It is not often that we think about our voice, and when we do, it is generally because our voice is gone or the quality has changed. For many people, a short bout of laryngitis will not be a long-term issue. This may result in a few days off work and a sore or husky voice, but, when it is passed, the voice will return as normal. However, some professionals need their voice in the same way a pianist needs their fingers. For teachers, lecturers and trainers, the voice is a key tool in ensuring effective job performance. Voice injuries or disorders are an important occupational health and safety issue.
Research indicates that in Australia and worldwide;
- 20% of teachers experience voice problems each year
- Teachers are 3-5 times more likely to experience voice problems than the general population
- Female teachers are twice as likely to report voice problems than males
(Russell, Oates & Greenwood, 1998)
Recent studies and anecdotal evidence indicates that there is a high prevalence of voice problems for teachers in the first 5 years of their career. Additionally, there is a reported spike in voice problems after 15 years of teaching (Pemberton, 2013).
About vocal hygiene ideas for teachers
Most voice problems are (or should be) preventable and voice health education and care can reduce the risk of developing voice problems. In my clinical experience, many teachers tolerate mild to moderate voice changes and do not seek treatment. The longer a voice problem is tolerated and not treated, the further the problem can be exacerbated (Pemberton, 2013).
Many teachers are reluctant to take extended leave time, but even so, a study in France indicates that 20% of all teachers sick leave is due to voice problems. The calculated cost of voice problems in the teaching profession (replacement teachers, medical costs) is approximately $52, 679 261. In addition to the economic cost, voice difficulties can affect job efficiency, job performance and job satisfaction.
A variety of voice disorders can affect voice production and health. With voice professionals in particular, the type of voice disorder is generally associated with increase in vocal load and trauma (also known as ‘phonotrauma’). This refers to excessive use or misuse of the voice. This can occur over a short time period, or develop over a longer period. You can read more about different voice disorders here (link to voice page).
Fortunately, evidence suggests that voice care education and training can have a positive impact on preventing voice problems (Pemberton, 2013). Vocal hygiene is part of vocal health education. Below are some basic vocal hygiene strategies to minimise vocal harm:
- Have a water bottle with you at work. You should be having water pre- and post- speaking and during short breaks where possible. Even if you do not ‘feel’ thirsty – ensure you maintain adequate hydration.
- Alcohol and caffeine can cause dehydration to the entire body and therefore drinking them can make vocal folds drier. Cutting back on caffeine and alcohol can help your body stay hydrated. As a tip, you can substitute water, herbal teas, lemon juice for caffeinated drinks.
- Dry environments also dehydrate the body. If you know that you are going to be in a dry place (like a dry building or an airplane), drink lots of water to keep your body hydrated.
- Avoid talking in dry or cool aired environments such as air-conditioned rooms or environments with irritating substances (e.g. smoke filled rooms, dusty areas etc).
- Use cubicles or partitions for better acoustic protection from background noise.
- Humidity should not be below 40 percent.
- Temperature should be well-controlled (approximately ambient room temperature).
- Chairs, desks, headsets, lighting and keyboards should all promote good ergonomics to help you maintain good posture and avoid excess tension.
- Loud voice use can lead to injury more quickly. Monitor your vocal loudness, and turn down the volume on your voice whenever possible.
- As you teach, try not to talk over the top of what you are listening too. Do not talk louder than is necessary. Hand set microphones can be used to minimise speech effort. Headsets should not force you to be louder.
- As often as possible, background noise should be kept to a minimum.
- Taking breaks from repetitive motion (in this case vocal fold vibration) is important.
- Recommendations include short breaks during teaching (according to feasibility) and breaks between teaching sessions.
- True vocal rest means no talking! On your breaks, avoid long phone conversations and make a conscious effort to rest your voice.
- When you have a day off, when possible, let your voice have a day off too.
(Colton & Casper, 2006)
Diagnosis and Treatment
An Ear Nose and Throat doctor can help to diagnoses voice disorders. Voice therapy can then be an effective treatment modality and a speech language pathologist is able to advice on an appropriate management plan. This may include reduction of vocal irritants, adjustments to vocal behaviours and regular voice therapy.
If you have concerns about your voice, or would like to schedule a voice health education workshop for school or business staff, please contact us today.
Russell, A., Oates, J., Greenwood, K. (1998). Prevalence of voice problems in schoolteachers. Journal of Voice, 12, 467-479.
Pemberton, C. (2013) Voice Injury in Teachers. Voice Care Prevention Programmes to Minimise Occupational Risk. Voice Care Australia, Accessed on 25/11/2013.
Colton, R.H., & Casper, J.K. (1996). Understanding voice problems: A physiological perspective for diagnosis and treatment (2nd ed.). USA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.