How to save your voice while social distancing

Vocal strain from virtual work and face masks common, U of A experts say

Nate Lam - 26 May 2021

Among the many things the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us to not take for granted — hugging a loved one, eating in a restaurant, traveling — it has also made us aware of our vocal health. 

With the uptick in virtual meetings due to remote work and the importance of personal protective equipment (PPE) to limit the spread of the virus, our voices are constantly straining to be heard across barriers. And it’s taking a toll.

“Vocal strain or vocal fatigue happens when we use our voices a lot or with greater intensity,” says Andrea MacLeod, professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Alberta. “If you notice your voice becoming hoarse or breaking more often, it’s a sign that your voice is tired.”

So what can we do to improve our vocal health in a time of social distancing? MacLeod and Teresa Hardy, both researchers and speech-language pathologists in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, offer a few tips.

Silence is golden

The number of meetings we have in a day hasn’t changed much, but for many of us, remote work has done away with natural breaks. “We no longer have that downtime between meetings to allow our voices to rest, whether that be our commute, water breaks or just walking between meeting spaces,” says MacLeod. 

She recommends building vocal rest breaks into your daily routine. End meetings early, remember to take a lunch break, and try to listen more than you speak. Finding pockets of time to rest your voice will go a long way to maintaining good vocal health. 

The right chair for your ... voice?

Have you ever seen a singer slouch? “Good posture is key to support our voice,” says Hardy. “But now that we’ve moved home, we may not have the best ergonomics or desk set-up.”

It turns out that the right workstation not only improves our spine, but helps our long-term vocal health. 

“Make sure you’re in a comfortable chair that supports you,” says MacLeod. “This allows for greater breath support which, in turn, positively affects your voice.”

Stop clearing your throat 

Coughing or clearing your throat may feel like a natural reflex to a strained voice, but these habits can make the problem worse, says Hardy. Known as phonotraumatic behaviours, they only provide temporary relief and can damage your vocal folds. Other examples include speaking too loudly or making harsh sound effects. 

Instead of clearing your throat, try some healthy voice exercises, says Hardy. She recommends softly humming or trilling your lips. “This helps to vibrate the vocal folds in an easy way that provides relief.”

Finally, drink plenty of water and avoid diuretics such as caffeinated or alcoholic drinks, which can have a drying effect, says MacLeod. 

“Similar to how we stretch before and drink water after exercising, proper vocal health is much like maintaining other parts of your body.” 

Drop your (built-in) mic 

How many of us have been using built-in laptop microphones and speakers? For the most part these tools work just fine, but relying on them full-time can lead to voice strain.

“[On a Zoom call,] if there’s background noise or other people talking, it can be difficult for an individual speaker to be heard, so that’s causing people to speak louder than they normally would,” says Hardy. “This gets compounded when people do not use a[n external] microphone, because they tend to over-project.”  

For those who must regularly speak while wearing PPE, such as teachers and health care professionals, amplification tools such as microphones can help reduce voice strain, says Hardy. If that’s not possible, she recommends supplementing with non-verbal methods of communication such as clapping hands, flickering lights, using a whistle or decreasing the distance (only when safe) between the speaker and the listener, rather than shouting over the noise.

The best way to protect your vocal health is to know how to prevent voice strain before it becomes an issue, says MacLeod. If you’re concerned about vocal strain, an SLP can help. 

Did you know May is Speech and Hearing Month? Help us raise awareness by using the hashtag #speechandhearingmonth