5 Ways Highly Sensitive People Can Thrive at Work

How people greatly affected by tension, noise, or other sensations can use their unique abilities in the workplace. 

Rasha Accad

Career Coach, Korn Ferry Advance

In the workplace, it’s a personality trait that’s considered a challenge—and a gift. People who have it show a heightened awareness to information, sensory stimulation, or emotions. They are known as HSPs, or highly sensitive people.

Experts say HSPs make up as much as 20% of the population. The trait may be less discussed in inclusion and diversity trainings than other kinds of differences, but it can affect performance. “Even a moderate and familiar stimulation, like a day at work, can cause an HSP to need quiet by evening,” writes Elaine N. Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person

If you’re an HSP, here’s what experts suggest doing in order to thrive at work.

Educate yourself and raise self-awareness.

HSPs are typically their own harshest critics, labeling themselves “too sensitive” or “too slow to act.” The fast-paced corporate world can discourage an HSP and make them withdraw. If you identify as an HSP, take the time to journal and understand yourself better: what overwhelms you, what makes you close off, where you're not getting what you need. 

You might write that you’re affected when someone else is sad, or get flustered when someone asks you to do many things at the same time. All of that is okay. “Not judging these facets of your personality is the first step,” says Rasha Accad, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance and self-described HSP. “Then you can decide what to do about it.”

Set up your workspace to reduce stimulation. 

Interruptions, getting multiple requests at the same time, and constant talking can all trigger overstimulation in an HSP, leading them to shut down and withdraw. Because of this, you’ll probably want to avoid open workspaces where people eat at their desks, talk on the phone, and pop over to ask questions. All of this background stimulation will drain you and affect your productivity. Instead, try working from home, occupying an unused conference room, or going somewhere else, away from distractions.

Use your info-processing superpower. 

HSPs can grasp large masses of complex information because they’re more receptive to external input. Their brains are adept at correlating and structuring information. "When an HSP attends a meeting with many participants sharing different viewpoints on a topic, they will be able to quickly summarize what has been said, provide pros and cons for each suggestion, and suggest ways to move forward,” Accad says. 

But because HSPs reflect on things so deeply, they naturally take more time to process information. They often struggle to think on their feet. Take some of the pressure off by telling your boss you’re an internal processor and discussing the ways that plays out in meetings and group brainstorming sessions. Let them know that to get the best ideas and results from you, they’ll likely need to give you some time. 

Understand the advantages and pitfalls of empathy. 

HSPs will internalize the world and tend to take criticism to heart. Knowing this about yourself can help you get some distance from criticism and recognize that almost nothing is personal. But an HSP’s ability to pick up on other people’s emotions and needs can, for instance, help them perceive and mitigate indications of disapproval from a potential buyer who hasn’t even voiced them yet. 

“HSPs are excellent at building rapport, given their empathetic nature. Consider seeking out roles where you can engage in mediation, conflict resolution, coaching, leading people, or otherwise helping people understand different viewpoints,” Accad says. 

Ask for what you need

While it may be uncomfortable to ask for a different workspace, more time, or more breaks than everyone else, it’s important to have the courage to ask for what you need. Ignoring your needs will lead to burnout and resentment. Make sure your boss knows that the output and quality of your work will be better when you can work within your boundaries. And everyone will benefit when you speak up for yourself. When you keep the meeting on track and ensure that important decisions don’t get rushed, the results are better for the whole team.