Highly Sensitive People in the Workplace


A Note from the HR Hammer: This week's guest post comes from Kelly O'Laughlin. Kelly has a podcast, blog and book about what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). I first heard her on KPBS last year and soon after became a fan of her work. I was especially intrigued by her discussion of what it means to be an HSP in the workplace and found that her observations resonated with my own experiences. I asked Kelly to share some of her insights about HSPs in the workplace for those of us who are HSPs or who work with HSPs. Buy her book or check out her website for more great material.

By Kelly O’Laughlin

Do bright lights, loud sounds, and certain odors really—I mean, really—bother you? Are you jumpy and easily overstimulated and overwhelmed? Do you have a great deal of empathy for other people or creatures? If you are like me, and are biologically wired to be sensitive to your environment, then little things may tend to bother you more than most. You might be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

HSPs represent about a fifth of the population, equally across genders. HSPs process sensory data more thoroughly and deeply due to biological differences in their nervous system.

HSPs think about things deeply. We analyze information thoroughly and dread making wrong decisions. We become overwhelmed easily by all the stimulation and information around us. We are incessantly bothered when our physical environment is uncomfortable. We are empathic to the feelings of others. We are startled by noises easily. We are often strongly affected by caffeine as well as violent TV shows and movies. We can be moved deeply by music, art, and nature. (Take the HSP self test here.)

Being highly sensitive doesn’t mean you are emotionally unstable or weak. While there are challenges to having the trait, there are benefits, too. Let’s look at some of the benefits of being highly sensitive in the workplace. HSPs tend to be:

  • Loyal and dedicated
  • Independent workers who need little supervision
  • Able to deeply process and think about problems
  • Great listeners
  • Detail-oriented
  • Organized
  • Fair
  • Sensitive to the needs and emotions of people around them

However, as an introverted HSP, I found working in a professional office environment difficult. I worked in an office for around ten years, with most of that time either in a cubicle or in a big room with other people, and I hated it. So many things played a part in bothering and distracting me in the professional environment. Some were obvious energy sucks (like traffic while driving to work) but other things contributed only a tiny piece to making me feel awful–usually without me even realizing it.

In this rant-y blog post, I wrote about all the battles I had in cubicle life. I had issues with bright lights, uncomfortable chairs and desk furniture, sitting next to a stinky office kitchen, noise distractions, and feeling watched.

I often say that the best job for an introverted, Highly Sensitive Person is self-employment. You can control every aspect of your environment; you have the freedom to work when you want, where you want.

For HSPs who are interested in working for themselves, there are lots of options. You can do a “virtual” or remote version of whatever work you do now. Or you could do freelance writing, graphic design, or web design, create an online store and sell other people’s products, manufacture and sell your own new product, write ebooks, create online courses and paid seminars, or be a voiceover artist, career/life/fitness coach, or affiliate marketer. I know people who do every one of these things, so it is possible.

But it’s not easy. Many self-employed people will tell you they work longer hours than they did when they were in the corporate world. There are many challenges: staying focused, getting clients, and being able to turn off the “work” part of your brain and transition back into regular life.

But for those you who do not want to (or can’t) work for yourself, what are your options? Well, for introverted HSPs, I would recommend avoiding office jobs that:

  • Include a lot of confrontation
  • Deal with people non-stop (unless you are an extrovert)
  • Are “risky”
  • Are strictly measured / timed / controlled
  • Are cutthroat or competitive
  • Take place in a loud, hectic environment
  • Consist of primarily collaborative group work versus individual work
  • Are only about making money (and don’t jibe with your principles or interests.)

I once tried to make a list of specific jobs that seemed well-tailored to HSPs, but got massive feedback both agreeing and disagreeing with almost every job I suggested. The reality is that there isn’t a set list of jobs that you will love or hate as an HSP. It depends on a myriad of factors: your boss, co-workers, company culture, commute, workspace and more. One librarian may love his job and another may hate it. One graphic designer may have a private office and love being able to express her creative side, while another can’t stand his boss and hates sitting in a cubicle. So much depends on factors outside of the specific job itself.

Making money isn’t the most important thing to an HSP–it’s being fulfilled and happy in your job. A job that makes you miserable will affect your entire life negatively, mentally and physically, from morning to night. Invest in yourself and find a career that makes you happy.

I still think that working for yourself is the best option, but if you can’t make that happen, find a job that improves your quality of life. Making money isn’t the most important thing to an HSP–it’s being fulfilled and happy in your job. A job that makes you miserable will affect your entire life negatively, mentally and physically, from morning to night. Invest in yourself and find a career that makes you happy.

Finally, here are some tips for HSPs to better cope in the workplace:

  • Don’t tell anyone you work with (especially your boss) that you are a Highly Sensitive Person. They may not understand it and mistakenly think less of you. It’s unfortunate, but true.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk to HR if bright lights or your office chair are bothering you, or if your desk is too high or too low—environmental things like that. You might feel like you are being high-maintenance, but HR people deal with this all the time. You are not the first person to ask for adjustment in your workplace. Your physical and mental health are important. My friend would complain about back pain from his work chair and refused to talk to HR about it. He even had acupuncture, massage, doctor appointments, and took up yoga due to the pain, but wouldn’t address the problem—the chair. I finally convinced him, and they ended up buying him an ergonomic chair.
  • If you do talk to HR, try to think from their perspective. They want their employees to be healthy and productive. Minimize discussion of your feelings and keep your requests about increasing your productivity, reducing work distractions, and health.
  • Invest in your own ergonomic gadgets if you need to. I bought an expensive ergonomic mouse and keyboard that I used in corporate offices and now use at home.
  • Use headphones if you’re easily distracted by noise around you. Listen to white noise if music is also distracting.
  • Ask your boss about working remotely. I had a job where I worked from home three days a week and from the office two days a week. It was perfect.
  • Don’t beat yourself up about being different. Be as gentle with yourself as you would be to others. It might help to tell yourself that your nervous system is just more finely tuned than others.
  • Realize that you are NOT the only person who feels this way. At one job, HR installed an ugly shield over my cubicle to block some light (as per my request), and I felt embarrassed and conspicuous about all the comments I received. Amazingly, a few weeks later, two more people in the offices had these shields. I suddenly realized that lots of people share my struggles but stay silent. Then I felt a bit proud to be a trailblazer!