Overly sensitive or overachiever? Highly sensitive people in the workplace

Finally. I get to write my first article in Tom’s blog roll. About “sensory processing sensitivity” (SPS). Figure that. But, what does this term even mean? Is it a sickness? A mental illness? And, last but not least, what the heck does it have to do with a better working life? Ok, let’s get started!

First of all, SPS is not a mental sickness; actually, it is not even listed as a disease according to the ICD (International Classification of Diseases). Rather, SPS is a personality trait defining a highly sensitive person (HSP). An estimated 15 to 20 % of the population suffer from SPS. This trait is caused by the central nervous system, processing sensory data more extensively which causes a hypersensitivity to external stimuli. The brain is not able to make a difference between important and not-so-important information, thus every perception, everything the person sees, hears, smells, feels – is dumped unfiltered and ready for processing in the brain. As a result, the brain, like a 7/11, is open round the clock and ready to absorb every minor information. That’s all very nice to know, you may say, but what does it have to do with me, my working place and a better working life? Patience, my dear reader, I will come to that.

People with SPS are not suffering from a disease per se, but have to cope with the sheer mass of information their brain processes every second, every minute, every hour, every single day! As a result, they are prone to various diseases: Besides usual stress-related symptoms like cardiovascular diseases and digestive disorders, SPS can result in depression, nervous breakdowns, panic attacks and anxiety; even loneliness is on the menu as HSP are not able to socialize with other people, even friends and family, as often and extensively as their nearest and dearest may think is “normal”. Relaxation for them means being on their own – like “desert island” alone, since external stimuli like music, TV, talk and noises are just another source for discomfort. What’s more, HSP are prone to eating disorders, as Helga Simchen explains in an eye-opening book linking eating disorders and personality.[1]

Well, okay, you may think, but it still it isn’t clear what all that has to do with the work environment and, besides, HSP don’t seem especially desirable for hiring – look at all their shortcomings!

A couple of weeks ago, my husband forwarded me an extensive article about SPS and, specifically, how it affects your career (source in German). I was thrilled. For the first time, I realized SPS is getting media attention. Shortly after, while browsing through our local evening classes program, I noticed they offer several courses specifically for people with SPS, e. g. yoga and information classes. Wow! Finally, there is a platform or even some lobby for people like me. Who are not only prone to anxiety and various disorders, or seem to prefer a hermit lifestyle, but also can affect people – or colleagues, to stay on topic – in a positive way.  We may have shortcomings, but, as Mirijam Franke puts it in her article linked above, SPS can also be seen as a gift and comes along with various abilities. In the right circumstances and promoted by supportive supervisors, a coworker with SPS can become a valuable and appreciated company asset.
In a way, HSP are every manager’s dream: More often than not they are intuitive perfectionists, highly productive and competent in their subject due to their keen intuition, independent working-manner, comprehensive perception and social intelligence. HSP are not only good mediators, but can also offer valuable insights and improvements regarding work processes. Due to their complex thinking they are often extremely creative and can come to be not only starry-eyed idealists but also hands-on doers, working to create a better world, beginning with themselves.

But how can you, as a manager, bring out the best in your SPS coworker? What they need is, at least until HSP are getting less prejudiced and more appreciated, understanding and support – from friends, family and colleagues – but in a special way also from peers and supervisors. First of all, this means live and let live, even if their working method and lifestyle may be different from yours: Once I got criticized by a colleague because my desk – unlike hers – always was extremely tidy and organized. She presumed I had nothing better to do and equated a tidy desk with lazing around. When I got criticized by this colleague, I felt guilty and wondered what was wrong with me, not for the first time. Living with SPS, I began to understand myself better and finally I got answers as to why sometimes I’m just “different”.
Now I know that I simply cannot function in chaotic and inharmonic surroundings; I need order, silence and peace – then I rise to top form! The same applies to unforeseen changes of plans: Instead of being annoyed with myself because I always seem to need to hold on to a fast schedule, I now understand that I am neither inflexible nor deadlocked; I just need my schedule to be able to keep unforeseen sensory impressions to a minimum.

If you acknowledge these “shortcomings”, give your coworker room for privacy and alone time, orderly working processes and listen to their suggestions, especially regarding their field of expertise, you will get a valuable employee, gladly immersing themselves in the working routine. After all, routine does not have to be negative; on the contrary: Dividing your day into defined objectives helps not only to get started, but getting your work done. And, to come to an end: this is exactly what I did while writing this blog. Listening to a suggestion from my husband, I gave myself two hours on Monday morning for finishing the job; normally that’s his task every single Monday. To be honest, I couldn’t understand how he does it – just two hours for a whole article! Every Monday! Such a disciplined routine! Just do it, he said. You’ll see. And I did. And finished in under two hours. So cheers, dear reader, now I need a coffee. And some alone time.

[1] Helga Simchen: Essstörungen und Persönlichkeit. Magersucht, Bulimie und Übergewicht – Warum Essen und Hungern zur Sucht werden, 2. Aufl., Stuttgart 2016 (Verlag W. Kohlhammer).

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