Updated: Aug 17
If you’re required to talk to people as part of your job, you’ve probably learned the hard way how frustrating and exhausting it can be to have to power through vocal fatigue. And usually the result is not ideal: you push your way through the meeting or conversation only to end up drained and hoarse from straining to be heard and understood.
If you do this on the regular and push yourself beyond your vocal limits, you may be caught in a burnout cycle that could lead to some disrupting voice complications or even vocal injury– an incredibly under-acknowledged problem in professions where your voice is an expected method of conducting business. A series of studies conducted in 2014 estimated that 82% of people in occupations considered to be “professional voice users” such as teachers, salespeople, and physicians, have experienced some kind of voice problem during their career. Furthermore, it found that those who experienced a prolonged voice problem were often forced to seek alternative employment when their symptoms did not improve. The study also noted that almost none of the participants had received any kind of voice education or voice care instruction as part of their job training or studies.
***A necessary disclaimer: the advice I share in this article and in general regarding how to care for your voice and when to rest your voice should be reviewed by your primary care doctor, your otolaryngologist, or other voice specialist. If you currently have a vocal injury or have been experiencing symptoms or changes that last more than a couple of weeks, you should consult with a medical professional, preferably an ENT who specializes in voice.
Even if your voice currently feels great, knowing how and when to rest your voice is a care practice that will support the sustainability and longevity of your voice throughout your career, especially if you have a job that depends on the reliability and clarity of your vocal output.
Here is the catch: there is no established standard for when and how to rest your voice, and even amongst trained voice rehabilitation specialists there is no consensus on a protocol for vocal rest based on biological evidence. However, there are some studies (which all conclude there need to be more studies) on the efficacy of voice rest and there is also a wealth of anecdotal evidence around voice rest and healing from those who have been through a vocal issue or supported others through it. I’ve also had my own experience with voice injury and know firsthand that resting my voice strategically was pivotal to it feeling better, clearer, and easier to speak and vocalize.
Here are my favorite tips on voice rest I’ve collected to guide your vocal downtime practices so you support your voice at your job and beyond:
Go for voice conservation over complete vocal rest.
I remember in college, an actor friend of mine developed voice nodules, which are essentially callous-like growths on the vocal cords, and went on complete vocal rest for 3 entire weeks. During this time, she was 100% vocally silent, carrying a dry erase board and miming her way through every interaction. While this version of vocal rest is on the extreme end of the spectrum, it is a fairly common prescription for vocal lesions and injuries, especially when the voice is being used as a professional performance instrument.
However, if you’re not in the middle of a major vocal trauma or needing to get back to singing skyscraping arias, chances are you don’t need to go to these extreme lengths. In fact, a 1989 study conducted by Koufman and Blalock concluded that even for post-operative voice recovery, voice conservation, which was usually a combination of reducing vocal output and completing a course of voice rehabilitation exercises, may be as effective as absolute vocal rest. There is even some evidence to suggest that absolute vocal rest may slow a return to normal vocal function.
Your way of resting your voice doesn’t have to be extreme. In fact, the better it fits into your life, the more likely you are to follow through with it. Although I love a good excuse to become a hermit and indulge in my introverted tendencies, not talking at all is downright impractical for most of us. The good news is you don’t have to do it that way!
Be strategic about when you rest your voice.
As you pay attention and track your voice cues and symptoms using this free Voice Tracker PDF (or another system of your own), you’ll start to get an idea of what activities you do that require the most vocal output and stamina.
Then you can begin to take this into account as you think about your weekly and daily schedule.
Start to give yourself designated time for “vocal naps” in-between meetings and activities that require the most of your voice. I recommend a minimum of ten minutes of completely silent, no whispering, not a peep vocal rest for every hour you’re speaking.
There are also some instances when it is important to prioritize resting your voice. For example, rest your voice as soon as possible when you're experiencing pain, hoarseness, a sandpapery feeling, or discomfort when you speak. Rest your voice as much as possible when you are sick. And if it feels like you have to strain to make sound--you've got it now--rest your voice.
Most importantly, go easy on yourself when you forgo resting your voice and decide going to the party, or meeting, or taking that phone call from a dear friend is worth the vocal cost.
Get curious about voice mechanics.
Learning how the voice works can clarify why we experience certain symptoms like pressure, pain, scratchiness, hoarseness, or losing parts of your voice completely.
Your vocal cords are made of supple, soft tissue and they vibrate against each other hundreds of times per second to create the sound of your voice. Studies show that even after fifteen minutes of normal conversation there are signs of wear and tear on the vocal cord tissue. However, it has also been shown that resting your voice for short periods of time (or as we voice geeks say "taking a vocal nap") allows for tissue repair and resilience.
In the coming weeks as I continue this Voice Pro Care article series, we will go further into how the voice functions to uncover more of the factors that potentially come into play when we experience a change in the way our voice feels.
Get people on board with your efforts to conserve your voice.
Resting your voice takes some discipline, even when you’re not going to the extreme length of complete silence. Telling your friends, family, and co-workers about your voice rest efforts and what that’s going to look like–probably a lot of you awkwardly smiling, nodding, and making seemingly obscene gestures at them–can help them support you and remind you when you’re supposed to be vocally taking it easy.
Find a no-talking communication tool that works for you.
Whether it is texting, a dry erase board, or these cool gadgets called boogie boards, having a method of communicating for when your voice really needs the rest will make it easier to follow through with it.
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I created Heartspark Voice as a platform to provide voice education, resources, and learning opportunities for people in search of answers regarding their voice. I am continually adding new content and resources to my website and instruction, and also take requests if there is a particular voice-related topic you’re curious about.