How to deal with sensitivity in the workplace

Learn how to manage common workplace problems for highly sensitive people and help them to thrive

If you made it past the title and didn’t think to yourself, “What kind of fluff is this?” then perhaps you are either someone who works with sensitive people or you are a sensitive person.

The type of sensitivity that I am talking about is a personality type aptly identified as the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), coined by Elaine Aron, Ph.D., in her 1996 book “The Highly Sensitive Person.” Dr. Aron discovered after years of research that there is a minority of our population, 15-20 percent, that fall into this HSP personality type, which is proven to be an inherited trait. These people are primarily introverted (70 percent), but can also be extroverted (30 percent), and are equally male and female.

HSPs have a sensitive nervous system, so they absorb and process more information than average, and they reflect on it more deeply. This trait is often mistaken for introversion and emotionality. It can also be confused with depression or anxiety, weakness, unsociability and insecurity. However, HSPs are often highly capable, meticulous and aware people who are just more attuned to their environment and others’ feelings than most people.

According to Aron (1996) people who are intuitive yet conscientious and determined not to make mistakes ought to be treasured employees. But HSPs are less likely to fit into the business world when the metaphors for success are warfare, pioneering and expansion. In a workplace that glorifies strength and power, HSPs may assume their sensitivity is a weakness or personal failing. However, managers consistently rate people with higher sensitivity as the best performers in their organizations.

Common workplace problems for the HSP

Altercations, disagreements or dysfunction in the workplace cause HSPs a lot of anxiety. Anxiety can be interpreted as being easily irritated by co-workers.

A working environment with excess sounds, lights or continuous interpersonal interaction can overexcite a highly sensitive person. They will quickly feel exhausted.

When receiving feedback the HSP’s emotions can run wild. Common experiences could be a sense of defeat when given constructive criticism or your attention to detail can slip into perfectionism.

HSPs are able to anticipate any need that comes up in the work environment. Sometimes this can cause them to take on the responsibilities of others. They don’t do it just to please others. Rather, they just know it needs to be done. They can become burnt out.

How to manage HSPs

When managing HSPs it can be tempting to try to help an HSP on your team overcome their sensitivity. However, this makes them feel ashamed, rejected, inadequate and increasingly stressed, despite your good intentions. We have to embrace both parts of the HSP as it is an inherited trait.

Ask your HSP team member what overwhelms or stresses them. Try to problem solve with them, rather than dismissing their concerns. HSPs care about their work and can be sensitive to criticism, so offer them positive feedback as well as negative. They may also take on too much, leading to burn out; encourage workplace boundaries.

Many HSPs are also introverts, which mean that they do their best work alone. Allow HSP team members to work on their own, wherever possible. HSPs are highly aware of their environment; they tend to feel uncomfortable and perform poorly when you observe them working, micromanage them or put them on the spot. They may also perceive reminders or “checking in” as a lack of trust.

Offer your HSP team member a calm working environment, wherever possible. This could be a quiet part of the office or a conference room, or you could allow them to work from home, if appropriate. They may also appreciate quiet time first thing in the morning to prepare for the day. Many HSPs manage overstimulation by preparing or developing routines, plans and strategies for upcoming events. While you can’t always prevent sudden schedule changes, try to give your HSP team member as much notice as possible before meetings or activities.

Strategies for HSPs

Communicate. If you are an HSP, whether you’re leading a team, motivating your colleagues or providing a sounding board for others, your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others is a gift for communication that can help your workplace run smoothly and make your career blossom. You have a rare ability to take people’s feelings into account and think through different parts of complex decisions. You also thrive in and contribute to supportive, collaborative atmospheres. Use your gifts of assembling input and analysis, and then consider gathering others’ opinions as you bring your teammates into the fold for the final call.

You are attuned to those tiny details others may have missed. You’re the one who spots something that doesn’t quite add up before your company hires a new candidate or who sees the perfect place to move funds around when it’s time for budgets cuts. Make sure you speak up. Your intuitive nature lets you tap into your creativity. As a creative person, you’re in tune with your inner world and this can lead to breakthroughs, original solutions to problems and a sense of clarity most of your coworkers don’t get to experience.

Most HSPs don’t fare well when caught off guard in meetings or presentations. The best antidote is preparation. Try to anticipate questions and think through your best responses ahead of time while keeping in mind you don’t want to become rigid and unable to respond if something unexpected should occur.

Jolene Feeney, LMHC, CDP, is the owner of Mindful Wellness Counseling, PLLC, in Vancouver. She can reached at