Monthly Archives: February 2020

How much listening is too much?

– Michele

Listening is hard work. At the end of a long day of meetings I’m exhausted. When I share this with my hearing colleagues they’ll say “Oh, I know—me too!” But is it the same? Really? 

Studies have shown that users of hearing aids like me, who rely on speech reading along with amplification, experience listening fatigue as much higher rates than hearing people (e.g., Bess and Hornsby, 2014). We are working much harder than everyone around us to piece things together and make sense from what we are able to hear. Most listening fatigue studies are on school-aged children and the few studies of adults show that “Adults with hearing loss require more time to recover from fatigue after work, and have more work absences.” (Hornsby et al., 2016). As academics, our jobs require us to listen to others all the time—in our classes, in faculty meetings, in seminars, and when meeting with students. How do we recognize cognitive fatigue due to too much listening and mitigate this fatigue so that we can manage our work responsibilities? This is a tremendous challenge for deaf/HoH academics and The Mind Hears will explore this topic in several blog posts. 

In this post I share how I figured out my daily listening limit, which turns out to be 3 hours with good amplification and clear speech reading. For many years, I pushed through my day not paying attention to how much time I was spending in meetings and classes. Some days I felt okay while other days I ended up utterly exhausted. The kind of exhausted where I can’t track conversation and even have trouble putting my own sentences together. When this happens, I can’t converse with my family and exercise class is out of the question because I can’t follow the instructor. I just take my hearing aids out and lie on the floor with the dog— I don’ need to speech read him and he gets me. Yay dogs!  

When I explain to my listening fatigue to non-native English speakers, they get it right away. They recognize that this listening fatigue is just like when they first moved to a country with a new language; while they had good command of the new language, following it all day exhausted them. Exactly! Except I’m not going to get any better at my native language.

After a while—actually a really long while because for many years I tried to work as if I was a hearing person due to internalized ableism, which really is a whole different blog topic—and now this sentence has really gotten off track so I’m going to start over. After a while, I started to realize that for my own health I needed to avoid becoming so exhausted that several times a week, I could only commune with the dog.

undefinedIt turns out that my fancy new Garmin watch that tells me to “MOVE” every hour also detects my stress level. This image at left is from a day at a conference. All I did that day was sit in one room listening to talks with occasional breaks for coffee and meals. My heart rate stayed elevated all day due to the work of following the conversation and the anxiety of constantly deciding whether I should ask for clarification on something I may have missed or just let it go. When even my watch is telling me ‘enough is enough’ or more specifically “You’ve had very few restful moments on this day. Remember to slow down and relax to keep yourself going”, it might be time to figure out how much listening is too much

So last February I tracked both my hours each day spent listening and my evening exhaustion level in my bullet journal. 

Actually, I didn’t track this much detail—I just made marks in my bullet journal for each hour and then noted whether this was manageable. Below are two example pages. For the day on the left, the 3 Xs represent 3 hours of listening and this was an OK day. The image on the right is from another day that month. The horizontal line below the Xs means that I was on the floor with the dog that evening after 5 hours of listening. 

Yes, I know that my handwriting is messy and I tend to kick a lot of tasks to the next day. But this blog post is not about my untidiness and unreliability. What I learned from this exercise was that any day including more than 3 hours of listening would be a tough an unmanageable day. Armed with this knowledge, I could start to try to rearrange my schedule to avoid having days with more than 3 hours of listening. 

Interestingly, this goes against the advice that many academics give each other. Early career researchers are encouraged to push all meetings to one day so that you have a day free for research. This is great advice… for a hearing person. For many deaf/HoH, we may do better with two free mornings a week rather than 1 full day so that no one day is overloaded with listening.

So how successful have I been? Moderately. While I have control over some aspects of my schedule, I don’t over others. I schedule my one-on-one meetings with my research assistants on days that I don’t have a lot of other meetings. If I’m teaching a 3-hour lab, sometimes it’s just impossible for me to have no other teaching or meetings that day. But I am considering restructuring my lab activities so that I don’t need to be ‘on’ the whole time. I’ve also started talking with my department head about my effort to limit my daily meetings; this involves educating him on why listening fatigue is different for me than for hearing faculty. Had I been more savvy, I might have negotiated a listening limit when I was hired. Take note of this, future academics! 

I’m still sorting out how to manage my day and eager to learn more from others on how they successfully manage listening fatigue. As I mentioned at the start of this post, The Mind Hears wants to have a series of posts about listening fatigue. Tell us how has this fatigue affected your work day and your health. What solutions have you found?

References cited

  • Bess, F.H., & Hornsby, B.W. (2014). Commentary: Listening can be exhausting—Fatigue in children and adults with hearing loss. Ear and hearing35(6), 592.
  • Hornsby, B.W., Naylor, G., & and Bess, F.H. (2016). A taxonomy of fatigue concepts and their relation to hearing loss. Ear and hearing37(Suppl 1), 136S.