Often, what we see in Highly Sensitive people is the result of too much unhelpful stimulation - that state of being overwhelmed. But this is a really poor indicator of what High Sensitivity is. And the reason they get there is because they're living in a world set up for everyone who's non-Sensitive. So what, really, is this temperament? What are its gifts - and how do we recognise them and allow them to flourish?
In this recording, I discuss the following:
- alternative terms for the Highly Sensitive temperament (*note: Willow MacIntosh - I couldn't think of his name at the time; classic Highly Sensitive blank-mind syndrome in the moment - is the champion of the term 'High Sensory Intelligence' mentioned here)
- misunderstandings about what sensitivity means
- what it actually means
- how the Sensitive temperament leads to unique gifts (an insight into the process)
- why it's in everyone's best interests to help Highly Sensitive people to thrive
- where the overstimulation that's often the most visible feature of the temperament comes from - and why this isn't what their 'sensitivity' is really about
- how to see past this: my goal
- benefits and reasons for reducing unhelpful stimulation for HS people at work
This recording was made using my computer's microphone, in the middle of summer, so there's fan noise in the background. I hope it's not too distracting - I think it is at first, and then you become used to it. As I don't have a dedicated podcast, I'm not focusing on recordings and don't have a separate microphone. I am considering it - but for now, I'm practising, and the message is the most important thing. I hope that message comes across, despite the imperfect nature of the recording.
There are two options for listening: the weblink below to the track on SoundCloud, and a downloadable audio file.
Here are some general recommendations for creating a physical environment at work which reduces some of the negative stimulation that Highly Sensitive people might be experiencing - increasing their wellbeing, productivity, and beneficial connection with others.
ARTIFICIAL & FLUORESCENTS
Natural light is best for us all, but HS people need it more than most. We really struggle with high levels of artificial light – especially fluorescents. The negative effects of fluorescent lighting have been revealed in various studies - although claims are a little controversial. Two main reasons are that:
(1) They emit only a small spectrum of light, in comparison to the full colour spectrum that the Sun does - at the blue end.
(2) They tend to flicker, whether it's observable or not.
Thought.Co has an article which lists these negative effects and their cause. (Some of these aren't the sole cause of such results, but a contributing factor or found in the same situations as other more influential factors).
If these aren't of much concern, or you feel skeptical about them, consider the energy, lifespan and similar aspects, as explained here. As this article notes, anyone who has environmental sensitivities (the best known are those with light sensitivities and autism disorders) will be affected by the lighting in their workplace, and fluorescents are the worst offenders here.
Remember that Highly Sensitive people respond more to everything - good and bad. Any change which is helpful to them will result in increased performance and wellbeing beyond that of others.
HS people are also sensitive to bright light – so sitting near large windows, of the type in many high-rise office buildings, which lack blinds to reduce the glare and level of brightness, is unhelpful.
Introduce plants into the office space. If you have some, add more. Let HS team members take care of them – and even choose them. They’ll take all the variables into account, and will be consistent with their care. The plants don’t need to be expensive, and will give a good return for investment due to their positive effects.
Create outdoor break areas which are:
(a) away from busy roads,
(b) truly free of cigarette smoke (have a completely separate area for smokers, where the smoke doesn’t affect other break areas),
(c) quiet and peaceful (you might have one for those who want to chat and interact, and others for those who want downtime),
(d) with clean, relatively comfortable seating, and
(e) ideally in a natural space, or at least with some garden areas (this means actual garden – visually attractive and varied, not lawn and a few low plants near a carpark). If your workplace is close to a park or two, bonus!
Do these sound like luxuries? Exposure to the natural environment - plants, quiet, nature sounds - is vital for us all, but especially so for those with High Sensory Intelligence. We take in so much through the day that our senses need space for rest and replenishment. Break areas which are truly a break from the office environment - including, where needed, from colleagues - will increase your High Sensory team members' effectiveness.
These are a few inexpensive and not terribly difficult steps you can take to help make your workplace more HSP-friendly. You don't need to have a garden like the one above (it's part of the Roma Street Parklands, so I don't think any of us will measure up to it!) or the most modern outfitted office. Just do what you can - and remember, every step you take in this direction will lead to improved performance from your Highly Sensitive team members, with all they have to give.
For more individualised and comprehensive recommendations - and an assessment of your actual workplace - a bespoke consultation is the answer.
1. It's the right thing to do, ethically
We can look at this from two viewpoints.
