speech banana world hearing day 2021.png

3 March, is World Hearing Day (WHD). To be honest it’s a day I only really became aware of in my early 20’s, after all why would anyone under retirement age worry about their hearing, hearing loss only effects ‘old people’, right? Not quite.

by Ross McLean

When I was 21, I had bacterial meningitis which put me in intensive care for several days and to cut a long story short, left me with a severe/profound level of hearing loss for which I now wear 2 hearing aids. Ever since, I’ve been passionate about raising awareness of hearing loss, so what better day to share some of my experience with you than WHD.

The theme for this year’s WHD is ‘Hearing care for all’, but it’s made me wonder why so few of us generally take good care of our hearing. Can you remember the last time you had a hearing test? Was it in the last 5 years? I’ll go out on a limb and say probably not. It can take approx. 10 years (ten!) for people to address hearing issues. I think the often-gradual nature of hearing loss is one of the main reasons for this – sound is invisible after all so how can we tell how much we are no longer hearing?

Hearing loss is one of the most common disabilities in humans, affecting over 11 million people in the UK alone (that’s approx. 1 in 5 of us). While it is often synonymous with ageing, factors such as disease and exposure to loud noise means it can affect anyone at any stage of the life course, and in the UK it effects around 4 million people of working age. These numbers are also expected to rise due to an ageing population and changes to retirement age, so it’s hugely important we understand more about how hearing loss impacts professional life.

We typically hear sounds ranging from 0-140 decibels (dB); think the difference between a leaf floating to the ground (~0dB) and the roar of a jet engine (~140dB). Routine conversational speech is typically heard at around 45-60dB, and according to the World Health Organisation a person with a hearing threshold of 25dB or greater (i.e. they are unable to hear sounds below 25dB), is classed as having a ‘hearing loss’. We need to understand our hearing, and regular testing is one of the best ways we can do this. If we don’t measure it, how can we manage it?

To a certain extent we are able to self-manage hearing difficulties: we can turn the volume up on the TV or radio; we can ask friends or family to speak louder, to repeat themselves, or to stop mumbling; we can use our ‘good ear’ when using the telephone; and we can temporarily strain to ‘get by’ during a conversation in a crowded café or restaurant – I’ve learned we will do an awful lot before contemplating a hearing test.

As strange as it may sound, an audiologist once told me it’s not technically our ears that hear, it’s our brains. Our ears act as the funnels for sound waves, which are sent down the ear canal to the eardrum. These sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate which, without getting too technical, sends nerve impulses to the brain where they are processed almost instantaneously into meaningful sound. You can read a more detailed description of how the ear works, here.

That said, as someone with a severe/profound level of hearing loss, I’ve been disheartened to read about the growing body of research suggesting a link between hearing loss and dementia. Moreover, The Royal National Institute for Deaf people (RNID) state the following from an international review published in medical journal The Lancet; “unaddressed hearing loss in mid-life was predicted to be the highest potentially modifiable risk factor for developing dementia”. I take this as both good and bad news I suppose, in that it highlights we may be able to help ourselves reduce this risk by looking after our hearing, but with stigma associated with wearing hearing aids (and the often high cost), it can be difficult to see how we can help ourselves.

It’s important to note that your hearing doesn’t just effect what you hear but also how you feel; the psychosocial impact can be life changing. Hearing loss can cause feelings of isolation and reduced participation, low mood, low confidence, increased stress, fatigue, and frustration; a few of the reasons why people with hearing loss report higher rates of absenteeism. As daunting as it may seem, committing to addressing your hearing loss can bring huge benefits to your overall wellbeing and psychological health. Hearing tests are free and painless, and can be done on the High Street*, at your local Boots or Specsavers store (*subject to local lockdown restrictions).

I’ve worked at Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) for almost 6 years in a variety of different roles, but notably went through their graduate scheme in 2016. As part of the graduate scheme I was sponsored to complete my MSc in Leadership and Management in Public Services, and I chose to dedicate my dissertation to the experience of hearing loss in the workplace. I interviewed several colleagues across multiple council directorates, who self-reported having a hearing loss, with the aim of producing several recommendations for senior leadership to consider, via our corporate Diversity Board.

Academically, my research was the highest scoring dissertation in my University year group (shameless plug), but corporately I was overjoyed with how responsive and supportive Diversity Board were of my recommendations. Top of my list was for the organisation to formally recognise hearing health as an important aspect of our employee wellbeing offer; we already offered help in the form of free eye tests and vouchers for glasses, but there was no such recognition for employees with hearing loss. In fact, when I searched ‘hearing’ on our intranet it would auto-correct to ‘heating’. Significantly, less than 2 weeks after my Diversity Board presentation, there was information and signposting guidance available on our intranet, encouraging employees to book a free hearing test. It’s a fantastic example of how an organisation can learn from the experience of its employees to make positive change.

Key for me was the formal recognition of hearing health – our eyes and our ears are both essential, especially if in a customer facing environment, or in a role where taking calls is part and parcel of the day to day. As national retirement age increases so too does the prevalence of hearing loss among the workforce, so being aware of its impact and how we can help support colleagues is essential if we are to continue to be an inclusive employer where colleagues feel empowered to overcome difficulties within the workplace. At HCC we have also established a Hearing Loss Network which has close links with HR, where we can raise any issues or ask for advice from others who may have ‘been there, done that’, which is great for someone like me who is keen to learn from others who have lived with hearing loss much longer than I have.

If you’d like more information on hearing loss, please check out trusted websites like RNID or NHS. There is a wealth of information out there, and knowledge is power as the old saying goes. There are many practical ways to help people with a hearing loss, but I’ll close by sharing the ‘speech banana’, and one of my favourite communication tips. You can read more on communication tips, here.

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In a nutshell the speech banana shows how different sounds and letters of the alphabet are heard at different frequencies, so depending on the level and type of hearing loss a person has, it can be easier or harder to follow certain elements of speech (selective hearing, eh). Often when I’ve misheard something I’ve only misheard a letter or two, which can make a huge difference, so using a different set of words to say the same thing increases my chances of piecing together what’s been said – it also has the bonus of avoiding the universally embarrassing situation where something is repeated 4 or 5 times to no avail – for instance, ‘cup of tea?’ could become ‘would you like a drink?’, and so on.

There are many more aspects of hearing loss I could have mentioned here, not least the impact of Covid, the use of masks, and working from home arrangements – though I’ll quickly say that MS Teams has been a game changer for me personally, no more airy meeting rooms with poor acoustics or buzzing air con! I’m already anxiously thinking what it will be like to go back to the office.

What does your employer provide in terms hearing loss? Do you have a hearing loss network? If you’d like to chat about my research, or simply say hello and share your experience, it’d be great to hear from you so please do get in touch at Ross.McLean@Hertfordshire.gov.uk – as ironic as it sounds I’ve always been a great listener.

Ross McLean is senior campaigns officer at Hertfordshire County Council. You can say hello on Twitter at @_RossAlexander_

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Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_banana

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