What Can I Do About a Coworker Who Incessantly Grinds His Teeth and Taps His Foot?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a coworker who has distracting habits. 

Question:
I’ve been working with this individual for a few years now and I’m beyond my breaking point. He grinds his teeth and taps his feet all day, every day. This is particularly worse on Mondays, or following any time he takes off (vacation, sick..). When I presented these issues to the Manager, I was told there was no other spot for me, and to just wear earbuds with music to drown out his grinding, tapping and all other of his disgusting bodily noises. Two years later, this is still the only solution we have. Which makes me wonder two things: what is the long-term damage to my hearing, if I’m constantly having to raise the volume of my music to drown out his teeth grinding (which also impacts my concentration when we reach those music volume levels), and why should I have to modify my behavior?

This isn’t only affecting me, but I am one of the few who is only in a cubicle with this annoying coworker, while others have office doors they can close for peace, quiet and concentration. (Note: this annoying coworker can’t be placed in an office as there have been other issues in the past which prevents this practice with him.) Any other possible solutions?

Answer:
I can well imagine this is a frustrating and perpetually irritating situation for you. It would be enough to cause me to quit that job and find something else—even though I realize that isn’t always possible.

I would also guess it is a sad situation for your coworker. No one enjoys grinding their teeth and tapping their feet all day. And, he probably feels badly, knowing he is viewed as a distraction by other people. (He may not act as though he cares, but most people would.)

It may be a chronic neurological or psychological condition over which he has no control. If your coworker does his job effectively otherwise, your employer may have been advised by HR or an attorney, that there is nothing they can do, except find him a work area that is as isolated as possible—and you are the one who shares that work area. That advice may be incorrect, according to the degree of effect his behavior has on the workplace, but it may be why they are tolerating it.

However, no matter how sorry I feel for someone who has a condition he can’t control, I don’t think it is fair for others to suffer even more. Your manager is responsible for the workplace and should find a solution, other than telling you to drown out the noise. Also, since there have been other issues in the past, it seems to me that it’s time for your manager to deal with the problem, not make other employees deal with it.

I agree with you that it isn’t reasonable for you to have to listen to music directly in your ears all day. I think there is a distinct possibility it could have an effect on your hearing, but you would need to consult an audiologist or other specialist to know that for sure. It may be worth your time and expense to go to a specialist of that type and get a medical opinion about it.

You don’t mention your relationship with the employee or whether you have ever discussed this issue with him or directly asked him to stop. After this length of time, I can understand that it probably wouldn’t make a difference, but you may at least find out more about it. And, if he can explain his condition to you, he may find it helps him to feel less stressful and thus be able to improve it somewhat.

Also, many people with repetitive behaviors are able to find medical solutions, but side effects, such as drowsiness, dry mouth, etc., makes them not want to continue taking the medications. They also may not like to take time off for therapy. But, if they have good relationships with coworkers and are aware they are distracting them extremely, they are more likely to continue the medication or therapy.

If you have already talked to him or if you don’t have a good relationship with him, even apart from this situation, you will need to work on it on your own. Here are some suggestions, which may or may not work, according to your situation.

1. Instead of music in your ears, try a loud white noise machine in your space. I prefer Marpac or Lectrofan, because they don’t have a sound “loop”, which is just as distracting to me as anything else, just “whooooosh”. However, once you plug it in, it will be obvious to your coworker what you are doing. I think you should be honest about it. “Mike, I’m going to start using this white noise machine because I’m distracted all day with your teeth grinding and foot tapping, but I’m also tired of having music blaring in my ears, so I hope this will help.” That may be what you need to start a conversation about it.

It may take you a day or two to get used to the white noise sound, but once you do you won’t notice it at all, unless it’s turned off.

2. Consider a noise-cancelling headset or earbuds, rather than playing music. Those are usually very comfortable and put you in your own isolated zone. Bose as well as other brands can be effective. I often wear mine just to concentrate better, even if there is no noticeable outside noise. I don’t think it is optimal for you to have to wear anything to make work tolerable, but if you continue to work there and can’t get relief any other way, it may be all you can do.

3. Look at the available space in your office and see if there is any configuration that would allow you to be further away from your coworker or at least out of line-of-sight. It won’t help to just move a bit, you need to be far enough away that you no longer see him tapping his foot, even peripherally. Could your desk be turned around or could something be added between your cubicle and that of the coworker?

In a former office, we dismantled a cubicle and made it back to back instead of side to side. Maybe that would be possible here.

Is there some other space in the office where you could work, even if it is not as large as your current work space? It would be worth it to be squeezed in, if it would allow you to concentrate.

4. You have asked for some relief in the past, but I think you should do so again, in writing, to your supervisor with a copy to HR, or the reverse, according to company requirements. Explain the effect this has on your work and all the things you have done to try to make it better. Be adamant that something has to change. Let them know that it is simply not acceptable for you to have music directly in your ears all day. If you might quit, if things don’t improve, you could make that an “or else” part of the letter. (Your employer will then have to decide which of you has the most value.)

None of those suggestions are certain to help, but they seem to be the best options, if your coworker continues to work there and so do you.

If you are able to find a solution to this very challenging problem, I hope you will let us know. It would be something really worthwhile for us to be able to share with others.

Best wishes to you!

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors