About one-third of the workforce in modern economies – from teachers to trade unionists, call centre workers to checkout staff – rely on their voices to do their job.
If talking is an essential part of your job, you are likely to put strain on your vocal cords. But voice strain is not restricted to workers in noisy environments who find themselves shouting.
Voice impairment affects workers where the workplace has poor air quality. For example, where the air carries mould spores or dust, or where the air is dry, heated or air-conditioned, or where workers suffer from colds and infections. Voice impairment affects workers who overuse their voices, those with fatigued voices and even those suffering from stress. It affects people who work with chemicals or in polluted environments.
Research by the TUC in 2004 found that five million workers in the UK could be routinely affected by voice loss. These work-related voice problems cost the UK economy around £200 million each year, mainly through absence.
One in five teachers were found to have had time off sick with voice-related problems – five times the rate for the UK workforce as a whole. A 2008 survey by teachers’ union ATL (now part of the National Education Union) found that over two-thirds of primary school teachers had experienced voice problems that they believed had been caused by their job. Over a third (37%) of teachers who have experienced voice problems have visited their GP, and almost a quarter (24%) have had to take time off work.
A study by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health released on World Voice Day 2012 found that one in four call centre agents suffered voice problems, including voice loss, sore throats and breathlessness, because managers were failing to protect their health. Sixty per cent of workers reported having difficulty making themselves heard against background noise and 41% said they had failed to be heard by the customer on the other end of the line. Researchers found that new starters, especially female workers, were at particularly high risk.