Our blog post this week is written by occupational therapist and SAISI board member Tharina Annandale, who has a special interest working with adults with sensory integration and mental health difficulties.

Occupational therapy can be defined as the science addressing occupational performance through occupation (Strong S. and Rebeiro Gruhl, K, 2011 pp. 31-33).

Let’s have a closer look at what we can understand under occupational performance.  Occupational performance can be defined as different aspects of a person’s daily living, like work, social participation, play and leisure and sleep (Strong, S. and Rebeiro Gruhl, K.,2011 pp. 31-33).

When we consider work as a occupation, the importance of it can not be understated.  The lack of opportunity to work does not only have financial implications, but the psychological and social impact of not working can be equally devastating.  Thus, supporting the importance of work in our daily lives.  On average, people spend about 8 hours a day at work.  Therefore we can conclude that we spend about 70% of our lives working.  Work is also most typically distinguished from other areas of occupational performance, because of its role in facilitating identity and a sense of meaning in our everyday lives (Pitts, 2011).  According to Pitts (2011), work has the following benefits:

  • Employment imposes a time structure and routine
  • Employment implies regularly shared experiences
  • Employment links different goals of people
  • Employment defines important aspects of personal aspects of personal status
  • Employment enforces activity, demanding an action

As humans we function as holistic beings.  The Person-Environment Occupation Model (Strong, S. and Rebeiro Gruhl, K., 2011 pp. 31-33) describes the interaction between the person, his/her environment and occupation.  In this instance the “occupation performance” aspect will be “work” and therefore we will discuss the dynamic interaction of the person, work and his or her environment.  Environments, occupations and people all have limiting factors.  Factors that contribute to a decrease in productivity and therefore decrease in meaning within a certain role.  Thus, we can assume that a change in one of the aspects (person, occupation and environment) can contribute to more productivity and efficiency within the workplace.  Each individual (person) has individual qualities, which can compromise a work project or enable it.  We can also assume that the environment will have a direct impact on the person and the performance of activities at work.

When we look at the individual or a person, the person will comprise of a spiritual, social and cultural being.  Furthermore we can include the affective (what the person will feel), the cognitive (what the person is thinking or whether he/she is concentrating) and the physical (doing).  The spiritual component will involve what gives the person “pleasure” or “meaning” in life. Each person will also have a sensory system.  The sensory system will include the proprioceptive system (system that receives messages through the joints and muscle tension), the vestibular system (in the ear, contributes to balance and equilibrium), the tactile system (feeling something, located on the skin), the interoceptive system (feeling of being hungry or having to go to the bathroom), visual system, olfactory system (smell and taste) and auditory system (hearing).

Each person has an unique sensory system.  Some of us have a high tolerance for loud sounds and other have a very low tolerance for loud sounds.  No two people have exactly the same sensory profiles (Dunn, 1999).  According to Dunn (1999) a person can fall into one of four sensory categories: sensory avoidant, sensory sensitive, sensory seeking or low registration.  You can complete a sensory profile to find out more about your sensory system here.  This will assist you in understanding your sensory profile much better and incorporate this in your work environment.

Have you stopped to consider your work environment? Consider the smells, noises, feeling of your desk or the cushion that you are sitting on.  What is the distance between you and the person next to you? Are they in “your space”? Are you feeling tired or cold maybe?  How do you feel at the end of the day? I will like to explain how the sensory aspects of the environment at work can affect your productivity or positive work experience through the following example of a mechanical engineering department:

The mechanical engineering department at a university will be planned as follows:

1) The engineer trainees are all working from cubicles that are not separated from each other

2) All the trainees have a computer with a sound system

3) The level where the cubicles are situated is looking out over the workshop area

Now, let’s have a look at all the sensory experiences of the trainees in the environments mentioned above.

1) The trainees will be able to touch each other and look on the computer screen of the trainee next to them.  They will be able to hear the person next to them talk and they will be able to hear the sounds and smell the odours from the cubicle next to them.

2) The trainee will use his visual system to look on his computer screen, will hear his own computer or even talk on the phone. The trainee will experience touch when touching his/her desk and feel the heat or cold of his/her body.  The trainee will also taste certain tastes in his/her mouth or smell different body odours in the environment.

3) The sound of the workshop will be totally overwhelming.  The smells from the tools and the materials that they use will be in the air.  People will be working in close proximity to each other.

Keeping in mind that each individual has an unique sensory profile, imagine the impact that an environment like the engineering department will have on each individual.  People that are sensory sensitive will have tremendous difficulty coping and in the long term it could also contribute to anxiety or even a mood disorder; not even to mention the effect that it will have on productivity.  As mentioned, all people have different sensory systems.  While someone might seek noise due to a high auditory threshold, someone else might be auditory sensitive and even avoid “normal” noise levels.

When a person that is sensory sensitive is exposed to noise, they can easily become overstimulated.  Symptoms that they might experience could be headaches, nausea, dizziness, yawning, lower concentration levels or a “foggy” brain.  When people experience these symptoms, they are not as productive as they should be.  This also influences the productivity of the company that they are working for.  Unfortunately, in today’s world, everything is about money and time.  People are expected be more productive and they should be able to work fast and effectively.  If the environment is adapted to be a more sensory “friendly” environment, people will be more productive and companies will benefit in the process.

On the other hand…have you ever wondered why people choose certain jobs?  Have you ever noticed that jobs tend to attract people with certain personalities or even certain sensory profiles?  A person with a sensitive vestibular system will prefer a sedentary job, but someone with a vestibular system that has a high threshold might prefer a job that includes movement, like a soccer coach or even a gym instructor.  These decisions might be made on a subconscious level, based on the subconscious need that people have for certain sensory information.  Sensory thresholds can also vary according to the time of day, whether you had a good night’s sleep or whether you are consuming medication or even illegal substances at the time.

As an occupational therapist, I find it difficult to treat patients during the afternoons.  I have a sensory sensitive system and depending on the noise levels or the amount of touch that I have been exposed to during the morning, my fatigue levels will vary.  This influences my frustration levels and my level of productivity during the afternoon.  The positive side to the story is that I have learnt to cope through “quiet time” or “time-out”, as some people call it.  When I get home, I take a luke warm bath and this inhibits the symptoms of over-stimulation or sensory overload and helps me to cope for the rest of the evening.  This re-establishes my energy levels and decreases my level of frustration.  If I did not have the insight to manage my sensory systems, the worst might happen…unneccesary conflict situations, unproductivity, anxiety and burn-out.

Sometimes people are not well-matched with their jobs or work environment, and then tend to be unhappy at work.  This can be addressed by educating people about their sensory profiles and ways that they can adapt to cope better on a sensory level.  An occupational therapist that is trained in the use of sensory integration can be consulted to adjust the environment.  Sometimes it is only simple things that need adjustment and in most cases people need knowledge about sensory processing and the reason behind “not coping” or poor productivity.

All of us want to be as productive as possible and experience meaning and pleasure at work.  We have different interests, personalities, physical attributes and SENSORY SYSTEMS.  It is up to us to make our work experience as positive as we can.  I will like to end off with the following anonymous quote:

“Don’t be busy, be productive, be sensory sensible”