HSP Topics: Work and the Highly Sensitive Person, Part I

Updated on June 11, 2015
Denmarkguy profile image

Peter has written extensively about High Sensitivity since 1997, when he learned he was an HSP.

This article is part of an ongoing series about the joys and challenges of life as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). For more background information about HSPs please read The Highly Sensitive Person: An Introduction which also contains an index of all my HSP-related articles.

If you are not familiar with the HSP trait, or feel unsure whether or not you are an HSP, you might also want to take Dr. Elaine Aron's free self-test for sensitivity, which can be found on her web site.

HSPs and Work: Often an Uneasy Relationship

As a group of people, HSPs potentially struggle more with work than almost any other demographic I can think of. Why is this?

In western society, employment and "what we do for a living" is typically one of the least HSP-friendly activities we have to engage in. At the same time, it's among the most discussed and talked about in general society-- think about how many conversations are started with the words "So, what do YOU do?"

So, why does work tend to be difficult for HSPs? Most forms of employment tend to be highly competitive, often require putting in grueling hours, occasionally demand a cutthroat approach, frequently are "profit centric" rather than "human centric," and seldom offer any measure of long-term security. And yet? We all have to work-- unless we happen to be "trust fund babies," or are content to continue living with parents or family beyond our college years.

On a more specific level, work can be difficult for HSPs because many of us tend to be of an idealistic nature and want to feel like our work matters and truly makes a difference in the world, as well as to the people we work for and with. In most cases, such a philiosophy is not compatible with corporate cultures that-- ultimately-- primarily care about the continuous growth of their bottom lines.

Another challenge for HSPs in work contexts centers on dealing with the physical environment of many workplaces. Given that our senses are easily overstimulated, working-- for example-- in an office made up of hundreds of "cubicles" set up in huge rooms tend to cause overstimulation, as a result of which we are unable to offer our best performance. Noise, harsh lighting and a lack of privacy adds to the discomfort.

Finally, because an estimated 70-75% of HSPs are introverts, our personalities don't tend to be a good match for the majority of today's work environments, which are heavily focused on "group projects" and "collaborations." Whereas highly sensitive people are perfectly capable of getting along in groups, it's usually not the type of setting that will bring out our best work, and often one that leads to pervasive stress.

Idealism and Underemployment

As mentioned previously, many HSPs have idealistic natures. Not only would we prefer to do work that gives us a sense of purpose and value, we'd like to do work that contributes to the overall betterment of the world. Unlike many, HSPs are not easily able to labor at a mediocre job and adopt an attitude of "it's just work."

HSPs also tend to evaluate "success" and "good jobs" a little differently than the rest of the world. In the traditional sense, there may be many "well compensated" jobs in the marketplace, but HSPs are often concerned with things beyond monetary compensation; we're looking for "psychic income;" feeling appreciated, and like our efforts matter.

Alas, the type of creative meaningful work HSPs often find most attractive and interesting tends to be in short supply. Why? Because in our profit-driven capitalistic society the most plentiful (and often best paying) jobs-- and consequently the most profitable for employers-- are not often the ones that also are "best for humanity," or make people happy.

This may be redundant, BUT...

The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You
The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You

... if you have NOT read Elaine Aron's original book on being an HSP, you really owe it to yourself to do so! This book changed my life and my self-perception... as it has done for millions of other HSPs. Seriously... you should read this!


In her books about High Sensitivity, Dr. Elaine Aron mentions the issue that many HSPs tend to become "underemployed," meaning that they often end up in jobs that are "low ranked," in relation to their educational, intelligence and experience levels.

Usually this happens because HSPs are soft spoken and unassuming, and end up getting passed over for promotions and positions that typically are awarded to those employees with the best "song and dance routine," rather than strictly on performance and merit.

Underemployment can also be an issue because of the work environments HSPs favor: We may appreciate the quiet that comes with working as a Librarian, Park Ranger or Museum Archivist, but these are typically not well-paid positions.

The creative natures of most HSPs present their own unique challenges in this particular area. Many sensitive people are naturally drawn to professions like art, music or acting, which are typically in low paying industries... and whereas an HSP may find him- or herself in pleasant and fulfilling environments, there may be a new set of stresses-- namely the stresses of struggling financially.

How important IS work, for you?

One of the questions HSPs often end up having to answer is just how important work-- and happiness at work-- is to them.

A number of folks decide that they can live without their "true calling" at work; they can "make do" with a reasonable work situation, as long as they get to pour their energy into "calling-like" activities, when they are away from work-- maybe through volunteering for charitable causes, or the passionate pursuit of a creative hobby. This type of approach doesn't come easy in the modern workplace, especially for the HSP. Employers usually demand long hours of hard work, and given how HSPs become overstimulated when faced with stress and "too much on their plate," there's often not much left in their "tank," at the end of the day.

When you are an HSP, it's also important not to get trapped by the conventional philosophy that "success" means that you must keep working longer and harder to advance, and you must be part of the "machine" that eternally seeks to keep business growing and expanding. This is a central part of the Western "corporate greed culture" that tends to work very poorly for HSPs.

However, if you can not treat your work as "just a job," it becomes extremely important to take a long hard look at your work situation and decide whether or not it's time for a change of direction. And if it's important to you to be in a truly meaningful line of work and you're not? Don't wait too long-- remember, not being true to yourself can be bad for your mental, emotional and physical health!

Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person
Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person

Barrie Jaeger's 2005 book on HSPs and work remains the primary guide for HSPs seeking to find more meaning in their work lives. Whereas it is by no means an exhaustive guide on the topic, it is filled with many useful tips and insights-- as well as a few exercises to help you figure out where you ARE, and where you may wish to GO, with your work life.


