Workplace Wellbeing

Sensitivity Is a Superpower in the Workplace. Here are 11 Strategies to Help HSP Employees Shine.

Highly sensitive employees have so much to give in the workplace. But when their unique needs aren’t supported, many become exhausted, burnt out, unhappy, and struggle to perform at their highest potential.

Written by
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Bianca Elliott
Clinically reviewed by
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Lisa Lewis, LMFT, LPCC
Spring Health Provider
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    It took me until my 30s to realize I was a highly sensitive person (HSP), but as soon as I did, things began to click for me. I learned that my sensitivity is a gift, and I’m at my best whenever I embrace it—especially in leadership positions. 

    Like many HSPs, I often heard I was “too sensitive” growing up. I was so tuned into the world around me, from the subtlest sounds to the faintest change in facial expressions or tone of voice. Because I felt like that wasn’t “normal,” I learned to feel most comfortable on my own or around people I knew accepted me for who I was.

    My first leadership position was at a small tech startup, where I was pushed into roles that weren’t authentic to my gentle nature. Led by a charismatic, high-octane founder, I was pushed to stand on tables to get my team’s attention, high-five strangers at conferences, and socialize with my colleagues regularly after work. 

    Being young, inexperienced, and not wanting to rock the boat, I did what was asked of me. To get through the discomfort, I found myself drinking a lot, which was a big part of our company culture anyway. 

    This way of being and working was a stark contrast to my previous role before I started with the company. I had thrived as a writer and editor who worked virtually. Because I set my schedule and controlled my environment, I was more focused and had a lot more energy to put into my work. And I was so much happier. 

    What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

    HSPs make up about 30% of the world’s population. That’s one in five people in the workforce, yet many leaders have never heard of this personality trait. 

    Unless a leader is an HSP or knows someone who is, they likely don’t understand their personality traits or their unique needs. As a result, many HSPs go through their workdays feeling highly misunderstood and unsupported.

    Highly sensitive employees have much to give in the workplace, and their strengths can shine when their unique needs are supported. But when they’re not, many become exhausted, burnt out, unhappy, and struggle to perform at their highest potential. 

    Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, first identified the HSP trait in the mid-90s. It’s a term she defined based on four key characteristics, summarized by using the acronym D.O.E.S.:

    • Depth of Processing: HSPs process information more deeply and thoughtfully.
    • Overstimulation: HSPs are more easily overwhelmed by busy or noisy environments.
    • Emotional Reactivity & Empathy: HSPs tend to have stronger emotional reactions and show higher empathy levels than the general population. 
    • Sensitivity to Subtleties: HSPs notice subtle details that others might miss. 

    Common HSP personality traits 

    An HSP may not always be recognizable on the outside, especially since many have learned to act against their nature—just as I had learned to do in my first leadership role. While some common HSP personality traits exist, how individuals react outwardly to their sensitivity can vary. 

    “They can be overly emotional, get overstimulated, get quiet, and withdraw and isolate,” Lisa explains. “They may not feel included in a group and may hang toward the background. They may have sensory sensitivity to all five senses and come across as needy and highly misunderstood by others.”

    HSPs may also require more downtime and self-care to manage overstimulation and prevent burnout. 

    The environments HSPs grow up in and spend time in as adults—including their workplaces—can make it easier or more challenging for them to thrive. 

    Recognizing HSPs in the Workplace 

    The most obvious HSP trait is that they need time alone, so they may tend to withdraw. They may prefer to work alone in a quiet space rather than an open space because “they’ll either get distracted or overstimulated and then they shut down,” Lisa explains. 

    In offices where I didn’t have enough quiet—especially in open-concept ones—I’d often endure the expected 9-5 at my desk, then go home to complete my deliverables in the evening when I could think and focus. Those were some of the most burnt-out years of my life.

    Here are additional challenges that many HSP employees face at work:

    • Need for Downtime: HSPs need more quiet time to recharge, so they may seek solitary spaces to work and might prefer to take breaks alone.
    • Overwhelmed by Busy Environments: HSPs can get overwhelmed by busy, noisy, or chaotic environments.
    • Avoidance of Highly Stimulating Situations: HSPs might shy away from situations with intense sensory inputs, like loud team events or bright lights.
    • Difficulty Making Decisions: HSPs prefer to thoughtfully consider their options and potential consequences, which can slow down decision-making. 
    • Overthinking: Because HSPs are prone to overthinking, Lisa said they tend to wonder, “Am I doing enough? Do I need to do it better? Am I contributing enough?” 
    • Sensitive to Feedback: HSPs can be sensitive to criticism and take negative feedback to heart. 
    • Prone to Flooding: HSPs tend to have a lower threshold for stimulation and a heightened reaction response. Being prone to mental and emotional flooding means small things can trigger an emotional response, and big things can be quite overwhelming. 
    • Increased risk of depression and anxiety: HSPs are more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety than general populations.  
    • More Sensitive to Stress. Because HSPs are often on high alert, they are more prone to exhaustion and chronic stress, which can lead to a host of health conditions. 

