It's a sad truth that the work world doesn't understand highly sensitive people. But at 15 to 20 percent of the population, highly sensitive people (HSPs) aren't rare—in fact, almost every workplace has them. Yet very few work environments are set up to help HSPs thrive, or even do their best work. And for many HSPs, their job is a constant source of stress and overwhelm.
1. Your coworker comes in wearing perfume, and it bothers you all day—but you don't have the heart to tell her.
It's not that she's wearing "too much." It's just that as a highly sensitive person, you notice even subtle fragrances. What seems like a "hint" of scent to someone else can be overpowering to you, and if you're stuck in the same space, it can give you headaches or other physical reactions.
(I'm saying "she" here, but it can just as easily be a man with cologne.)
Tip: Conscientious and thoughtful, many HSPs are accustomed to putting other people's needs ahead of their own—and not wanting to burden others with their seemingly "picky" requests. But you don't have to suffer in silence. If it only happens once in a while, it might be OK to let it go—but if this is interfering with your work, you have permission to speak up.
Try, "Your fragrance is lovely, but I'm especially sensitive to scents. When I'm near someone wearing perfume or cologne, it gives me headaches and makes it difficult to work. Could you not wear your scent at the office?" A reasonable person will understand. Or, if you need to speak to your manager, stick to the facts and ask to be put in a different workspace.
(You can learn more about how to speak up for your needs here.)
2. You're surrounded by those way-too-bright fluorescent lights.
At best, fluorescent tube lights are glaringly bright and cold. In many cases, they also flicker, which can be distracting or even queasy-making for an HSP.
Tip: Unfortunately, you probably won't get your employer to switch to different lighting—it's costly—but you may be able to adjust the ambiance. I once brought in an old-fashioned desk lamp for a cubicle space I worked in, and that "normal" light did a lot to improve the feel of my workspace (not only did coworkers not mind, a few of them did the same).
3. It’s exhausting picking up the emotions and mental states of those around you all day.
"Highly sensitive person" is not quite synonymous with "empath," but it's close. HSPs have high levels of empathy, show more activity in brain regions associated with mirror neurons, and are keenly aware of the mental states of those around them—even total strangers (you can read more about the highly sensitive brain here). And many do identify as empaths.
At work, that leaves you wide open to the emotions, moods, and stress of everyone around you. Usually, it's a lot of people, often people you don't know well, and often people who are highly stressed by their workload. As an HSP, you can end up absorbing those emotions and getting "flooded." That doesn't just derail your workday, but it can also follow you home.
Tip: Taking breaks to get time on your own or planning little daily rituals before and after work can help. But for empaths and HSPs, one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself is to learn to control how you absorb emotions. That does not mean "shutting it off" or denying this gift. Rather, it means prioritizing your own physical and emotional needs—which makes you much stronger when people throw emotions at you—and practicing some simple self-talk to label and identify which emotions aren't yours (learn more about how to stop absorbing unwanted emotions here).
4. You feel constant pressure to rush forward.
Does your boss ever give you a huge task—and tell you they need it today? Or, do they fail to plan out projects... and then put their staff through a constant series of fires that need to be put out?
Yep. Overwork is chronic these days, especially in the U.S., and that results in rushed deadlines and stress for everyone. But it rarely hits anyone harder than it hits HSPs.
That's because HSPs process information very deeply. They take in more details and put more cognitive work (so to speak) into each task. If you're highly sensitive, you do your best work slowly and deliberately, when you have plenty of time to think things through.
Tip: You can't control your boss's deadlines or work habits—at least not directly. You can, however, clearly communicate what you need to get a task done. For example, "You asked for A by tomorrow, but you also asked for B. We have enough time to get one done in that time, but not both. Which one is a higher priority?" And if things are hectic because a boss isn't organized, you can start each week by creating your own work plan and sending it to them.
5. Your "soft skills" don't get the credit they deserve.
HSPs come with a huge set of skills that make the workplace better. They listen well, prioritize the needs of team members, pay attention to details, and do tasks carefully so they get done right. They're also generally kind and warm-hearted and easy for co-workers to be around. Every one of these skills directly contributes to teams meeting goals.
But bosses don't always see that. They often hire and promote based on "hard" skills, even if that means putting the office jerk in charge of an assignment (and derailing everyone's efforts). And they may not factor in your team-oriented spirit when performance reviews come around.
Tip: The only way to get a skill valued at work is to speak up. That can be as simple as making sure your manager knows what you did ("It seemed like people didn't have a clear plan on how we'll finish this project in time. I made us a checklist so we're all on the same page"). Or it can involve telling your manager when soft skills make a big difference ("I know So-and-So is team lead on this, and I'm following his directions, but he's ruffling a lot of feathers in the way he speaks to everyone. I think it's starting to affect the team's work. How should we handle this?").
Clear, direct problem-solving gets a lot of respect at work, even (especially) if it's for "people" problems.
And if you find yourself taking on extra tasks and getting no credit—stop. The HSP doesn't have to be the one who manages everyone's moods or plans every office holiday party.
6. Negative feedback hits you like an arrow to the heart.
Highly sensitive people tend to have strong emotional reactions to criticism. HSPs try to put the needs of others first and generally want to make people happy. When they're told they did something wrong (even in the most professional context), it can be like an arrow to their (very tender) heart.
Tip: You know you have to process your feelings before you can focus on implementing feedback. Does your boss know that? If you're going through a rough performance review, or you get unexpected criticism, practice these words: "I tend to have a strong reaction to criticism. It doesn't mean I disagree; it just means I need time to process it. Let me know how I can fix this going forward, because I want to make it better." If possible, ask for a little time after the meeting to process, and then promise to follow up.
7. It feels like there's no bigger meaning behind your work.
As a highly sensitive person, you don't go to work just to earn a paycheck. (I mean, you do; we all do. But still.) You're happiest when you know that your work is contributing to something bigger, or when you're able to do something meaningful that helps others.
Unfortunately, many jobs don't really offer that. Most consist of completing repetitive tasks in order to maximize productivity. It can get soul-killing fast. And living without meaning is perhaps the worst fate an HSP can imagine.
- Seek out new tasks at work. Learning is almost always meaningful and engaging, even if it's for work. That's why the first few months at a job are often the most satisfying. If work has become meaningless, look for new or different tasks you can take on—even if it's in addition to your normal work.
- Do meaningful things on your own time. It's possible that your passion won't easily align with a job, but you can find the meaning you crave by pursuing it after work and on weekends. (This worked for me and led to a career writing!)
- Shop your resume regularly. Sure, that sounds like it's about money, but every time you brush up your resume, you get to look at the big picture of what you've accomplished. You put in words all the ways you've contributed to the bigger picture of quality, productivity, or profit. That often helps create a sense of meaning and pride—and ultimately, it may also help you land a better job.
- Focus on people. For HSPs, people are the brightest thing on their radar. If you can form meaningful connections with coworkers, that often provides a very deep, very human sense of meaning—even in the dullest job.
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