Face masks could make people feel isolated and stressed, study finds

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In a new study, researchers found that face coverings, a key tool in our fight against COVID-19, have impeded people’s ability to hear, understand, engage, and connect with others.

The online survey which took place between June and July 2020, before face covering was made compulsory in shops in the UK, gains important insight into the impact of face coverings on communication and emotions.

The research was conducted by a team at the University of Manchester.

The online survey of 460 people—the first of its kind- also showed that people with hearing loss were much more affected by face coverings than those without, especially when communicating with doctors, pharmacists, and nurses.

At the time the survey was completed, 62% of participants had encountered a situation in which they had worn a face covering while communicating.

About 60% of them said they communicated differently as a result of wearing a face covering, and 46% said the nature of the conversation had differed, with a further 17% and 25% respectively saying ‘maybe.”

Many of the impacts applied both as a speaker wearing a face covering, and when listening to someone else who is wearing one.

The results of this survey illustrate that the impact of face coverings on the way we all communicate is far-reaching, going well beyond the acoustics of speech transmission.

The team says though it is deeply important for the public to continue to wear face coverings, for these respondents, they had a profound impact on not only how they communicate, but on how connected they feel with someone, and how willing we are to engage in conversation.

The face coverings increased anxiety and stress and made communication fatiguing, frustrating, and embarrassing—both as a speaker wearing a face covering, and when listening to someone else who is wearing one.

By covering up the lower part of the face, experts say face coverings can restrict communication by limiting sound transmission—making speech sound muffled, removing visible cues from the mouth and lips.

That limits lipreading and the visibility of facial expressions, which provide a lot of information during the speech.

Transparent face coverings are, say the team, potentially a good solution to the problem, despite blocking sound more than cloth or surgical masks. They can also steam up.

But they do make the whole face more visible, which could make communication much easier.

Over time, the researchers hope some of the problems people reported in this study, like feeling socially awkward, embarrassed and unsure how to cope, will decrease as we all adjust to wearing face coverings.

One author of the study is Dr. Gabrielle H. Saunders, a Senior Research Fellow.

The study is published in the International Journal of Audiology.

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