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There are many reasons why people choose a job and stay in it. For some it might be the obvious choice after graduating from school. They choose something that fits the education they just finished. Others want to broaden their horizon, so they might try out many different jobs or tasks. Another plausible reason might be money, or the nice car and other benefits that comes with a certain career. The corner office or the promise of traveling the world. There is something in all of these that may appeal to an HSP, but to be able to thrive in their career there has to be one major objective: their work has to make sense.

What works for you

We asked 5500 HSP worldwide what works and what doesn’t work for them in the workplace. In our previous blogs we shared some of the results. We saw that three out of four HSPs experienced a burnout and 40% gets overwhelmed at least once a day. We know that social situations are most overwhelming. They create an imbalance at a physical level but even more on a mental and emotional level. Many feel underappreciated doing their job.

We also know that HSP bring many positive qualities with them; a sense of responsibility, trustworthiness, strong intuition, open mindedness, empathy, caring, creative thinking, attention to detail combined with the ability to see the big picture.

So what is it that does or doesn’t work for them?

Working conditions

Let’s start with the working conditions that make it impossible for HSP to work. We gave our respondents the following list to choose from: bad atmosphere, open-plan office, continuous noise, no autonomy, emotionally exhausting work, mentally exhausting work, physically heavy work, complex work, meaningless work, routine work, too little to do, too much work, time pressure, little social interaction, unclear instructions, too many rules, job insecurity.

Continuous noise
One negative working condition was very obvious; continuous noise. For 55% of the respondents continuous noise like drilling, music or talking, makes it impossible for them to do their job. Although half of the respondents in every country we conducted this research mentions this, it’s not the main factor in every country.

In Russia, meaningless work is considered to be much more difficult to cope with (71%) than continuous noise (47%). In Italy and Brazil emotionally exhausting work is at the top of the list (60% vs 52%). And in Spain and the Netherlands bad atmosphere is the most impossible work aspect to deal with. Only 2% of the HSP are not bothered by continuous noise.

Meaningless work
Second on the list is meaningless work. For most HSPs it’s not the emotional, physical or mental exhaustion that’s causing problems. Feeling that what they are doing is meaningless is what’s really bothering them. HSP’s are not in it for their own gain, they want to make a contribution. About 50% finds meaningless work impossible to deal with. And as we saw above, it’s even more difficult for Russian HSPs.

Bad atmosphere
Third is bad atmosphere. We already learned that bad atmosphere is overwhelming to most HSPs (95%). Almost half (48%) find it even impossible to work in. The other half is bothered by it, but doesn’t experience bad atmosphere as impossible to work with. The negative interactions within the team affects them a lot. They don’t feel they can ignore it. Because of their excellent perception of emotional signals and their empathic talents, they automatically perceive the information.  Less than 1% isn’t bothered at all with bad atmosphere.

What does help HSP?

To understand which aspects contribute to optimal working conditions we gave our respondents the following list: pleasant atmosphere, quiet work space,  own office, clear job description, autonomy, challenging work, meaningful work, opportunity to use their creativity, lots of social interaction, little social interaction, being part of a team, variation, opportunity to use talents,  educational opportunities, career opportunities, flexible working hours, enough leisure time.

Pleasant atmosphere
On top of the list is a pleasant atmosphere. 64% of our respondents said it is necessary for them. Although felt worldwide, in some countries it isn’t the main aspect. In the USA meaningful work is more important (66%) than a pleasant atmosphere (56%). And in Finland enough leisure time (75% vs 63%).

Meaningful work
Second on the list is meaningful work. For 62% meaningful work is necessary to create optimal working conditions. Meaningful can mean lots of things. It could be work that has a societal impact. Because of their empathic nature and integrity they’d love to contribute to a better world. But moreover, work has to make sense. Nobody wants to spend hours in a board roam talking without reaching a decision. Or working hard on a project, only to see it disappear in the bottom drawer of a desk. But for an HSP it’s a pure waste of their time and effort. And even more, a reason to get disillusioned. Or even worse, burned out or the reason they quit their job all together. But give them something with a purpose; they go the extra mile. And more.

Enough leisure time
The third optimal working condition is enough leisure time (57%). This matches our findings about imbalance. HSP need more rest. Leisure time is a good way to keep their balance.

Seeing these results one could say that a different kind of work day would be better for HSP. Not working 9 to 5 and be present and seen by superiors, but instead more freedom. Making a real contribution and more flexibility in taking breaks. To be able to stay healthy so they can perform at their best.

Micro-breaks
Of course in some jobs it is difficult to take breaks whenever someone feels like it. As a teacher you can’t abandon your students in a class room. As a coach driver tied to a schedule you can’t pull over your bus. You can’t keep customers waiting for their order. But there might be another way to stay clear of feeling stressed. That is by taking micro-breaks.

What’s worth noting is that making a lot of money isn’t that important to most HSPs. Even so are career opportunities. Only 11% find it necessary for optimal working conditions. And 45% find it not important at all. For HSP in Brazil, Spain and Russia however it is a bit more important (42, 47 and 32% say it is necessary). But in these countries it isn’t mentioned in the top 5 of optimal working conditions.

What do HSP need from their management?

Again we provided a list with options to choose from: as much freedom as possible to do my job, clear instructions, provide inspiration, personal attention, compliments and appreciation, feeling understood, getting feedback, appropriate salary, high salary, clear rules, valuing team spirit,  correcting unacceptable behaviour of team members, flexible working hours, possibility to work from home.

Feeling understood
Feeling understood is what HSP’s most need from their manager said 84% of our respondents. The second need is flexible working hours (75%). This matches with the wish for more leisure time and the need to take a break when getting overwhelmed. Third mentioned is getting feedback (72%). The fourth is as much freedom as possible to do my job (71%) and the fifth clear instructions (70%).

Tell them What and give positive feedback

These results reflect the need for HSP to know they are doing it right. The highly sensitive brain is wired to check the social context. Brain areas (as showed by research by Bianca Acevedo) that are specialised in self-other-processing are activated more. HSPs want to know what management expects of them, and they want to receive feedback. At the same time they are very capable of doing their job. You don’t need to tell them How, just What. When you give HSP some leeway, you won’t be disappointed. In blog 4 we saw how trustworthy they are. And when asked, 81% says they’re good at their job. And 59% feels like they deliver more work than others notice.

What would the ideal cooperation with colleagues look like for HSP?

The same as with management, the most important thing for a HSP is feeling understood (82%). Which is closely followed by being there for each other (70%) and mutual trust (70%). Being able to speak your mind is also important to 70%.

Although HSP are great to have in your team, because they are hard workers and have an eye for the needs of others, they themselves prefer to work solitary. 43% says their ideal is to work alone on a task. And only 29% finds it ideal to work in a team to perform tasks. 9% would rather have no colleagues at all.
Regular team outings are only appreciated by 13%. So that’s not the best way to improve the atmosphere. And only 32% likes to take lunchbreaks with colleagues. The same amount even finds these overwhelming.

Conclusion

What HSP need most is the ability to make a real contribution and the freedom to work flexible hours to keep them balanced. Working in a bad atmosphere is very overwhelming to them and even makes it impossible to work at all. They prefer a work environment where they feel appreciated and understood. They do like to hang out with colleagues. But don’t force them and certainly not into a group. Instead let them choose who they want to spend time with and how. And you will have a perfectly happy, healthy and high-functioning co-worker.

You can read more about the research 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.