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Misophonia: Sensitivity to Sounds and Surviving the Workplace

Learn about accommodations for someone who hates sounds

From the desk of Beth Loy, Ph.D., Principal Consultant/Technical Specialist


Imagine hearing certain everyday sounds that seriously upset you, even make you angry. Understand that these sounds are very common. The sounds of chewing, breathing, yawning, tapping, and keyboard typing are considered 'normal' and are often ignored by most people as background noises in everyday listening. However, for some people these sounds are not only a distraction, but also evoke strong feelings of anger or disgust accompanied by an urge to escape the environment from which the sounds originate. Misophonia (hatred of sounds) is the name given to the condition marked by sensitivity to a select group of sounds. According to the International OCD Foundation and the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnical Information), misophonia is not a diagnosis found in the DSM-5, but it might be closely related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, and specific phobias. Since the sounds that act as triggers in this condition are quite common at home, in the work place, and in social gatherings, misophonia can have devastating effects on employment, and the social, family, and personal lives of those affected by it.

JAN receives inquiries as to what can be done to assist employees with misophonia in the workplace. So what can an employer do about the trigger sounds at work, considering that they are highly common ones? There may only be so much one can do to escape the workplace and its sounds, right? How can an individual handle the triggers when working with many others in large open spaces or with a just a few coworkers in a smaller space?

Consider the following accommodation ideas on how to reduce or eliminate the incidence of particular sounds that cause the workplace issues, or alleviate the reactions to the sounds to help the employee better manage her emotions.

Concentration:

  • Reduce distractions in the work area:
    • Provide space enclosures, sound absorption panels, or a private office
    • Allow for use of white noise or environmental sound machines
    • Allow the employee to listen to soothing music
    • Provide a noise cancelling headset
    • Plan for uninterrupted work time
  • Increase natural lighting or provide full spectrum lighting
  • Allow flexible work environment:
    • Flexible scheduling
    • Modified break schedule
    • Work from home/Flexi-place
  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks and goals
  • Use auditory or written cues as appropriate
  • Restructure job to include only essential functions
  • Provide memory aids such as schedulers, organizers, and / or apps

Stress / Emotions:

  • Encourage use of stress management techniques to deal with frustration
  • Allow the presence of a support animal
  • Allow telephone calls during work hours to doctors and others for needed support
  • Use a mentor or supervisor to alert the employee when his/her behavior is becoming unprofessional or inappropriate
  • Assign a supervisor, manager, or mentor to answer the employee's questions
  • Restructure job to include only essential functions during times of stress
  • Refer to counseling, employee assistance programs (EAP)
  • Provide backup coverage for when the employee needs to take breaks
  • Allow flexible work environment:
    • Flexible scheduling
    • Modified break schedule
    • Leave for counseling
    • Work from home/Flexi-place

Panic Attacks:

  • Allow the employee to take a break and go to a place where s/he feels comfortable to use relaxation techniques or contact a support person
  • Identify and remove environmental triggers such as particular smells or noises
  • Allow the presence of a support animal

Attendance:

  • Allow flexible work environment:
    • Flexible scheduling
    • Modified break schedule
    • Leave for counseling
    • Work from home/Flexi-place
  • Provide straight shift or permanent schedule
  • Allow the employee to make up the time missed
  • Modify attendance policy
    • Example: count one occurrence for all misophonia-related absences

Coworker Interaction:

  • Encourage the employee to walk away from frustrating situations
  • Allow the employee to work from home part-time
  • Provide partitions or closed doors to allow for privacy
  • Provide disability awareness training to coworkers and supervisors

Working Effectively:

Two common issues that JAN receives inquiries on are: (1) what accommodations will work for individuals with mental health impairments when workplaces are implementing substantial changes, and (2) what accommodations will help supervisors work effectively with individuals with mental health impairments. Many accommodation ideas are born from effective management techniques. When organizations are implementing workplace changes, it is important that key personnel recognize that a change in the environment or in supervisors may be difficult. Maintaining open channels of communication to ensure any transitions are smooth, and providing short weekly or monthly meetings with employees to discuss workplace issues can be helpful.

Supervisors can also implement management techniques that support an inclusive workplace culture while simultaneously providing accommodations. Techniques include the following:

  • Provide positive praise and reinforcement,
  • Provide day-to-day guidance and feedback,
  • Provide written job instructions via email,
  • Develop clear expectations of responsibilities and the consequences of not meeting performance standards,
  • Schedule consistent meetings with employee to set goals and review progress,
  • Allow for open communication,
  • Establish written long term and short term goals,
  • Develop strategies to deal with conflict,
  • Develop a procedure to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodation,
  • Educate all employees on their right to accommodations,
  • Provide sensitivity training to coworkers and supervisors,
  • Do not mandate that employees attend work related social functions, and
  • Encourage all employees to move non-work-related conversations out of work areas.

See also Mental Health Impairments, Attentiveness/Concentration, and Stress Intolerance for additional accommodation ideas that may be helpful.

Flexibility in the workplace, whether that involves the schedule or the location from where the work is completed, is a highly sought after and most often effective accommodation for employees who find it difficult to manage their emotions and stay productive when the difficulties they have are exacerbated by others in the workplace. Misophonia is definitely one of those conditions exacerbated by others in the workplace. While it may be an uncommon condition, and a request for an accommodation may be one’s initial introduction to it, we urge employers to think openly and creatively when looking to accommodate individuals who are adversely affected by common sounds in the workplace. If the goal of an accommodation is to provide an environment conducive to productivity, then any assistance to the employee in reducing or eliminating the aggravating sounds and thereby reducing or eliminating stress should prove successful in increasing productivity. And as always, JAN consultants are available to assist in finding effective accommodation solutions in possibly difficult situations.   

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