Speech privacy is a growing concern among people who spend any time in an open plan environment. Cited as one of the biggest problems for employees and healthcare patients, speech privacy is quickly becoming an essential consideration for today’s organizations.

Speech privacy is about more than controlling the noise level of a given area; it’s about protecting the content that is spoken and shielding the bystanders who may overhear it. When sounds carry throughout a space they can cause distractions. This is not only a concern in spaces where people work, but, can also impair students’ ability to focus in school and patients’ ability to relax and heal in healthcare environments. Below we explore the benefits of sound masking across different environments.

Increased Productivity

A found that, on average, employees wasted approximately 21.5 minutes per day (approximately 4% of an eight hour shift) due to conversational distractions. It may not sound like much, but consider how much wasted productivity and financial resources that adds up to over a year:

Caption to image: . And that’s conservative; a separate study conducted by Steelcase and Ipsos found that employees could actually lose up to 86 minutes per day. Using the same math, conversational distractions have the potential to cause a company lose closer to $850,000 each year!

Research shows that adjusting acoustical conditions with the goal of removing conversational distractions can result in the following performance improvements:

Caption to image: When conversational distractions are minimized, distractions are reduced by 51% and focus increases by 48%. The resulting ability to concentrate boosts productivity by 40% and decreases error rates by 10%.

Students and educators also see an improvement in productivity and performance when noise distractions are reduced in learning environments. When students can concentrate on a task or the instructor without interruption, they are able to process information easier and faster. Younger students face more risks from noise distractions in the classroom. Not only do higher levels of ambient noise affect the cognitive performance of children, but it can also interfere with a child’s speech and reading development.


Any organization handling sensitive, personal, or financial information must take deliberate measures to safeguard it from potential threats.For businesses, this means information such as employee social security numbers, client paymentdata, business strategy,and trade secrets need to be protectedby reducing the risk of being overheard. By making conversations more difficult to understand, sound masking is an easy solution to keep employee and customer information protected in work places.

As concerns over identity theft grow, healthcare and education environments can also benefit from the added security provided by sound masking systems. Patients will feel confident that their full name, medical history, and insurance information stay safe. Students will be protected when providing financial information or meeting with a counselor.

Supporting Wellbeing

Addressing noise distractions can help increase wellbeing and boost morale for workers, students and patients. It may seem odd that conversational distractions can have such an impact until you think about it. It’s stressful when you know every word you say is potentially overheard by someone nearby, especially if the topic is personal.

On the opposite end, no one wants to overhear every detail of every conversations going on around them. By breaking your concentration, you’re now fighting to get back into your groove and on track. This distraction can lead to stress that ultimately hurts wellbeing and negatively impacts .

In healthcare environments, sound masking systems are highly relevant in the pursuit of positive health outcomes. Patients need a quiet space not only where they can heal, but where they feel that any personal information shared with their healthcare providers is kept confidential. The use of sound masking systems has been shown to increase sleep quality for ICU patients by 42.7% and overall patient satisfaction by 33%. At a time when patient satisfaction scores carry significant impact on organizational performance, the benefits of incorporating sound masking can’t be ignored.

Mitigating Risk

Throughout every industry, there are certain topics that legally must remain private. Any chance that a conversation involving this information is overheard by others can render an organization susceptible to legal action. The following regulatory agencies either encourage or legally mandate speech privacy:

  1. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) – Mandates that all employers (not just hospitals) “take reasonable safeguards to protect the privacy of protected health information.”
  2. Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act (GLBA) – Requires financial institutions to protect their client’s non-public financial information.
  3. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) FERPA – Mandates that colleges and universities take all reasonable efforts to safeguard student information including how the information is collected and disseminated.
  4. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) – Includes assurance of proper speech privacy and sound isolation as a component of LEED certification. Many U.S. federal agencies and state and local governments require buildings to attain LEED certification.
  5. Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems Survey (HCAHPS) – Provides scores to hospitals based on a variety of criteria, including “quietness of patient environment.” Hospitals with low HCAHPS scores risk loss of government funding and damaged reputation.

The people who can directly benefit from speech privacy systems being integrated into an environment include:

  1. Business Owners – Protect speech privacy and increase productivity by reducing noise distractions
  2. Facility Managers – Help increase worker satisfaction and reduce operating costs
  3. Property Managers – Increase the value of your space by creating a more comfortable environment for tenants
  4. HR Managers and Privacy and Compliance Managers – Comply with the speech privacy requirements of HIPAA and GLBA regulations
  5. Healthcare Administrators – Increase HCAHPS scores and HIPAA compliance
  6. Architects – Improve the acoustical environment of new or retrofitted spaces
  7. General Consultants – Create a collaborative work environment without sacrificing acoustics
  8. Contractors – Improve speech privacy and lessen the level of distraction without adding further absorptive and blocking materials
  9. Employees – Enjoy a more comfortable work environment with fewer distractions
  10. Students–Concentrate on instructor and lessons without interruption
  11. Patients–Experience a better healing environment

Conversations are a necessary part of everyday life and can occur anywhere. Unless people close themselves into a certified sound-proof room, anything they say has the potential to be overheard by someone who isn’t a part of the conversation. This results in 1) information being unintentionally shared and 2) a distraction to whomever overhears it. Integrating sound masking solutions into an environment can have a long-term effect on enhancing people’s productivity, wellbeing, and trust.

Related articles on Speech Privacy:

The Urgent Need to Address Speech Privacy Concerns

Privacy + Openness: It’s about Balance

Chattering Colleagues or Sounds of Silence: Which Is Golden for the Workplace?

The Open Office Noise Problem: how to design around it

Speech privacy is a growing challenge in our society that can emotionally and financially affect both individuals and large organizations. Fortunately, organizations can support speech privacy throughout their spaces by incorporating one or more solutions.

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