Well-balanced decision making, creative and empathetic; qualities every organisation is looking for in their co-workers. Do you know that there is a substantial amount of people in our society (20%) that already possess these qualities from birth? Yet aren’t able to thrive in the workplace and are prone to stress and burnout? Those 20% are the highly sensitive persons (HSP).

What is it that make these well qualified persons to become ill and burnout? How can we improve their working conditions so that teams and organisations can benefit from their innate qualities?

To answer these questions I conducted an international research. Over 5500 highly sensitive persons participated in my survey about HSP and Work (stress). Starting out in the Netherlands with 1500 participants, the survey soon found its way to HSPs all over the world in twenty different countries. It was even translated in seven other languages; Spanish (Karina Zegers de Beijl), Portuguese (Rosalira de Oliveira), Norwegian (Lian Kirksæther), Finnish (Finnish HSP association), Italian (Susanne De Munck Mortier) and Russian (Anastasia Dedyukhina).

The results were shocking.


Participants were asked to answer thirty questions about sensitivity, other traits, work environment, overwhelming situations and burnout. Ten countries had enough respondents to make statements about differences. The Netherlands (coördinated by initiator Esther Bergsma), Spain (coördinated by Karina Zegers de Beijl), Brasil (Rosalira de Oliveira), Norway (Lian Kirksæther), Finland (Finnish HSP association), Italy (Susanne De Munck Mortier), Russia (Anastasia Dedyukhina), USA (Jacquelyn Strickland), Sweden and Denmark (both coördinated by Ilse Sand).
Other participating countries included: Canada, Trinidad & Tobego, Iceland, Australia, UK, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Belgium.

Although we were able to analyse differences, we found that the trait of high sensitivity is experienced fairly the same  among HSPs in different countries. Work preferences look very much alike as well. There are minor differences, some of which could be explained by a country’s economic state. HSPs from countries with economic prosperity value meaningful work over career opportunities. Whereas HSPs from less prosperous countries have the same preferences: meaningful work is more important but career opportunities follow closely.

High sensitivity seems to be experienced alike all over the world

All questionnaires were analysed on people being highly sensitive or not. Respondents who didn’t report depth of processing or emotional sensitivity were removed from the response group.

What is High Sensitivity?

High Sensitivity is an innate trait experienced by approximately 20% of the world population. The trait was studied by Dr. Elaine Aron. She gave it the scientific name of ‘Sensory Processing Sensitivity’.

Highly Sensitive People tend to be more aware of subtleties and process this information more deeply. Being HSP, you might be more aware of the noises, sounds and lights that are surrounding you. You may feel the emotions of the person next to you and you could react to these emotions more intensely than others. This subtle information, that others might not even notice, is processed on a deeper level. Research of the highly sensitive brain (done by Bianca Acevedo and Elaine Aron and colleagues) show that more parts in the brain are active compared to brains of non-HSPs. This implies that the highly sensitive brain is highly connective. Making it possible for different brain functions to interact.

From these studies we have learned that HSPs tend to stop and check in novel situations: they need time to process the information before reacting. Additionally they are aware of their own position compared to the other person on many levels. And align their actions to the interests of all persons involved. I call this optimal-option-ambition.

Why is it so important to know about the trait in the workplace?

In a society where spontaneity and swift decision making is elevated to a top priority, the talents of highly sensitive people are undervalued. Wise, well-informed and well-balanced decision making is what you can expect from a HSP. Who wouldn’t want to have co-workers like these? But decision-making in this way takes time. And, costs a lot of energy. That’s the reason why not every person has this kind of deep processing.

Biologist Wolf states that in the animal kingdom the more careful approach to novel situations is existential to 20% of any species. Under 20% would mean that in groups not many animals would survive during dangerous situations. However, if more than 20% of the animals are cautious they might die of starvation – not being daring enough to discover new food.

I believe the talents of an HSP are just as important to our society as the talents of the more brave and fast 80%. In fact, I’m convinced we keep each other balanced. But this balance is in danger. The Highly Sensitive Person can’t play their part. The work environment is taking its toll.

The balance is in danger


One of the most shocking results from my research is the amount of people that experienced burnout. In general in the Netherlands 15% of all employees have or had experienced one. My research showed that amongst Dutch HSPs that number is 57%. More than half! Internationally this number is even higher.

75% of HSPs reported to have (had) a burnout

From all 5500 HSPs who participated in our research, 75% stated they have (had) experienced burnout. This is self-reported and possibly there are discrepancies in what is considered to be burnout. But none-the-less: these are shocking results. Three of every four HSPs have felt burnout at some point in their life. This high percentage is a sign that HSPs have difficulties performing well in the current work environment.

Our research gives a wonderful insight in the causes, effects, the personal struggles with work stress and the preferences for a better work environment.

I think the findings will help HSPs understand themselves better, making it possible to reach their potential. Managers can use the findings to create a workplace in which HSPs will be able to give their best. It’s such a shame we are wasting talents, while there is such an easy way to prevent that.

The second blog is about Imbalance. Why HSP often get burn outs.
The third blogs dives into overwhelming situations. Why do HSP get overwhelmed? What situations are the most overwhelming to HSP?
The fourth shows the effects of being overwhelmed. Including the reasons employers definitely want to prevent this.
What does help HSP? In this last blog I write about what the 5500 HSP said they need most to perform. Isn’t not money that makes them tick. What HSP need most is appreciation.

You can read more about the highly sensitive brain in this blog.

Drs. Esther Bergsma (1972) is author, scientific researcher and expert on High Sensitivity. She conducted this international research to gain awareness on the trait of High Sensitivity both amongst HSP and coworkers and managers. Hoogsensitief.NL is initiated by Esther to create a place for HSP to meet, learn and share.

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