A Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a neurodivergent individual who has been born with a genetic trait called Sensory Processing Sensitivity.
While being considered ‘highly sensitive’ often has negative connotations in a workplace setting, one survey found that those who tested as HSP were the best rated managers – however, they were also the most stressed. This highlights a significant finding – a company’s HSPs have the potential to be some of the best employees, but this potential can only be unlocked in the right environment.
So, how do you identify HSP traits and how do you create a workplace to optimize these traits?
Those who are HSP have a more reactive nervous system, and so this leads them to process things deeply, become easily overstimulated, feel emotions intensely, and pay extreme attention to detail. More recent research shows that HSPs have additional brain cell connections when compared to someone with a more neurotypical brain, and these extra cells are mostly found in the region of the brain that handles emotions and memories of emotions.
It is believed that this has developed as an evolutionary precaution to avoiding harm, as it involved thinking in a deep and detailed manner to pick up on potential ‘threats’ that others may have missed. Because of this, HSPs tend to overthink and become overstimulated, and some studies show that these people are more prone to developing anxiety disorders and having anxious thoughts.
However, employers can make adjustments in their culture and approaches in order to create an environment where the skillsets of HSPs are optimized. For one thing, HSPs thrive with structure and clarity, as this doesn’t leave a lot of space for them to overthink and become overstimulated. This means employers should ensure that the employee understands the scope and expectations of their role.
Another great tool for optimizing HSPs is by using psychometric profiling. We work in conjunction with SurePeople, whose WorkforceX program defines the personality traits of individual employees, and gives each of them the ability to compare their profile with other team members, highlighting how best to work with that specific individual. This not only assists with overall cohesion, but the clarity and precision of it removes the risk of a HSP overthinking, as they already know exactly what to expect and how best to work with someone.
And speaking of overthinking, try to offer HSP staff members the time to deliberate and formulate responses rather than putting them on the spot. Thinking things through is a hallmark of high sensitivity, and so giving them that extra time to do so will help to avoid any anxious flare-ups.
In addition, employers could make accommodations that can help to mitigate the risk of sensory overload. This can take the shape of having audio-only meetings (with cameras off), designating a day which has no meetings, or defining times which are ‘do not disturb’ periods. They could also encourage the use of noise-cancelling headphones and periodic screen breaks.
By shifting their perception of ‘sensitivity’ and making adjustments for it, employers are creating the opportunity for these neurodivergent employees to be leading voices in innovation, problem solving, and people strategy. They are highly skilled at identifying patterns and subtleties, as well as being emotionally intelligent. These power skills are becoming increasingly valued, especially in managerial roles, and so it is important for employers to be nurturing these skills.
If you would like to discuss how to implement policies to support HSPs, please get in touch with us.