Know any highly sensitive persons at your workplace?

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone who easily gets overwhelmed by intensity of flows like tasks, information, light, sound, smell, etc. They need time to process and can get over-stimulated easily. This may be because an HSP is already taking in a lot of cues from the surroundings and processing them. However, because of constantly feeling the pulse, an HSP tends to show empathy and compassion. The term HSP was coined by Elaine Aron in the mid-1990s and she also has a website on the topic. Her book came out 25 years ago titled “The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You”. Unfortunately I have not read the book but have just ordered it. Her website, and loads of other websites as well, have tremendous information about HSPs.

The Wikipedia article on sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is about the personality trait that characterizes HSPs. Quoting that article, the SPS personality trait involves “an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social and emotional stimuli”. A high measure of SPS is seen in HSPs. It is said that one in five to six people are HSPs. But it may not seem that way perhaps because it is manifested differently for different people. For example, if we were to take the HSP test in Elaine Aron’s site, there will be some categories we will absolutely identify with, but be just the polar opposite in other categories (viz. we may “startle easily” but wonder why “sensitive to coffee” is even on that list).

In our workplaces we may wish to spot the HSPs in our teams. They are usually overly sensitive (of course!), they are known for overthinking, they have difficulty multi-tasking, they get stressed out when they have to do a lot in a short amount of time, and if you ever hang around them during lunch time then you know they get hangry (that means angry due to hunger). But it is not all negative. They are usually intuitive, deep thinkers, pay attention to detail, and oftentimes the top contributors in their groups. They are typically not there for money or prestige. They are motivated by a higher purpose, core values, and opportunities to help others. So by identifying them and understanding their needs, organizations can greatly benefit by having HSPs.

Here is a small sample of ways HSPs’ needs can be met. Since they internally react strongly to criticism but may not show it, some anonymous surveys could be useful to understand. For HSPs, change is upsetting. So it would be good to let them know of an impending change, discuss pros and cons, and let them come to a conclusion. In general, it would be good to give them time to make decisions, to process, and to change. If there is a choice, HSPs prefer cubicles to open office spaces. Of course, we cannot change everything, but it would be good to recognize their needs in meetings and presentations. They need time to process, think, ask questions, and put together a coherent response. So they won’t jump in with a question, hence ask if they have any.

Unlike shyness, introversion, ADHD, and anxiety that are well-studied, HSPs have not received that kind of attention (although they share some similarities). Surprisingly, about 30% of HSPs are extroverts. The HSPs are often mistaken for the wrong thing. Because about 20% of people are HSPs (coincidentally, identical to the fraction of babies that are colicky), it is not considered a disorder. In fact, many animals also posses this trait and could be considered a survival mechanism. According to Melody Wilding (click this). HSPs are known to be highly observant, intuitive, thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic, conscientious, loyal, and creative.

So, those of us that identify ourselves as HSPs (would be good to take a test or two to confirm) could consider the following.

Managing Stress

We can understand our triggers and manage our stress. One form of stress is caused due to chaos and uncertainty. By building in some certainty and order in our lives, we could manage stress. For example we could have a routine, stay organized, and have a tidy environment. Also, exercise and meditation can help greatly. We could avoid getting hangry by having healthy snacks at out disposal (importantly, avoid scheduling meetings during lunch time).


We sometimes get overly affected by criticism and unfair treatment. It would help us to build in some positivity in life. There are many ways to do that. Comedy is surely one of them. These days there are many options to read, listen to, and watch comedy. It also helps to get some easy wins. There may be some easy tasks at work, or simple games you can play and win. Further, we can consider meditation and consuming something inspirational.

Alone time

One of the hallmark characteristics of an HSP is the need for alone time. This is the time to check our expectations, think, reflect, and journal. It is an opportunity to find meaning, understand our ikigai, discover our purpose, and align with our core values. It would help to wake up a bit earlier than others at home and get settled for the day (the alone time in the shower does help). Also, before going to bed, spending some quiet time could be useful.



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