• 5 min read
How culture and workspace design can reduce stress—for everyone
by Aaron Haworth
While stress is a major issue for both employees and employers everywhere, certain individuals may be at a higher risk of burnout and stress-related problems than others. Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), or a heightened sensitivity to stimuli, is a trait seen among many people around the world. It impacts the how and when an individual feels stress—and the extent to which they feel it. It’s actually pretty common too; there is evidence to suggest upwards of 30% of people may be affected.
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So, what characterizes people with SPS, and what causes them to experience stress differently than others do? Biologically, those with SPS tend to have a more sensitive central nervous system response and deeper cognitive processing of different types of stimuli. These stimuli can include both physical and emotional elements that are part of day-to-day life.
People with SPS generally tend to have more intense emotional reactions to interactions and events, both positive and negative. Highly sensitive people have heightened responses to things like hunger and thirst, pharmaceuticals, pain, as well as bright lights and loud noises. For these reasons, an individual with SPS may experience much more stress than a colleague sitting next to them in the exact same scenario. A person with SPS is more likely to be stressed in a consistently loud atmosphere or a physically uncomfortable work environment, for example. Understanding that individuals with SPS experience the stimuli around them more intensely, it’s easy to see how they are more at risk when faced with stressful situations and the potential loss of the resources they use to handle those situations.
Sensory processing sensitivity is also commonly connected to other cognitive conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, PTSD, and autism. This is not to say SPS is a hindrance, however, as sensitive individuals have many invaluable traits. People with SPS frequently have high levels of creativity and empathy, both of which are extremely beneficial in work environments. People with SPS also tend to take their time analyzing situations to respond in the best manner. These individuals are often very high performers and drive innovation throughout their organizations—but, they also are more likely to experience stress and be particularly challenged in stressful times.
Creating both physical and cultural environments focused on the well-being and empowerment of people with SPS is not only important for organizations to help mitigate stress; it is also a way for businesses to design with diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind—to engage all their employees effectively, improve performance, and draw in top talent.
In terms of the physical workspace, well-managed ambient qualities and high levels of individual user control are the most important aspects for people with SPS. Consider the different elements that may increase stress for employees and work to mitigate them.
For ambient qualities, this means ensuring that lighting, noise, and temperature levels are properly managed, as deviations from a comfortable norm can increase stress among employees. Organizations can use tools like acoustic paneling or vertical screens to block noise or distracting visuals. Ensuring employees have access to natural light or the outdoors can ease anxieties about being inside a potentially hectic corporate environment as well. Organizations could also provide “relax and recharge” spaces focused on low levels of stimuli where individuals can unwind if they are feeling particularly stressed out.
It’s important to allow individuals a level of user control over their immediate surroundings. Adjustable chairs and tables can minimize the stress one might feel from an uncomfortable workspace, for instance. Another important element of user control is orientation relative to the rest of the room. Many individuals with SPS—particularly people with PTSD, for example—can experience increased stress levels due to the fact that they can be easily startled by sounds or someone approaching from behind. Allowing them to change the orientation of their workspace so that they can face potential sources of “surprise” sounds and visual disruptions helps gives these people peace of mind and avoid the stress of being startled by coworkers approaching from behind or sudden loud noises.
Given their tendency to think deeply and empathetically about people and their relationships, individuals with SPS rely on positive social support to avoid stressful situations. Businesses need to ensure their organizational culture is one that provides meaningful social resources for SPS individuals. People should feel supported by their coworkers, leaders, and the organization as a whole, so they can build relationships and trust that can help reduce stress at work.
Employers should also work to better align their culture to the wants and needs of their employees. They should make sure that coworkers are able enlist help from each other and instill the idea everyone should have each other’s backs through stressful times. Along similar lines, individuals with SPS benefit greatly from knowing they can trust their coworkers and their organization to support them over time.
Altogether, it’s clear that working to create an environment—both physically and socially—that benefits individuals with SPS is not just good for reducing the stress levels of that cohort, but for all employees. The same supportive resources that may bring the most benefit to highly sensitive people are beneficial to other employees as well. Through a more inclusive work environment, organizations can expect to see not just a reduction in stress levels and burnout, but improved engagement and performance as well.
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