Generally speaking, it is seen as acceptable to wear headphones whilst working in the office. This could include listening to music or podcasts and often to aid with concentration.

However, critics often suggest that wearing headphones is damaging the working environment, making it unsociable and creating a barrier between interactions with colleagues.

So what is the right approach and what as an employer should you be wary of?

Headphones may be worn by employees for a variety of reasons such as to aid concentration, allow focus and remove background noise, especially when working in an open-plan office. Usually wearing headphones in the office is seen as reasonable when attending remote meetings or training sessions so why is it that it is seen as an issue when replying to emails, carrying out research or other day-to-day tasks?

Some may say that wearing headphones makes a colleague seem unapproachable and unsociable, preventing interactions with colleagues and potentially hindering learning for more junior members of staff. In some instances, it may be seen as unprofessional depending on your workplace policies.

A recent Employment Tribunal case demonstrated the growing popularity of headphone use in the office and how a refusal to allow headphone use could actually constitute disability discrimination.

In 2021 the case of Misbah Hanif v Department for Work and Pensions, Ms Hanif was successful in her claim of failure to make reasonable adjustments, on the basis that her employer refused to allow her to use headphones at work. Ms Hanif had previously been on sick leave due to stress and anxiety and was advised by her doctor to use headphones at work to help manage her symptoms.

Under the Equality Act 2010, reasonable adjustments must be made for employees who are disabled. A mental health issue such as anxiety can be considered a disability if, amongst other things, it has a long-term effect on normal daily activities.

Work-related stress and anxiety are common issues that employers need to be aware of and considering reasonable adjustments for their employees to manage stress-related issues is vital.  Any reasonable adjustments are specific to the individual and they should be discussed, agreed upon and formalised. If wearing headphones is considered an aid to stress-related symptoms then consideration to facilitating this should be given by the employer, as demonstrated in the above case.

Ultimately all employees are different when it comes to working productively and efficiently. Ideally, employees should be trusted to work in a way that suits them.

Anna Doran is a Trainee Solicitor at Attwells Solicitors LLP. Attwells operates flexible funding arrangements for employers including popular retainer packages, fixed fees and reduced hourly rates.

Contact Lloyd Clarke on 01206 239761 or for a free telephone consultation.

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