Empowered and prepared: a guide for highly sensitive people starting a new job

Feb 01, 2023

5 mins

Empowered and prepared: a guide for highly sensitive people starting a new job

In the fast-paced and often stressful environment of the workplace, it’s common to feel overwhelmed and emotional at times. Whether you’ve received some particularly harsh feedback, have to deal with an overly-critical boss, or endure a less-than-stellar performance review, sometimes our jobs can leave us with some emotional bruising. But what if these moments of sensitivity don’t just disappear after a day or two? What if they persist and even escalate into a full-blown spiral or even a physiological reaction?

If this sounds familiar, you may be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). HSPs are individuals who have a unique and innate trait of heightened sensory awareness, leading to greater emotional and physiological reactivity. This can be both a blessing and a challenge in the workplace, especially when starting a new job. To gain insights and advice on how HSPs can thrive in their careers, we spoke with Jackie Dowling, a highly sensitive therapist, coach, and educator specializing in trauma-informed therapy, coaching, and education for highly sensitive people.

What is a highly sensitive person and how do you identify if someone is highly sensitive?

The term Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) was popularized by therapist, researcher, writer, and teacher Elaine Aron, Ph.D., in her book ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’ in 1996. She followed this up with ‘The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook,’ ‘The Highly Sensitive Person in Love’, and ‘The Highly Sensitive Child’.

An HSP has high levels of sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS), meaning they process external sensory stimuli and information more strongly and deeply than non-HSPs. High sensitivity is an inborn trait that makes up approximately 20% of the human population and affects both men and women equally.

To describe a highly sensitive person, Aron uses the acronym DOES. “The D is for Depth of Processing, O for Overarousability, E for Emotional intensity, and S for Sensory sensitivity,” Dowling explains. Each letter represents specific traits and behaviors that an HSP may experience, which Dowling dives into with these explanations:

  • Depth of processing may look like taking extra time before making a decision and deeply processing the outcomes or reflecting—more than others—on the way the world is going and the meaning of life. It also relates to being very conscientious, thoughtful, and empathic.
  • Overarousability may look like needing way more downtime to recharge because that extra processing requires a lot of brain power and emotional engagement, causing fatigue.
  • Emotional intensity may look like experiencing emotional highs and lows on a deeper level than non-HSPs, like being moved to tears by a beautiful piece of music or hearing about a tragedy.
  • Sensory sensitivity may look like noticing subtleties in the surrounding environment, including low tolerance for high levels of sensory input like bright lights, sounds, and smells.

While life as an HSP does pose some challenges (as well as comes with many strengths, which we explore later on), Dowling notes that having high sensitivity is not a disorder. “It’s also not to be confused with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, although they may appear similar in a state of overwhelm,” she says.

Challenges in the workplace as a highly sensitive person

The modern, fast-paced workplace can be a taxing environment for the HSP. Because they need to process things more deeply than a non-HSP, making quick decisions can be difficult. “[HSPs] like to think through things and assess all possible outcomes so that they make the right decision. Because of this depth of processing, taking in a bunch of new information can be overstimulating and cause fatigue,” says Dowling.

“Being observed or watched or put on the spot is a nightmare for most HSPs, and being rushed on an exam, for example, is extra stressful for a highly sensitive person,” she explains. “With such high levels of conscientiousness, we can put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Being in overly stimulating environments—bright fluorescent lights, loud environments with no privacy—can feel very challenging as a highly sensitive person.”

The advantages of being a highly sensitive person

Despite facing setbacks at work, there are many benefits an HSP can leverage that will help them be successful in their careers. “HSPs tend to be extremely conscientious, thoughtful, and empathic. They have excellent people skills, and are the emotional leaders in relationships,” Dowling says. “They can usually walk into a room and notice what needs to happen to make things better and are usually the first people to spot when something feels off. They love to do meaningful work and many are working in the helping professions because of their excellent people skills.”

And that tendency to process things deeply despite the need for quick decisions? Having an HSP on your team could be just what the business needs. “Because HSPs process things so deeply, they have usually thought of a decision from every possible angle and factored in things that others may have missed,” Dowling points out.

How to prepare for a new job as a highly sensitive person

Starting a new job as an HSP can seem overwhelming and daunting, due to the amount of new information they’ll be required to process in their first weeks and months on the job. To combat this and help you set yourself up for success on your first day, there are proactive ways to ensure a comfortable and calm entry into an unfamiliar environment or a new role. The first step is to recognize the trait within yourself and adapt your life accordingly. If you’ve identified yourself as an HSP, here are some tips and best practices Dowling suggests to give yourself an advantage.

  • Be prepared. Ask for a detailed job description to get as much clarity as possible ahead of time goes a long way, and try getting up extra early before your first day so that you don’t feel rushed.

  • Find a mentor. Talking to someone who has/had a similar job so you can mentally prepare ahead of time would be extremely helpful. Or, connect with someone who could mentor you for the first few weeks on the job.

  • Stay present. Having some mindfulness meditations to listen to on a lunch break can help regulate your nervous system, which may feel a bit ramped up during the beginning stages of the job. Taking a few moments to close your eyes in private when you feel overwhelmed can go a long way, as can moving your body throughout the day to shake off any nerves.

  • Go easy on yourself. Try to relax and remember, especially in the beginning, that you’re learning something new!

Words of encouragement for a highly sensitive person in the workplace

Dowling acknowledges that work can be difficult for highly sensitive people as most job environments are not designed with them in mind. Open office settings, with bright lights, loud noises, under constant observation can make it especially hard to focus as a highly sensitive person,” she notes.

“The key to thriving in a world that isn’t built for highly sensitive people is to design our life around this beautiful trait instead of trying to ‘toughen up.’ Get clear on what you value most and try to find a job that aligns with these values, ideally in a quiet setting, and the sky is the limit.”

To thrive in the workplace, it’s important for HSPs to understand their sensitivities and take proactive steps to manage them. This includes setting boundaries, finding supportive coworkers and bosses, and incorporating self-care practices into their daily routines. With the right tools and support, HSPs can find success and fulfillment in their careers while honoring their unique needs and strengths.

Check out more content related to Mental Health Awareness Month 2023 here.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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