The negative: if there's a group of people in your organisation who are being unduly harmed by conditions, it's the ethically correct thing to do to change those conditions. Highly Sensitive people can often be in this situation at work - unbenknownst to others, especially supervisors. Many conditions - in the physical/sensory environment and in processes and culture - which are considered normal in workplaces are actually harmful to people with this temperament. These halt their progression, cause undue stress, and prevent them from using their gifts for the greater good. If you become aware of the fact that this exists, which it does, then ethically, you need to do something about it.
The positive: if there's a group of people in your organisation who have unique gifts, but whose potential isn't being fully utilised, both they and the organisation are suffering for that lack. That's a resource that's not being tapped, and a valuable one. Tap into it; nurture it; help it develop. Ethically, if there's a resource like this, and it's going to waste, then caring about employee wellbeing and organisational success means learning about it, making use of it, and improving it. Or else that resource should be going where that will happen.
2. Benefits for everyone
A thriving Highly Sensitive person at work brings benefits to the rest of the organisation. Better ideas, wiser decision, greater awareness of dangers, problems and opportunities, improved communication, and more.
3. The things which help HS people thrive are often the things which need to be changed anyway
How do you feel when you immerse yourself in nature for a time - a bush walk or beach visit - or just sit in your garden or the local park? Do you feel more calm and energetic at the same time? Do your problems seem less burdensome, and do you have more ideas about how to work at solving them? Do you feel less annoyed, less flustered, less worried about things which just before seemed so important?
These are some of the effects I feel from being in nature, and there's a lot of information available about how beneficial it is. The Queensland State Government recommends it for mental and physical health, while Health.com tells us that it lowers depression and stress, adds a burst of happiness, restores attention levels (focus), and increases our immunity. For a deeper dive, see this article from Positive Psychology.com .
I've been thinking, the past week, about why we need nature - beyond the obvious reasons like food and air. I believe we need it because our bodies are part of nature. Our modern lives are fast and busy; even more so when compared to how people lived for all of human history until a couple of hundred years ago - even compared to 100 or 50 years ago. We buy food that is immediately available from shelves; travel in cars at fast speeds, which get us large distances quickly; find information quickly and easily; hear reports of many things happening in the world; speak on the phone or over the internet to people far away.
Our bodies, though, are set to the rhythms of the natural world - the rising and setting of the sun; the weather; our years of life - and the fast and noisy pace at which we live works against those rhythms. Our sleep/wake cycle is triggered by light, and set to the time of an earth day and night. If you sit in a garden or nature park, you'll hear birds, cicadas in summer, and the sound of the breeze in the trees. You'll see that breeze move the leaves and branches, and regard the slow passing of the sun across the sky. You'll see clouds form and change, feel the air on your skin, and observe butterflies moving from plant to plant. Flowers open and close with the sun, plants grow through the days and change with the seasons; trees flower, and leaves dry and fall off. All of these are gradual, slow things, each happening in its time. Nature accomplishes what's needed deliberately and slowly, compared to our regular days. When we sit in nature, we remember that, and feel the peace that comes from regulating our bodies again with that slower, gentler, more deliberate pace.
When we go on without stopping to sit in these natural rhythms, our bodies get more and more out of step with what they need. We feel stress, discomfort, or frustration; we get sick, or feel overwhelmed or disheartened. When you sit in a garden or take a walk in the bush, your body resets itself to those natural rhythms from which it came. This helps us feel calm, encouraged, hopeful, less frustrated and stressed in general, more open to possibilities, and less likely to snap at someone (including ourselves). Things seem to have their place, and we can manage them again.
This is why 'being in nature' isn't just for excursions and special events - to be left to the weekend, when there's time. We need it regularly. At lunch, during the day, and in the evening. Have plants in your office (real ones, ideally), water and take care of them; have natural light and some trees or other nature in your view, if at all possible. Give enough time for lunch that people can go to a park or for a walk. They need more than a prepared sandwich in a plastic container from the canteen/café nearby and a bench with concrete and maybe some ordered grass and spiky plants to view. Think about how the photos I've included in this blog post have affected you as you look at them (they're my own; no special effects and no amazing places; just simple and real - the kinds of places anyone can be in). Even that has a calming and (small) restorative effect. Consider the power that nature has, even in this removed form. Add to that the greater benefits of being actually in it.
Let yourself, and those in your care, reset to the slower rhythms of nature, and reap the rewards.
Highly Sensitive people (also called Responsive and Highly Sensory Intelligent) bring a variety of gifts to their workplaces. Here is a list of just 10 sorely-needed things they do:
1. Focus and deep-thinking. Highly Sensitive people are able to focus and think deeply about an issue at hand.
2. Independent and intrinsically-motivated. They require little supervision - a boon for any employer or manager. This comes from a high degree of conscientiousness - a trait rated as 'the best personality predictor of performance' across jobs (Adam Grant).
