Identify your canaries in the coal mine with Human Systems

Highly Sensitive People – Your Organization’s ‘Canary in a Coal Mine’

I’m an HSP

As far back as I can remember, I have been made aware that I am very sensitive compared to others, and that it’s not necessarily a good thing. I have always cried easily, I have a keen sense of fairness and justice, and if I’m not careful, I can be negatively affected by other’s sadness and anger. In response to crying, I have heard “it’s not really that bad, you don’t need to cry”, “you have to have thicker skin”, and the trite saying “sticks and stones…” – you know the rest. When I pointed out something that seemed unfair or was not working right, I often heard “well, that’s the way life is” and “life’s not fair.”

Sensitivity can be especially difficult in your workplace, especially if, like in most organizations, it’s considered unprofessional to show Human Systems helps make it ok to cry at worknegative feelings. I have spent lots of time crying in bathroom stalls, pinching myself to keep my eyes filling with tears, and tamping down anger. I was told at one organization that I would never get a promotion because I was “too emotional.”

When my friend Mary sent me an article about HSP’s, or highly sensitive people, it completely changed my perspective. I took the online test to see if I was highly sensitive and, what do you know, it turns out I belong to the 15-20% of the population who is HSP. According to Dr. Elaine Aaron, the primary researcher behind HSP, people who are highly sensitive process information more deeply, which means that if you are sensitive, you can get easily overwhelmed by environmental stimuli and have strong emotions, compared to the majority of folks who are not considered to be HSP. There are advantages and disadvantages to being highly sensitive depending on the environment, what kind of support you have, and what your goals are, but the key is that being highly sensitive is not a dysfunction or an abnormality.

Canary in a coal mine

As recently as 1986, British coal miners would bring canaries with them into the mines to serve as an early-warning system for carbon monoxide poisoning. Canaries are extremely sensitive to carbon monoxide, so if, when the miners whistled to the bird and it did not respond, or they saw that it became ill, they knew that it was time to evacuate. Today, miners use a much more humane electronic system to detect carbon monoxide.

Before I started my own business, I often felt like a canary in a coal mine. A few years ago, I was teaching a social work master’s class, and I

had one student about whom I was very concerned. Many of her comments in class carried a lot of anger in them, and she had a lot of trouble turning in her assignments on time, if at all. I spoke with her outside of class and got a very clear sense that she was really struggling with some personal challenges. Aside from that, she was bringing a lot of negativity into the classroom and making it difficult for me to teach effectively. When I spoke with an administrator at the school about the possibility of having her removed from the class, I was told that absolutely was not an option, but that I could stop teaching if I wanted. I didn’t want to abandon my class in the middle of a semester, so I kept going, managing class discussions as best I could. A few classes later, I had to end the class early because the student had made comments that I found so offensive that I burst into tears.

To the administration’s credit, after I insisted on bringing in a facilitator to the next class to allow the class to process the discussion and their feelings around seeing their professor cry, the school created

Human Systems helps you find the canary in the coal mine
Image from “The Story of the Real Canary in the Coal Mine” from

a pool of facilitators on which professors could call when class discussions became really challenging, especially around race issues. After the class ended, I found out from a friend who also taught at the school that the student had had to leave school because she had been admitted to a mental hospital.

What if the initial conversation with the administrator had gone better, and we brought the student in for a meeting, and it became clear then that she needed mental health services? What if the facilitator pool had been available earlier and I could have brought one in earlier to assist with managing difficult discussions?

Trust your canaries

If you read a bit about HSP’s, you could probably pick out the employees in your organization who are highly sensitive, especially if you are highly sensitive. These employees can be “high maintenance” – they may ask for special accommodations such as a quieter place to work, different lighting, more breaks, more time off, etc. They may show more emotion, both negative and positive. If they are like me, highly sensitive and high-sensation seeking, they might make lots of suggestions for improvements to processes, or they may complain a lot about working conditions, or they may seem really enthusiastic about a project one day and completely shut down the next. We can really seem like a pain in the behind.

These individuals can be disruptive, but listening to them can also pay off. HSP’s discomfort at work can act as an early-warning system for needed changes to policies, processes, or company culture. Just because only one or two people seem to be negatively affected doesn’t mean that their concerns are invalid; it could just be that they are giving you an opportunity to make positive change before burnout and turnover start increasing.

Learn More

Paying attention to employees’ emotions for the purpose of making positive changes in your organization is part of emotional competence. To learn more about emotional competence and how it can work for your organization, contact us!


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