Fight, flight, or safety? The impact of alarming sounds on healthcare professionals

Humans respond very well to sounds, and our hearing is created to protect us. To guide us in understanding what is going on we have our ears, our own built-in ‘watchdogs’ that quickly determine where a sound comes from, and whether a situation should activate our fight or flight mode – or if it is a false alarm and the situation is safe.

Rapid reactions and quick responses are crucial in healthcare environments: when an alarm goes off, the staff immediately has to analyse the situation and decide what actions need to be taken.

A busy watchdog is a tired watchdog

Alarms buzz up to 200 times/hour in hospitals
Alarms buzz up to 200 times/hour in hospitals

The ear-watchdogs are programmed to be activated and make us alert from time to time – but not for a full eight-hour workday. Healthcare environments tend to activate the watchdogs almost constantly, with staff being aroused by the sound of alarms buzzing up to 200 times per hour. A constant exposure to these alarming sound leaves the caregivers with little or no time to calm down and digest the hormones (cortisols and adrenaline) caused by the often stressful situation. In the long run, the health and wellbeing of healthcare staff  is negatively affected. The noises can lead to alarm fatigue and to developing ‘sound memories’ that for example are activated in your sleep, even though the sound heard, such as a buzzing alarm, is not really there.

Sound refuges are needed for staff

The planning for building healthcare environments has to be done with all five senses in mind. Healthcare professionals need silence and a break from a noisy environment, not the least to be able to communicate without being misheard, misunderstood, or misinterpreted.  A sound work environment helps the staff heal, ease pain and provide comfort and hope to their patients for many years to come.

This topic was presented by Maria Quinn at the Care for Sound Symposium. Watch the presentation in full below, or follow Maria on Twitter: 

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