3. Attention to subtleties. Responsiveness = awareness of nuances. People with this temperament see the details others miss, and place them in the larger picture, due to deeper processing. They're invaluable in making important decisions, seeing potential, and warning of pitfalls, among many other benefits.
4. Avoid office politics. You won't find them gossiping or taking sides - unless driven to it by poor leadership, with no other course of action available. Generally, though, they'll be the ones getting on with their work.
5. Able to 'read' emotions. With greater activation of the mirror neurons (involved in empathetic responses), as well as the insula and cingulate brain regions (consciousness and moment-to-moment awareness), those who are Highly Sensitive are more aware, alert and conscious in many situations, including those involving other people. This, added to their perception of subtleties, means they can read expressions, body language, and the emotional state of others quite accurately, and then respond accordingly.
As you can imagine, this is extremely valuable in any sort of personal interaction, especially with clients/customers (or students, with Highly Sensitive teachers) and in situations such as business negotiations.
6. See more than one side to an issue/situation. This is one reason why they don't get involved in office politics - a Responsive person sees more than one reason for an action, tries not to jump to conclusions, and can consider multiple viewpoints at the same time. From here, they can help others see these options. This makes them good peacemakers, counsellors/advisors, and considerate and reflective leaders.
7. Think creatively. Dutch psychologist Matthijs Baas and colleagues analysed mindfulness skills that predict creativity. Of these, only observation 'was consistently linked with heightened creativity' (Kaufmann and Gregoire, Wired to Create, p. 120). They concluded, "To be creative, you need to have, or be trained in, the ability to carefully observe, notice, or attend to phenomena that pass your mind's eye" (quoted in Kaufmann & Gregoire, ibid.). As we've seen, this is what Highly Sensitive people do all the time. They're made for creativity!
As Kaufmann and Gregoire also wrote,
'Sensitive people often pick up on the little things in the environment that others miss, see patterns where others see randomness, and find meaning and metaphor in the minutiae of everyday life.... If we think of creativity as "joining the dots" in some way, then sensitive people experience a world in which there are both more dots and more opportunities for connection' between them. (p. 126)
8. Insightful and intuitive. Those with High Sensory Intelligence see the potential in situations and people. They use their insight and intuition when looking at problems and opportunities, and bring up aspects which need to be considered in ventures, projects, and processes.
9. Act with integrity. Now ideally, everyone acts with integrity. Practically, not all do - and it can be hard to know who will and who won't. You can rely on a Highly Sensitive colleague to, though. Things matter to them - details, meaning, purpose. Where they can agree with them, they will be committed to an organisation's mission and values - if not, they wouldn't be there (or they'll be seeking to leave).
10. Unlikely to take shortcuts. I've already mentioned their high degree of conscientiousness. It's very important to a Responsive person to do things well - to take care of the variables. If they do something, they'll want to do it thoroughly. But if there's insufficient time, or resources, allocated to a task to do it properly (perhaps through a false sense of efficiency), they'll become frustrated. Lesson: If you want something done thoroughly, give it to a Responsive person - with enough time, and access to the resources needed, to do it. If this doesn't matter so much, give the task to someone else.
Bonus benefit: This is one that is potentially very helpful right now. A thriving Highly Sensitive person can see further - beyond the immediate conditions - in a crisis. When others might be panicking or floundering, a HS person is able to be calm and sensible. The key here, though, is that they need to be heard and believed in these moments/periods. To make that possible, this already needs to be a fixture in an organisation - where the gifts of those with High Sensory Intelligence are recognised and used. If this isn't in place, then they won't be able to do their part in this way, with actual results for the organisation, when it matters.
And this goes for any of the benefits we've discussed here. If you want the golden egg, you need to nurture the goose. (To put it in a transactional way...). That's where I come in. I'll show you how to do this in your workplace - and help you discover who these people are. Your workplace will never be the same - in all the best ways.
Tamara - Sensitive Thrive is my consulting business. I believe that the world needs Highly Sensitive people who are flourishing. We need their hope, insight, wisdom, and awareness of beauty and possibility. My vision is to help create a culture where this temperament is known, understood and valued; where organisations seek Highly Sensitive people to work for them, because they know what they can do. Where HS people feel like they fit in their workplaces, because those workplaces also fit them. A world where HS people belong, thrive, and flourish, and the world is better for it.