Dichotic listening on the job

Photo: Ears, by sara.lauderdale on Flickr

Photo: Ears, by sara.lauderdale on Flickr

“Dichotic listening” is a term that describes what we do in a noisy environment, like a cocktail party, where there are multiple conversations happening at once.

“Listeners are generally able to focus on one conversation and pretty much ignore the din in the room,” said a former call centre agent at an online dating company. “But if a key word or phrase is overheard across the din – like the person’s name, or maybe a dirty word – the listener might take notice.”

He researched dichotic listening when he and his coworkers started getting headaches after a few hours of listening to voicemail messages – two at a time – screening for banned words.

“The dichotic listening in the call centre where I worked was much more intense than a cocktail party. We were required to listen to two headsets at the same time – one on each ear, monitoring two different phone lines – and we had to respond separately to each one,” he wrote. “While it wasn’t physically harmful to the ears – like loud noises – it started giving agents chronic headaches after listening to two different sources for eight-hour shifts.”

Workers reported their complaints to management, who did not listen, so they eventually contacted WorkSafeBC to investigate. The call centre was required to stop the practice, and soon after, the company laid off local agents and hired an overseas call centre.

Ask an audiologist

I contacted my audiologist friend to get her take on the story.

“Our brains are designed to pay attention to one auditory signal at a time. We can hear many at a time, but really only focus on one,” said Dr. Tracey Demmon, an audiologist in Washington State.

“Performing a dichotic listening task is not harmful, but can be very taxing on the brain, thus causing headaches from all the strain. Trying to focus on two at the same time can be exhausting. And, if we are required to perform an additional motor task such as typing what we heard, that takes extra energy… Dichotic listening can be stressful and cause headaches or even other physical ailments if required for too long.

“FYI, I have not researched the correlation between dichotic listening and headaches. But, I do know that the strain from even a mild hearing loss can cause headaches, even focusing too much on a game on the small screen of your mobile phone can cause headaches – it’s due to the excess energy required of our brains to process the information,” she wrote.

Concerned about your health and safety at work?

Workers – like the call centre agents – can call the WorkSafeBC Prevention Line at 604-276-3100 in the Lower Mainland or 1-888-621-7233 toll-free elsewhere in BC.


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