In previous blogs, I have featured different types of disabilities. Here, using a wider lens, I am featuring a characteristic known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity, or High Sensitivity. It is a trait present in many people and is both an advantage in some environments and a disadvantage in others.
As Rosie Raleigh explains, this is not considered a disability, but Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) can face similar barriers. And like people with a disability, they can bring lots of strengths to an organisation if given the right environment and adjustments in which to thrive.
I have always been sensitive, but a few years ago I learnt I have the genetically based personality trait known by scientists as Sensory Processing Sensitivity – a form of neurodiversity more commonly known as High Sensitivity. Between 15 and 30% of the population are highly sensitive – that means around 60,000 civil servants. The latest science suggests environmental sensitivity is a spectrum – we are all affected by our environment to a greater or lesser extent.
At work, as well as underlying my empathy and creativity, being highly sensitive means that I am more affected by noise in open plan offices, and am more easily stressed than others.
I spoke to my mentor – a director elsewhere in the Civil Service – who advised that I never tell anyone at work about the trait, in case they were to discriminate against me. This advice was well-meant. Sadly, many highly sensitive people face stigma on top of the stress-related illnesses they are more at risk of. For several years I kept this characteristic to myself – hiding the migraines and digestive problems I experienced as a result of overstimulation at work.
But, over time, I realised that given the numbers of people affected, it was likely that many other civil servants felt like I did. So, I decided to start raising awareness of high sensitivity and other divergent-thinking styles, and was delighted when 75 staff attended the introductory session I ran in the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) on high sensitivity. Many staff shared similar experiences of health problems caused by stress at work, and worries about discrimination. I am glad to say that senior Civil Service leaders, including Dame Sue Owen, former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Sir Chris Wormald, my own Permanent Secretary in DHSC, have been very supportive. The Diversity of Thought staff network I set up is now working with DHSC’s senior leaders to improve the experience of highly sensitive staff.
What is high sensitivity?
Research into over 100 species has found that within a population, individuals vary in how sensitive they are to their environment. This range of sensitivity gives the species an evolutionary advantage, by enabling it to thrive in different environments. Although high sensitivity is not defined as a disability, in much of our fast-paced, always-on culture, it can be disabling.
If their environment is not adapted to their differently wired brains, highly sensitive people are at risk of developing mental and physical health problems. As environmental sensitivity is a spectrum, people with moderate levels of sensitivity may share some of these experiences.
Scientists have found four elements to high sensitivity:
- Depth of processing – MRI scans show that highly sensitive people’s brains process information more deeply, considering a wider range of scenarios and potential outcomes, for instance when developing policy options.
- Overstimulation – since highly sensitive people extract more information from their environment, they tire quicker and have a lower threshold for stimulation, such as noise or stress.
- Empathy and emotional reactivity – highly sensitive people’s mirror neurons respond more strongly, making them more alert to others’ body language and empathetic. At work, they might be particularly good at building rapport with others and particularly supportive as line managers.
- Sensing the subtle – highly sensitive people have a greater appreciation of aesthetic experiences, and are more creative. At work, they may be particularly innovative and come up with lots of new ideas.
Highly sensitive individuals may also have other forms of neurodivergence, disability, or physical or mental health conditions. Although the underlying biological mechanism may be different, the overstimulation that highly sensitive people experience is often also experienced by people with autism spectrum conditions.
Support for highly sensitive staff
DHSC’s Diversity of Thought Network has produced staff-led guidance on creating an inclusive culture for highly sensitive staff. If you would like advice on supporting highly sensitive staff in your department, or a copy of the DHSC guidance, email DiversityofThoughtNetwork@dhsc.gov.uk.
Outside the Civil Service, Vantage: The campaign for highly sensitive people works to raise awareness and increase acceptance of high sensitivity. You can find out more on Vantage's new web site.
I am indebted to Rosie for sharing her story and for raising awareness of this common characteristic and trait. Many HSPs are not aware that they have the trait. Of those who are aware, many may decide not to reveal this for fear of being denied career progression opportunities by managers who believe that HSPs cannot carry out high-profile, pressurised jobs. It is great, therefore, to hear that a Diversity of Thought Network has been set up in DHSC to promote diversity of thinking styles and to help HSP’s be their best at work, benefiting the organisation by drawing on these untapped skills.
If you can relate to Rosie’s story, or the characteristics highlighted, why not post a comment or contact the network.
Comment by Viktoria Vianeva posted on
Thank you for sharing this Rosie - great to see HSP being mentioned and explained so well.
For people who wonder whether they might have the trait - here is a self-assessment test by the scientist who first discovered it. Hope you find it useful - https://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/
Comment by peter wright posted on
I have been aware of being like this my whole life and it has shaped every aspect of who I am how I live my life. Take my job for example - I work as an Inspector in the APHA. Do I do this because I have an overwhelming passion for the work? Not particularly. I do it because I rarely have to go to an office, spent large amounts of time on the road on my own and only then get 'bursts' of interaction for a few hours at a time during inspections. The down time between stimulation allows me to cope. And it goes far beyond just the job. The house I live in, the woman I married, all social interactions with friends / family have to be compatible with my sensitivity. Failure to respect these requirements and trying to pretend that I am 'normal' results in severe illness. Sensitivity is not a mental illness and cannot be treated - it is a personality type, and one that the modern world makes almost no accommodation for. Its taken me years to accept what I am and who I am and stop trying to do what everyone else does and pretend to enjoy the things that they like. No I don't want to go to that party after work, no I don't want to spend five hours in the pub or the all day family barbecue etc etc. I want / need to go for a long walk in the country side, spend time on my own and do the quiet cerebral activities that relax me. I urge anyone with this condition to stop trying to fit in and start living your life the way that you need to in order to survive - and do it now, before your health starts to suffer.
