karin weiser business coach

Coping with hearing loss in the workplace

By Karin Weiser

We all want to fit in. Belong and be considered “normal.” When you live a life with hearing loss, this can be very difficult – especially in the workplace. It takes courage and patience to involve your colleagues in your challenges and help them to help you.  

The horror of open plan offices

As a person with hearing loss you encounter trying situations that your colleagues do not think about. Take open plan offices. While people with normal hearing may have problems concentrating in an open plan office, this is nothing compared to what you experience as an individual with hearing loss. Casual conversations around you are a big disturbance. I couldn’t join the casual chit chat with those sitting next to or across from me without losing focus. As a hearing aid user, I couldn’t wear headphones and communicate ”do not disturb.” I used to be in awe of the multi-tasking my colleagues could do; if I have a conversation, my eyes are on the speaker, so I cannot do anything else.

Numerous internal reorganizations brought new seating plans. My request for a window seat always became political. Everyone wants this seat, right? But I liked to be by a window or at the back of the office. Why? To be able to see (and hear) what was going on. And to avoid a shock when someone came up behind me. 

For people with hearing loss, working from home is an opportunity to rest our ears, think in peace, and get on with work with minimal disturbances. It’s about energy. I feel like a different person at the end of a working from home day. A bit more energy in the tank means an opportunity to do something more in my private life. What a fight I’ve had to work from home just one day a week. A bit ironic when Covid-19 has forced many to perfect this art.

Hearing loss is a visual experience

When you have a hearing loss, you put pressure on yourself to hear as much as possible and forget about the other filters involved in retaining information. According to the learning pyramid (adapted from the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine, USA), we remember 5% of what we’ve heard after a lecture. In practice, I think it’s a lot less. I’ve often asked the person sitting next to me immediately after a meeting, “what was mentioned about X or Y?” only to be met with, “I don’t remember.” I realized that I’ve often put too much pressure on myself to hear everything. We are bombarded with information on a daily basis: at work, home, and play. The brain cannot absorb it all. 

When you live with hearing loss, what you remember is determined by what you see and feel. The experience of death by PowerPoint is amplified. Over the years, I’ve sat through numerous frustrating presentations where the presenters seemed to talk to their slides with their backs to the audience, where they failed to support their message with body language or repeat the questions from the back during Q&A sessions. 

Start with your immediate team

To thrive in your workplace, the best you can hope for is an ally. Someone who hears normally yet understands your challenges, maybe because they have a parent, sibling, or grandparent who is living with hearing loss. They are a god send. They naturally speak louder, slower, and repeat the jokes to include me. They know some of my struggles. Sometimes they know what I need even before I do. I can relax and be my authentic self. 

Unfortunately, these allies don’t grow on trees. They are few and far between. And they don’t crawl out of the woodwork on their own. So you need to ask for help and teach your colleagues what you need. But when life is busy, there’s a lot on the agenda, and you have multiple stakeholders, where do you start?

With your immediate team. 

This is where you build trust, support, and encouragement. Good colleagues will have your back and act as extra ears during presentations and training sessions, minute takers when you chair a meeting, and allies when you mishear. They gently nudge you back into the conversation. They sit with you in the quiet corners of the canteen or outside – weather permitting – to avoid the noise with you. They help you to listen to voicemails, book a taxi, and happily move seats in a meeting room to accommodate your needs.

To have this help available, I’ve had to be open and honest and teach my colleagues what I needed. This was a journey in itself and happened over several years.

Other personal coping strategies have included arriving early to an event to choose a seat at the front, scanning the attendee list to remember names (in case I don’t hear them), and always making friends with the presenter or trainer so they don’t turn their back on me. 

Tips and tricks to successful self-management

  • Be open and honest – You will then find your allies.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat – People need to hear a message on average seven times before they remember. This includes explaining why they have to remove their hand from their mouth when they speak.
  • In meetings, establish the rule: “put your hand up, if you have a question” − This allows for people with hearing loss to turn to the speaker, so they can follow the conversation.
  • Ask for a visual agenda – Encourage the team to follow it one point at a time.
  • No lunch meetings allowed − It’s extra challenging to listen to a mouth full of food.
  • Find a quiet space – Sometimes I popped over to the café in another building to focus on a particular task, turning my hearing device off as needed for extra peace.
  • No walks ‘n’ talks – They sound great in theory but can be stressful if it’s windy (background noise!) or with more than one conversation buddy.

See Ida’s Managing Hearing Loss at Work resource for more strategies.

Karin is British by birth, global by choice. Karin has a professional background in communications and learning and development. She has lived and worked in nine countries across four continents and speaks four languages. Karin lives with hearing loss and got her first cochlear implant in 2017. Karin works as an International Business Coach and copywriter. She offers coaching to support other hearing-impaired individuals globally who need to build self-coping strategies. Learn more at www.karinweiser.com.