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August 3, 2022

Employees’ sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) and proactivity at work

Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a multidimensional personality characteristic that captures differences in how people process sensory information, and how strongly they react to positive and negative stimuli. SPS has attracted growing societal and scientific interest. Recent research has investigated if interindividual differences in the three SPS dimensions have an impact on employee proactivity. Moreover, it was investigated if SPS can explain how employees respond to job complexity differently in terms of their proactivity. The results gathered across two two-wave studies will inform future research about the roles of different SPS dimensions for employee proactivity. They further add to the research on the role of job design for proactive work behaviour by showing that differences in the sensitivity to the environment and the self can partially explain for whom complex jobs can stimulate proactive work behaviour.

What is SPS?

Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a personality trait whereby people exhibit high emotional reactivity and over-arousal, deep information processing, and an keen awareness to environmental subtleties. It is based on the view that individuals differ in their susceptibility to and processing of stimuli, regardless of whether the stimuli are positive or negative. SPS has attracted increasing societal recognition in recent years due to an increase in self-help literature, coaching, and consulting interventions over the past few years. The scientific knowledge of SPS based on studies with children, adolescents, and adults, as well as non-human animal samples, is also steadily growing. However, research that applies the concept to the workplace is largely missing.

Studying SPS in the workplace

One objective of the current study was to examine relationships between SPS and employees’ proactive behaviour at work. Proactive behaviour is defined as future- and change-oriented behaviour, for example, an employee who will request additional training is considered to be exhibiting proactive behaviour. Taking the initiative, making suggestions for improvements at work, and planning ahead to prepare for potential difficulties in one’s job are all important behaviours in an increasingly dynamic work context.

Previous research shows that SPS is a multidimensional construct, and its differential positive and negative effects can be attributed to its three dimensions:

  • ease of excitation (EOE, ie, being mentally overwhelmed by stimuli);
  • low sensory threshold (LST, unpleasant sensory arousal in the context of intense stimuli, such as loudness and bright lights), which reflect sensitivity to negative experiences,
  • and aesthetic sensitivity (AES, awareness of and openness to positive aspects of one’s surroundings), which relates to a higher appreciation of and a stronger emotional response to positive stimuli.

Accordingly, when Schmitt chose to investigate SPS in the workplace, she assumed that employees with higher EOE and LST would be less likely to engage in self-initiative and change-oriented behaviour, while individuals with higher AES would show a positive relationship with proactive work behaviour. Moreover, she assumed that the three SPS dimensions would influence how employees respond to job complexity through proactive work behaviour.

How job complexity and SPS interact

Job complexity is the level at which work tasks are difficult for individuals to perform and the extent to which a job requires the use of diverse, mentally challenging skills. Jobs perceived to be complex provide opportunities for self-initiated, change-oriented work behaviours, and previous research has shown that job complexity positively relates to employees’ proactive work behaviour. However, because complex jobs also require high information processing and have been found to be positively related to indicators of negative well-being in employees, Schmitt argued that relationships between employees’ perceived job complexity and their engagement in proactive work behaviour are more complex and that employees react differently to job complexity depending on their SPS. Specifically, when faced with increasing job complexity, employees with higher EOE and LST were assumed to respond less favourably than those with lower EOE and LST. For employees with higher AES, the relationship between job complexity and proactive work behaviour should be stronger.

The studies’ results

Two studies based on heterogeneous samples of 215 and 126 employees showed that employees’ tendency to be easily overwhelmed by external stimuli and changes (the dimensions of EOE) was unrelated to their proactive work behaviour. Employees’ unpleasant arousal from external stimuli (LST) was negatively related to their proactive work behaviour in one of the two studies, and employees’ awareness of and openness to positive stimuli (AES) was largely positively related to proactivity. Moreover, working in a job perceived to be complex positively predicted employees’ proactive work behaviour, but this relationship was largely only evident in employees with a strong awareness of and openness to positive stimuli (AES), but not in those with a lower AES. Overall, the SPS characteristic of AES was found to act as a supporting factor for proactive work behaviour, and when exposed to an enriching (eg complex) work environment, people with a high awareness of and an openness to positive stimuli were found to benefit in terms of their behavioural engagement at work. These findings contribute to the literature on SPS, which has mainly focused on its negative consequences. The research findings present an interesting point of departure for the further investigation of the role of SPS in employee work behaviour.


Schmitt, A, (2022) Sensory Processing Sensitivity as a Predictor of Proactive Work Behavior and a Moderator of the Job Complexity–Proactive Work Behavior Relationship. Front. Psychol. 13:859006. 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.859006

Aron, E, Aron, A, (1997), Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(2), 345-368.

Greven, C, et al (2019) Sensory processing sensitivity in the context of environmental sensitivity: a critical review and development of research agenda. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 98, 287-305.

Lionetti, F, et al, (2019) Sensory processing sensitivity and its association with personality traits and affect: A meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Personality, 81, 138-152.

Pluess, M, (2017). Vantage sensitivity: Environmental sensitivity to positive experiences as a function of genetic differences. Journal of Personality, 85, 38-50.

Written By

Antje Schmitt
University of Groningen

Contact Details

+31 50 36 34837

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