Comment by Mary Hudson posted on
Thank you Rosie for sharing this - very interesting. I am aware that I am more sensitive to most things than many people - my responses to light, touch and noise can be quite severe and I have been told by osteopath etc that I am extremely sensitive - didn't realize there was an actual medical condition - not saying I have it but it is something I'd like to investigate. Thank you for making us aware.
Comment by Debbie posted on
thanks for sharing and like many comments before me, I was not aware of this, however I am going to explore HSP more.
Debbie Pennington - Break the Stigma lead 2MS/ Home Office
Comment by Bridget posted on
Thank you for sharing this, Rosie. It's really interesting and has given me some useful insights on how I can support my younger daughter.
I've always thought she had 'heightened' senses; She would get very distressed by loud noises when younger, has an extremely good sense of smell and taste, and is very sensitive to the feel of fabrics. I can now see how this would link to some of her character traits as well.
It's good to know it is a 'thing' and that there are resources out there that I can use to support her. Thank you.
Comment by Ben Merrick, Civil Service Deputy Disability Champion posted on
Rosie - many thanks for sharing this. I too was not aware of the condition, and in general I think it's really valuable to rise awarness of all sorts of similar issues so that everyone understands the challeneges, potential benefits and how best to work together. I certianly agree that hiding these things away for fear of discrimination is not wise, partly for the individaul but also because being open can help many more people who are simialrly affected. Thanks again!
Comment by victoria murrell posted on
Thanks Rosie this was a very interesting read.
I just hope those pushing open planned office with hot desking take note that for a large proportion of the workforce with various neurodivesity issues this is not best environment to work productively. Quiet areas are necessary too.
thank you for sharing.
Comment by Helen posted on
Thanks for this article. I've experienced an 'over-awareness' of the senses frequently, so I don't know if this is that condition or just purely circumstances at the time; such as (e.g.) feeling bombarded by noise in a very busy environment and beginning to feel panicky.
But I'm definitely going to investigate further.
Thank you and all the best. 🙂
Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on
Thank you Rosie for sharing with us your personal experience and for promoting this. I am sure that like me, there will be a number of colleagues out there who were totally unaware of this and some who were experiencing some of the symptoms without fully understand what it might be.
I have to say that I am far from impress with the person who advise you not to say anything because they felt that you would face possible discrimination from your colleagues. If I recall, it was not that long ago when there was a significant level of stigma attached to Mental Health and colleagues would rather suffer in silence.
I really hope that your blog and the guidance from Diversity of Thought Network helps to eliminate much of the Stigma and encourages others to talk about how they are truly feeling and look to see help.
G Thomas, Chair FCO Wellbeing Network
Comment by Siobhan Beck posted on
I recently realised I was HSP when my counsellor recommended me read The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron , PhD. I resonated so much and it really helped me understand myself. I have also been diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia .
The smaller title of the book is
How to thrive when the world overwhelms you
Comment by kelly posted on
Thanks Rosie for sharing this personal information. How you describe your symptons rings true to my own daughter's severe migraines and emotional well being too. This has given me an insight to how I may support her more and how I may raise this with her schooling also. Thanks again
Comment by Simon Quirk posted on
I have never heard of this condition and I often struggle with tiredness, I know 'don't we all' I hear but I seem to feel often worn out and suffer migraines, fuzzy thinking and I'm told I wear my heart on my sleeve and can be emotional.
I have recently had a blood test with no problems found.
I wondered if I had Chronic fatigue/ME but this seems to be rejected by my GP in favour of Stress and CBT has been recommended for me.
Upon reading your plight, I may investigate this condition further, as with previous comment, I am aware of internet self diagnosis and we have to be careful not to latch onto every illness that rings true with how we feel physically and mentally but it will help to aid another avenue to explore how I'm presently feeling.
Comment by SW posted on
Thank you for this..and Pauls comments pretty much cover my thoughts.
Comment by Paul Carter posted on
Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to some of the symptoms you have, mainly because you have explained them so clearly. I don't want to play amateur doctor so won't diagnose myself with Sensory Processing Sensitivity but it certainly made me think.
Comment by Will Richardson posted on
This makes sense to me, sic.
I'd say I'm on the more finely tuned side!
Along with being an ambivert acting, introvert, open plan offices seem to be becoming more and more of an exquisite form of torture as I get older. This in the face of a 2018 Harvard Business School study evidence that they cut face to face communication by 70%, tire people and cut productivity, as well as causing higher absence rates (Richardson, et al, 2017, sic!) . See the Forbes article "How Your Open-Plan Office Is Killing Your Privacy and Safety" by Stephanie Sarkis.
One would hope that the Civil Service would take appropriate action to address this at the root, particulary in these straitened times?