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Stress reactions to cognitively demanding tasks and open-plan office noise



To investigate the effects of cognitively demanding work tasks and office noise on heart rate variability (HRV), cardiovascular responses and electromyography (EMG) activity in the trapezius muscles.


Ten female volunteers were exposed to simulated open-plan office noise for 35 min (Leq 65 dBA), while engaged in cognitively demanding tasks. Task performance, self-rated stress and energy, affective state, perceived exertion in the shoulders and in the head, EMG in the left and right trapezius muscle, blood pressure, heart period length, HRV, and salivary cortisol were measured.


Cognitively demanding work tasks were associated with changes in HRV, systolic blood pressure and EMG that reflects increased sympathetic activity in the autonomic nervous system. No effect of noise was observed, except for a higher rating of perceived exertion in the head and, contrary to expectations, a 4% lower diastolic blood pressure in the noise conditions.


Psychophysiological measures reflected the mental load imposed by cognitive work tasks. Short-term exposure to office noise resulted in increased ratings of perceived exertion in the head, but not in physiological stress reactions.

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We are grateful to Jørn Toftum, Department of Civil Engineering at the Danish Technical University, for lending the tape with office noise.

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Correspondence to Jesper Kristiansen.

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Kristiansen, J., Mathiesen, L., Nielsen, P.K. et al. Stress reactions to cognitively demanding tasks and open-plan office noise. Int Arch Occup Environ Health 82, 631–641 (2009).

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  • Work-related stress
  • Office work
  • Mental load
  • Cognitive demands