In August 2023, this shouldn’t even be a topic of debate. Right now, I am sitting in a cafe while my daughter attends her gymnastics class. I sit here typing while wearing my headphones, listening to Queens of the Stone Age.
This is an opportune time to type this piece, but there is the background chatter of other patrons, plus the annoying hum of the air-conditioning. All of which I find incredibly distracting. On the other hand, silence is deafening and allows a myriad of ideas to consume my thinking.
For me, as is the same for many others, different genres of music allow my mind to focus in different ways.
In June 2021, Misbah Hanif, a former presenting officer at the Department for Work and Pensions in Stockton, Teesside, won a discrimination claim after her manager told her she could not listen to songs through headphones while she was in the office.
Hanif suffered with anxiety and argued that music helped her relax and alleviated her symptoms.
In her ruling, Judge Adele Aspden concluded: ‘We have accepted that [Ms Hanif] found listening to music helped her to cope with stress and counter feelings of anxiety and that this, in turn, was likely to aid her productivity…the failure to give that express permission was a breach of the respondent’s duty to make reasonable adjustments.’
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There are counterarguments that wearing headphones while working can make a person look unapproachable and unsociable, which can hinder working relationships. Or that you are unable to hear talk that is fundamental to learning or the development of a matter – learning by osmosis. At which point do these arguments outweigh the needs of the individual?
Leah Steele, founder of Searching for Serenity, recently uploaded a LinkedIn post highlighting her recent headphone purchase, and stated her excitement to have something to help her focus having been diagnosed with ADHD. This post is currently at 3,531 reactions, 431 comments and 83 reposts. All about a set of headphones.
I added my comment: ‘I worked in a law firm, where I was asked to ensure no one wore headphones when working. I was asked, no told, to tell my team they were not allowed to wear them. I personally need headphones to help focus, as certain music types enable me to work differently – so this was my first argument, as I knew others were the same. I had minimal understanding of neurodiversity then, but enough to challenge the request. My team knew I was the messenger via other people, but that particular higher-up didn’t care. I fought for my team, which didn’t go down well. But even to this day, I would do the same.’
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Imagine being a person that struggles with ambient noise and chatter. Work in an open-plan office, as is trendy now for many top law firms, will usually mean you are required to use headphones for video conferencing and telephone calls. So why an issue with headphones that provide the ability to listen to background music or white noise when you do not need to interact with colleagues?
For so many, it can be the difference between a productive day or not. Lots of the office interactions around desks are conversations that surround office gossip, politics, and anything irrelevant to an individual. For most, they can get their work done effectively and efficiently without hearing these conversations.
Employees are grown-ups, they can remove their headphones when someone attends their desk to ask a question or discuss an issue. Surely the ‘unapproachable’ and ‘unsociable’ connotation with headphones is just the reaction of the other person, and no one can control how someone reacts. Maybe those people need to change their mindset and choose to react differently.
The best thing for law firms is just to adopt a common sense approach. Employees should be able to control a modicum of their own environment. Trust your staff to be diligent with their own usage.
This article by Kristy Pappin was originally published by The Law Society Gazette