Stress management for Highly Sensitive People

Posted by | May 11, 2016 | How to be awesome at your job, Work tips

Stress management for Highly Sensitive People blog header

Do you wish you could withdraw to a blanket-fort?

Do you fantasize about switching an open-plan office for a cubicle-oasis of bliss?

Do you feel like work-related criticism or bright lights seems to effect you more than your colleagues?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you may be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Seriously, this is a real term in psychology.  Luckily for HSPs, there are techniques out there to help us manage stress and work better. Read on!

Where did the concept of HSP come from?

HSP is a concept coined by clinical psychologist and author Elaine Aron to describe people who demonstrate above average levels of sensitivity. Aron suggests that our HSP brains actually work differently from non-HSPs.

Unsure whether you fit the HSP criteria? Take Aron’s online self-test.

Okay, so what about HSPs at work?

First off, let’s get right down to the nail-bitten quick: being highly sensitive can make work challenging, but it also means we have superpowers. Despite all the negative slant on being ‘sensitive’, HSPs exhibit positive traits such as higher capacity for empathy, focus, creativity, intensity and appreciation of beauty. Who knew?

And being highly sensitive is not an abnormality: 15-20% of all people are HSPs.  It’s a normal trait. Feeling liberated yet?

Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive PersonIn Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person, Barrie Jaeger explores the challenges and successes HSPs may experience at work. Jaeger describes how our increased sensitivity to stimuli in work environments (such as bright lights, noise, interpersonal conflict and criticism) can lead to over-stimulation and overwhelm. According to Jaeger, sustained over-stimulation can result in long-term loss of vitality, fatigue, depression and/or burnout.


The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Surivive and Thrive When the World Overwhelms YouAs the self-crowned HSP representative for Do Good Jobs, I’ve collated three easy tips for better stress management at work taken from The Highly Sensitive Person and Making Work Work. Perfect to read whilst crying in the bathroom…


Tip #1: Stay out of ‘drudgery’

‘Drudgery’ is the point where you do your work grudgingly, a lot of menial tasks, repetition, without any sense of accomplishment, and fear of getting stuck to the job forever – Barrie Jaeger


According to Jaeger, HSPs often choose to work entry-level jobs or jobs that they are vastly over-qualified for. She suggests three reasons why.

  • Firstly, we assume that waitressing or data entry will not be overly stressful and therefore we will not feel overwhelmed.
  • Secondly, we assume that after work, we’ll have the time and head-space to work on our real passion.
  • Thirdly, we assume that working in role that is ‘just a job’ or ‘just a pay cheque’ will be easy – other people seem to do it, so surely we can too?

Jaeger disagrees.  Her research indicates that HSPs are overwhelmed and miserable in roles that largely consist of menial and repetitive tasks. Faced with reality, HSPs discover that jobs like waitressing and data-entry are skilled, stressful and under-appreciated.

Because HSPs care about doing a “good job”, even if we don’t care about the job itself, we take criticism and lack of positive feedback to heart. Jaeger suggests that HSPs need to find meaning in our work: it must not conflict with our values.

Jaeger says HSPs need to get out of drudgery work as soon as we can, and stay out. She suggests that working in drudgery can contribute hugely to mental distress and chronic illnesses for HSPs.


Tip #2: Be aware of your sensitivity

Keeping calm is not about controlling external conditions. It’s about being aware of what overwhelms us and how close we are to being upset. The more diligent we are in self-care, the better manager we’ll be and the less controlling – Barrie Jaeger


HSP’s often feel like there’s something “wrong” with us. Because of this perceived “wrongness”, we often pretend we’re fine, or just keep on going, despite being miserable and overwhelmed. This makes things even worse.

Instead, Jaeger suggests that HSPs accept our limitations and become aware of what overwhelms us. Instead of pretending we’re ‘fine’ and hoping, wildly, that we will somehow become ‘normal’, awareness allows us to develop appropriate strategies to stop crossing the line into complete overwhelm.

For example, being aware may lead you to discover that it is your colleague Margaret’s constant talking that leaves you irritable, teary and unable to focus on your work. Once you are aware, you may start to compassionately put appropriate boundaries in place, by compassionately letting Margaret know you need quiet to focus. Or, if this is too challenging, you could ensure you take your daily lunch break alone, away from the office, and take frequent breaks.

If noticing stress-points is difficult for you, Jaeger suggests keeping a work-log of the hours worked, tasks, and emotional state. That way, it will be possible to reflect back on what may have contributed to overwhelm.

Tip #3: Be open about your sensitivity

The process of being visible means accepting yourself. If you don’t believe that anything about yourself is good and valuable, you cannot give that level of quality to others. To give, you must believe you are of quality. It means being more true to yourself, and trusting your instincts, judgment, gifts, and self-worth. Barrie Jaeger


This can be a huge ask. For those of us who have gone through life trying to hide our sensitivity, the idea of being open about it at work can be horrifying.

But, being open about being a HSP doesn’t have to mean saying “Kia ora, I’m Harold, I’m highly sensitive,” at the start of a job interview. Being open can means accepting the good side of the coin with the bad: openly acknowledging the positive traits and managing our limitations.

This could mean saying no to lunch with your colleagues and sitting in a park by yourself with your sandwich. This could mean requesting new office lighting because fluorescent lights drive you crazy. This could mean allowing your creativity and empathy to show more at work.

Remember, being visible means you choose to provide others with quality information about yourself. You can give them as little or as much as you want, at your own pace, and in your own time. – Barrie Jaeger

While admittedly veering close to the line into ‘self-help’ territory, Making Work Work is an interesting and worthwhile read for highly sensitive people who want to make their work the best it can be.

By Liz Willoughby-Martin

Like this post? You might also like  Type that personality: how Myers-Briggs helps you work better and Escape the daily grind: take a radical sabbatical


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.