Socially Distanced and Working From Home... How to Care for your Voice
Like so many of my colleagues, I have spent the past few weeks either researching or implementing distance therapy. Admittedly, it has been a steep learning curve. That being said, the ability to continue my practice and connect with my clients on a daily basis has been a slice of normalcy in an otherwise upended world.
While I expected this new way of working to be intense, I didn’t anticipate the toll that distance therapy would take on my voice. Having spent a career in private practice, I have worked with countless educators and “high-voice use” professionals (including parents!!) to help remedy the effects of excessive voice use and vocal strain. I know the pitfalls of speaking over noise, raising my voice, and using my voice excessively throughout the day. I know these things. Yet here I am- sore, tired, and experiencing a considerable drop in vocal endurance by the end of the day.
As more and more professionals are finding ways to work from home, teachers are educating from a distance, and parents are finding themselves managing children at home 24/7, the number of individuals facing vocal strain and/or vocal injury is likely to rise. With this in mind, here are a few thoughts to help keep your voice healthy and ready to tackle working from home for the foreseeable future….
Why So Tired?
It is a well-accepted fact that most people will naturally raise their voice when speaking on the phone. The science behind this phenomenon is called the Lombard Effect and states that we subconsciously raise our voice to match the noise level around us. In other words, we try to match the volume of the signal we receive. While this makes sense when we find ourselves speaking over ambient noise in a classroom, restaurant, or sporting event, consider the “signal” we receive on a daily basis from our phones and tablets. These devices naturally amplify the volume of the incoming signal—our communication partner’s voice. Boost the volume on the speaker of your phone, tablet, or computer, and the incoming signal is even louder. Now, imagine trying to match your vocal volume to this amplified signal for a prolonged period of time… Over the short term, we likely won’t notice much of a strain. However, over the course of 4 or 5 hours spent working via teleconference (as is now my reality), the effect begins to show. Repeat daily and you may find yourself experiencing considerable vocal strain.
So What Is One To Do?
First of all, being aware of the unnatural strain placed on your voice during this “socially distanced” period of existence will go a long way. Beyond that, here are a few tools that might help….
By using headphones, you will naturally reduce the volume of the incoming signal. What came through the computer speaker comfortably will now feel too loud being delivered directly to your ears. As you reduce the volume of the incoming signal, you will naturally reduce your vocal volume. Remember the Lombard effect?
Invest in a microphone.
A microphone will allow you to return to your “face-to-face” speaking volume by doing the amplification for you. The less you have to work to raise your volume, the less strain placed on your voice and the muscles contributing to it’s production.
Drink LOTS of water. Try to cut back on caffeine.
A hydrated voice is a healthy voice. More talking means more air moving across the vocal folds. Dry, parched vocal folds are more susceptible to irritation and damage. Have water with you and refill between calls/meetings. Try to follow each caffeinated beverage with a glass of water to help reduce the drying effect of the caffeine. Consider running a cool mist humidifier in your office during calls.
Rest your voice.
Your voicebox is composed of various cartilages and muscles that work together to shape your voice. The muscles within and surrounding the voicebox are essential in manipulating the parameters of pitch and loudness. Speaking loudly or in a pitch outside of your normal range will work these muscles in excess. Speaking for prolonged periods of time will do the same. Take breaks. Rest your voice. If your voice is feeling “weak” and you try to push through it, you are overworking an already exhausted system. Plan breaks in your day to rest your voice. Conserve your voice whenever possible.
While the muscles of the voicebox are responsible for modulating voice, the muscles of the abdomen will (ideally) provide the airflow used to generate voicing. Deep belly breaths (as opposed to more shallow chest breathing) will help to ensure adequate airflow for speech and will reduce the muscular effort required for voicing. In other words, the more air you have, the stronger your voice will be. In voice therapy, we talk (a lot) about driving the voice from the belly.
Find yourself slouching or leaning on an elbow during a conference call? Hunched forward during a teleconference? In order to support improved breath supply, be sure to sit up tall. Allow the diaphragm to move freely. Feel the belly move in and out.
Whenever possible, try to find creative ways to share the “vocal load” at home. This could mean that an older sibling is responsible for rounding up the siblings for meals or maybe your spouse helps with the schoolwork that day. Is there a YouTube video that might be able to teach long division? Or maybe a favourite book that can be read to your kids via an iPad app. In voice therapy, I talk with many clients about “saving voice points” by implementing vocal hand-off as much as possible.
Yes you read that right. Silence. On particularly “busy” voice days, I try to limit my voice use in the evenings. While it is almost impossible with three young boys, limiting voice use is essential to me having a voice to use the next day. Perhaps we watch a movie on the couch after dinner. Maybe we go for a (carefully distanced) walk or bike ride. Maybe my husband is the storyteller at bedtime that night. Perhaps in the place of a phone call, I will text a friend to check in. Whatever the approach, my goal is to limit my voice use to only the most essential speaking tasks such as “sleep tight” and “I love you”.
Between working from home and trying to raise AND now educate three young boys, the strain on my voice is higher than ever. With my SLP background, I recognized the signs of vocal fatigue almost immediately and have been able to implement changes that will likely mean a better vocal outcome for me. For more information on voice disorders and vocal care, please check out the following links: