Sensory Processing in the Workplace
By Theresa Parish
We live in a world full of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures - sensations that affect our ability to think, reason, and even be productive at work. We also deal with the forces of gravity each and every day. Some of us are more affected by these sensations than others.
Sensory processing is the way each of us responds to incoming sensory information. We learn and grow through our senses which include touch, sight, sound, smell, taste, proprioception, and vestibular sensations. We manage our day-to-day activities through all the information our bodies take in. Ninety percent of this information is actually below our conscious level of awareness.
Those of us whose sensory systems are “normal” respond appropriately to most situations. We are able to adapt to our surroundings without much difficulty. However, when we have increased stress, our ability to adapt may be compromised and adaptations may become more difficult.
For example, a person may do just fine working in a cubicle until a deadline is looming or she hasn’t gotten much sleep due to a sick child. Now she hears every sound as though it is amplified and concentrating is proving to be impossible. She may be unaware that the noise level hasn’t changed a bit and that her brain is just having difficulties adapting due to stress and lack of sleep.
Some people have sensory processing issues that affect their life on a daily basis. They may be unaware that their sensory system is any different than anyone else’s but wonder why they struggle so much at home and at work. Touch, smells, sound, and visual distractions are the most common issues people deal with. A person may or may not be able to tell you what noxious sensations they are experiencing; therefore, they may not know how to adapt to them. This can cause challenges in the workplace.
Inability to focus in a noisy or busy environment, headaches caused from bright fluorescent lighting or perfumes, colognes, and air fresheners, can all be detrimental to productivity for someone with sensory processing issues. For someone with a sensory processing diagnosis, such as sensory defensiveness, it may be even more serious. For example, a person defensive to touch may have increased anxiety due to being touched or even the thought of being touched. This increased anxiety can affect not only their ability to work, it can affect their entire life.
Many workplaces have ways they can adapt for medical conditions or they can get assistance from an occupational therapist in order to make ADAAA accommodations. Most companies may not even be aware of sensory processing issues and how much they can affect some people’s lives. Awareness is key and simple changes can drastically affect some people’s lives and work performance.
Some accommodations for sensory processing issues can be as simple as placing someone who is visually distracted away from the flow of walking traffic. White noise in offices may need to be turned up or down in certain areas for different people. People who don’t notice sensory input may need checklists or reminders to pay attention to details or work in teams where other team members are more detail-oriented. People who are easily distracted will do better in clean, organized spaces.
For more serious issues, a person may need to work with an occupational therapist. Fortunately, once basic sensory-driven needs are provided for, people tend to be more comfortable, less annoyed by incoming sensations, and thus, more productive.
If you suspect a sensory issue and are unsure of how to help, consult with an occupational therapist who can help you, your employees, patients, or family members live and work sensationally.
Theresa Parish is an occupational therapist and a Ready Associate for the Ready Approach. She is an Ergonomics and Loss Control Specialist/Sensory Processing Specialist with RAS.