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When you start out in a new job for most of us it is with an unbridled enthusiasm. A desire to contribute to something, to show others all the things you know, a yearning to learn something new. For highly sensitive persons it is exactly the same. We jump in and give it all we’ve got. But we bring something more to the table, something quite valuable for teams and organisations. A sensitivity to other person’s needs, a knack for spotting every detail and yet being aware of the overarching goals. Unfortunately these qualities could turn into our biggest downfall. And as such create an imbalance which leads us to stress and eventually burnout.

Imbalance

According to Maslach (1998) burnout is a state of emotional exhaustion, combined with depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment.  Nowadays physical and cognitive exhaustion is included in the definition.

There are different views on what causes burnout.

  1. The Job-Demands-Resources Model (Bakker, Demerouti, Schaufeli, 1999) states that the imbalance between job demands and the available resources contributes to a burnout
  2. The Effort-Reward-Imbalance model (Siegrist, 1996) assumes that people need to feel that their effort is in balance with the reward they receive. This reward might be financial but could also be immaterial. As long as people feel that their effort is rewarded they stay healthy.
  3. The Effort-Recovery theory (Meijman, 1989) says that every effort should be followed by recovery. Effort on effort produces chronical stress and this may lead to burnout.

It seems that imbalance plays a big part. Either in means, in appreciation or in activity.

The results from our international survey can’t say anything about causality. It’s not possible to state that a specific situation caused a burnout. What we can tell you is what HSP say about their work and about the way they feel. Let’s look at some of these statements.

Appreciation

If you could name one characteristic of a HSP it would be their big heart. They see injustice, they step in and do something about it. A colleague drowning in their work? They stay and help out. Presentations that lack sufficient details or sources: HSP are sure to point them out or even do the extra work to obtain the missing information. They’re dead honest, dedicated and loyal.

Being empathetic is a beautiful thing but the extra time HSPs put in isn’t always noticed by others.

I feel like I give more than I receive (from my employer)” is recognized by 62% of the HSP.

“I feel I deliver more work than others notice”, says 58% of the 5500 HSP.

Perhaps the employer only rewards the work he notices and is unaware of all the extra work done. This is a well-known problem to many HSP workers: how to get their contribution noticed. But let’s not forget that it’s not just the output and revenue that makes a great team or company. Collaboration, harmony and a good atmosphere are all indispensable for a team to excel.

Another explanation may be that HSP find it difficult to claim their success and let colleagues take credit for the work. This could be the case since 51% say they find it difficult to stand up for themselves. On top of that 15% is being bullied at work.

“I started out really motivated to make a difference, but I got disappointed” is true for 60%.

In this case the imbalance has already led to disappointment. And disappointment can lead to emotional exhaustion, one of the main characteristics of burnout.

Activity versus rest

Gerstenberg (2012) asked HSP and non-HSP to find hidden symbols in a picture. HSPs were better in this task: they detected the symbols more quickly and were more accurate. However, they did experience more stress after the task.

Because HSP process information more deeply, a task will induce more stress for them. When looking from the point of view from the Effort-Recovery Theory, HSPs should take more breaks. They need to relax and lower their stress hormones before taking up a new task. However, their sense of responsibility makes them work even harder than others.

Taking breaks and sufficient rest is very important for highly sensitive people. In my survey they said that this was a problem for them.

53% said “I don’t take timely breaks”, 57% “I don’t take enough brakes / time off”.

Some even developed a dangerous coping style. 23% said “When I am tired, I just work harder”. Which is a way to ignore feelings of fatigue. Paradoxical; when you are working hard, you will feel better. But that’s just the adrenalin kicking in. The stress hormones make it possible to perform even when you’re tired. Chronic stress depletes your energy. Then, one day, you can’t do anything anymore and the burnout may seem like a big surprise. But is it really?

Overstimulation

Knowing now about imbalance and burnout, the vital question is: what makes the balance tip for an HSP? Is it lack of appreciation? A heavy workload without sufficient breaks? Or does their personal situation play a part?

In our survey almost all respondents ticked more than one box.  Lack of support at home seemed less important (only for one third of the response group). Also personality played a significant role for half of our respondents. But the most important cause for creating imbalance and therefor burnout was feeling overwhelmed at work.

Highly sensitive persons sense the subtleties in their environment. This can be a  great asset, for instance in picking up people’s needs. Especially when you work in health care, education or when working with clients in general. You can also use it to calculate risks or to spot inadequacies in plans and calculations. But how do you make sure that your co-workers are able to sense the subtleties they need and not get overwhelmed by all the other details that are not important?

In my  next blog I will write about which situations overwhelm 20% of the employees.