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.
Work can be an intimidating and frustrating experience for neurodivergent individuals, as they can struggle to fit in with coworkers and adhere to organizational culture expectations. Conversely, employers and colleagues can feel challenged when working with neurodivergent team members. Through awareness and a few workplace changes, the benefits connected to a neurodiverse workforce can be optimized.
As the world of work continues to evolve, neurodiversity is getting more attention. This begs the question - how will your organization adjust to employees’ growing demand for recognition and workplace modifications?
The best way to find an answer to this is by first understanding what neurodiversity is and looks like.
According to Harvard Medical School, “Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.” Statistically speaking, 15-20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent. Dyslexia, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) represent, in order, the three most common types of neurodivergence.
So, how can an organization foster neurodiversity at work?
The key concept surrounding neurodiversity is to improve inclusivity for all people. This requires recognition of each individual’s skills, abilities, and strengths, as well as support for their differences. Many organizations, supervisors, and teams may already be adjusting their routines and practices. Raising awareness and intentionally modifying etiquette can ensure employers and employees don’t miss out on the significant opportunities a neurodiverse workforce provides. Here are some examples of how to promote a neurodiverse work environment:
When an organization encourages a few basic “rules of the road”, it can dramatically increase employee engagement, innovation, creativity, and productivity. For example, DO place focus on communicating clearly and concisely – avoid implied messages or meaning. Be ready to break tasks down into small steps to ensure understanding and work with individuals to identify their preferred learning style; some may learn best with written instructions while others thrive through auditory direction. And, whenever possible, announce any changes to plans in advance to give people a chance to adjust to this change.
However, DON’T make assumptions. Before interpreting someone’s behavior, ask them about their preferences, needs, and goals. Inform people of workplace etiquette before accusing someone of rudeness or rule breaking, and provide the opportunity for individuals to ask clarifying questions that foster understanding.
Mentra has also put together a list of their ‘Top Ten Accommodations’ for neurodiverse employees that can be very helpful:
Neurodivergent individuals may be overlooked in traditional recruiting practices and that is a definite loss in talent for organizations. Work environments that acknowledge and support neurodiversity can outperform their competitors through innovation, engagement, dedication, and output. But without the right tools, training (a recent study found that only 23% of HR professionals have had specific neurodiversity training in the last year), and workplace practices, many employers can find themselves struggling to gain access to this vast pool of talent. So, if you would like to discuss the best way to hire, onboard and include neurodivergent employees, get in touch with me at
Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020