    The unique strengths of HSP employees

    The thoughtful disposition HSPs bring to the workplace is hugely valuable. HSPs are good at seeing the big picture and paying attention to finer details, making them excellent at strategic planning, execution, and clear communication. Their inherent empathy also supports them in cultivating a supportive and understanding work environment. These traits make them excellent leaders who are tuned into the needs of their teams.

    HSPs also tend to be good at holding space for adversity. “Especially if people have opposing viewpoints, HSPs can hold those two different viewpoints and bridge that conflict,” says Lisa.  

    HSPs are often very dedicated to their work and may go above and beyond their expected deliverables, making them highly valuable employees. However, they can be taken advantage of in the wrong environments, leading to resentment or even driving them to quit.

    In work environments that value their unique strengths and respect their sensitivity, HSPs can greatly enrich and contribute to the organization.

    These are some of the greatest strengths of HSP employees:

    • Deep thinkers: HSPs tend to be reflective and contemplative, allowing them to offer insightful and thoughtful contributions to discussions.
    • Highly empathetic: HSPs tend to be highly attuned to the moods and feelings of others. They’re also good mediators because they can see the other side. According to Lisa, about 50% of people in therapy are HSPs, and a majority of therapists are HSPs—whether they know it or not.
    • Deep conversationalists: You can forget the small talk with HSPs—they prefer conversation with depth and often show interest in the personal well-being of their colleagues.
    • Detail-oriented: HSPs notice little things that others might miss. This can include spelling errors, changes in client preferences, or subtle shifts in team dynamics.
    • Highly conscientious: HSPs often exhibit high conscientiousness—on top of noticing details, they tend to be thorough and on top of deadlines.
    • Creative and innovative: HSPs have rich inner lives that can fuel creativity and innovation, making them excellent problem solvers. They’re also motivating leaders and coworkers.
    • Great listeners: By actively listening to their colleagues, HSPs understand their ideas, perspectives, and concerns, leading to more inclusive decision-making and a feeling of being valued within the team.

    Strategies for supporting HSPs at work

    Leaders have a significant opportunity to harness the unique strengths of highly sensitive employees. While remote or flexible working arrangements might not be feasible in every workplace, you can make many other thoughtful adjustments to enhance the well-being and productivity of your HSP employees. 

    1. Consider hybrid or remote work. Give people the option to work from home. This gives HSPs the chance to focus and get their best work done.
    2. Let people wear headphones. Let employees know it’s okay to wear headphones and create a norm around not disturbing people when their headphones are on. 
    3. Give people the option to keep their cameras off. “Turning the screen off gives HSPs permission to relax,” Lisa shares. “They don't have to focus on how they look on screen, what everybody else is doing, or how others are showing up.”
    4. Designate quiet spaces. Creating a quiet space in your office with low lighting, comfortable seating, and nature-inspired decor offers people a spot to recharge.
    5. Provide social recharge time. If certain workdays require a lot of social interaction, it can be helpful to proactively offer HSPs quiet time. If they have social work in the afternoon, consider letting them work from home in the morning.
    6. Create a mindful culture. Foster a mindful workplace by encouraging regular check-ins about behaviors that affect the team. Set guidelines around music volume to ensure a comfortable environment for everyone.
    7. Give them time to process. While some people process out loud, HSPs tend to speak after careful consideration. In meetings where opinions are actively shared, HSPs may need more time to formulate their input and may even miss the opportunity to contribute. To help, leaders can share agendas in advance, build in more time at the end of the meeting, or plan for short processing breaks. 
    8. Provide longer deadlines. HSPs often require more time to complete tasks than others. Lisa suggests, “Leaders may need to extend deadlines or share timelines much sooner so HSPs can plan their ideas and contribution.”
    9. Acknowledge them. Recognizing and celebrating HSPs in the workplace is crucial for their sense of belonging and motivation.
    10. Give gentle feedback: Since HSPs are often sensitive to criticism, balance feedback with positive reinforcement and deliver critiques in a soft, constructive manner. 
    11. Ask them what they need. Ask your HSP employees directly what support or adjustments would help them do their best work. 

    The entire organization can benefit when your HSP employees feel appreciated and supported. 

    As Lisa puts it, “If one shows up in your workspace, be very thankful. HSPs are a gift. Once you understand that, you’ll want more of these people because they take things to heart. They’ll show up in a way others won’t, and they’ll go the extra mile because they care.”

    Bust four common myths about your introverted employees and learn what People leaders can do to level the playing field so both introverts and extroverts can shine.

    About the Author
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    Bianca Elliott

    As a Reiki Master and holistic life coach, Bianca works with individuals to connect with their inner wisdom to reach optimal performance and wellbeing. She is a seasoned brand strategist who has been helping companies connect with their core essence and authentic narrative for over 16 years.

    About the clinical reviewer
    photo authr
    Lisa Lewis, LMFT, LPCC
    Spring Health Provider

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