position, as we’ve been short staffed for 6 months and there doesn’t seem to be anybody out there wanting to take a cleaning job. On top of that, I’ve done the company a huge amount of favours by taking on most of the supervisory roles at my place of work, free of charge, and basically, I think they’d be pretty screwed without me.

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