Pausing for a Personal Evaluation: Where ARE You, at your Work?

In her book "Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person," Dr. Barrie Jaeger talks about three primary categories (or stages) of work, and how they impact our well-being.

She describes "drudgery," the form of work that's almost painful to be part of, and which sometimes makes us want to stay home, just so we don't have to deal with it. It makes us feel unappreciated, and even if we're well-paid, it leaves us with a strong dislike of what we're doing. Often we feel stuck and like "we don't have a choice" in these kinds of jobs. For HSPs, drudgery work can lead to chronic stress, depression and other health related issues.

"Craft" describes the kind of work where we can competently do our work, don't really mind going to work, and we may occasionally find meaning in what we're doing. Even if we are not using our education or training, we may be really good at what we do. However, it's not a perfect situation, and whereas there may be a few "brilliant moments," it's unlikely to leave us with any lasting sense of looking forward to going to work.

A "calling" is the perfect situation, as far as work for an HSP goes. When we are in our true calling, what we do doesn't even feel like work. We get compensated sufficiently to live and our work gives us a deep sense of well-being. We feel appreciated, valued and like our job is meaningful and contributes to the betterment of whatever cause we believe in... or the world in general. The vast majority of HSPs who work in their "calling" are self-employed.

Take a few moments to consider these three levels of work, and decide where you fit on the scale.

Sadly, HSPs often end up working in "drudgery" situations which leaves them feeling stressed, despondent and unfulfilled. The challenge lies in discovering our true "calling," and then finding ways to change your life to pursue it.

Changing Directions with your Work: It's not easy!

Sadly, it's often not until they reach "mid-life" that most HSPs take time to pause and question their work and careers. Many labor in unfulfilling jobs, striving to reach the societal ideal of "success," and then wondering-- when they get there-- why "success" doesn't actually feel very good.

Others have a strong sense that they want to do something "meaningful" and "different," but lack a plan or direction, so they end up skipping from one thing to another in an eternal "Job of the Month" cycle... learning what they don't want but never really developing a true sense of what they do want.

The "mid-life epiphany" many experience often revolves around questioning who exactly we're trying to impress. It's not always a pleasant realization to see that we've spent a quarter of our lives living up to other people's expectations, while failing to even acknowledge our own dreams, hopes and desires.

Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type
Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type

Highly recommended because it bases suggestions on individual personality types, rather than "one size fits all." Based on Jungian/Myers-Briggs typologies.


Setting out to identify your true calling-- and then finding ways to pursue it and make it your work life-- is not easy.

In fact, it can be very challenging, and outright scary at times, especially if your path leads you from a relatively safe but "colorless" job towards the path of self-employment.

My own journey of "reinventing myself" began in the early 1990s and continues to this day. It took me from the realization of just how truly miserable I was in my work-- although outwardly successful-- to identifying what I wanted to do, to gradually phasing out of a steady job and into my own contracting business, followed by years of fine tuning, to where I have landed today. There were many very lean times, and times when I thought I'd done the dumbest thing on earth... but I can with a clean conscience and 20 years of hindsight say that I have no regrets about turning my back on "conventional" work in order to carve out my own work path-- MY way.

The Prosperous Heart: Creating a Life of "Enough"
The Prosperous Heart: Creating a Life of "Enough"

From the author of the popular "Artists Way" books, this book is an invitation to examine prosperity (and success) as something aside from how much money you have in the bank. In general, Julia Cameron's approach is very well suited to HSPs.


More about the Highly Sensitive Person at Work

This article only "scratches the surface" of a very complex and often challenging aspect of HSP life. If work has been-- and continues to be-- a source of frustration and dissatisfaction for you, it may be time to "take inventory" of your life.

As you approach the process, remember that using "other people" as your basis for comparison is likely to be an exercise in frustration. You must focus on what will make YOU happy, and try to forget about "what makes PEOPLE happy," as a social generalization.

I do recommend any of the books listed here as starting points; especially "Making Work Work" by Barrie Jaeger. If you are serious about "changing directions," consider starting a special journal with work ideas. Dream big! Journal to "design your perfect job." I found this very helpful, when I started the process of "reinventing myself," a couple of decades ago.

After examining your life and what truly matters to you-- work wise-- you may decide that self-employment is the way to go. Not all HSPs are good candidates for self-employment, but an above-average number of us do take that route because we simply cannot find ways for the mainstream to work for us.

This article is only the first of several others I have written (and more to come) on the topic of HSPs and work-- stay tuned!

Help spread awareness of the HSP Trait!

If you enjoyed this article, and/or found it useful... please consider sharing it to your Facebook timeline, twitter, blog or other social media. The more people in the world are aware of high sensitivity, the better off we all are. Share via the buttons at left, or at the top right of the page. Thank you!

Talk back! As an HSP, what has been your experience with work? Have you found your calling? Please leave a comment!

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Shari Dyer 2 years ago

      Hi Peter,

      I was lucky. I've been an x-ray tech (5 years), an Aikido instructor (27 years) and a video producer. All have been fulfilling.

    • profile image

      Sybilin 2 years ago

      Hi, and thank you so much for your article. I also found the one about hypersensitive people and friendship so accurate...

      For years, I struggled in various office jobs where I never felt confortable, finding it hard to fit-in even though I was competent. Often based in open space offices, I couldn't stand the surrounding noise and lights, and found the in-politic dynamics exhausting and depressing.

      I have since managed to operate a life-changing shift and am about to start anew as a naturopath ; even though I fear a bit being self-employed, I feel that this is the right path for me, and since I discovered that I was hypersensitive while studying naturopathy, I intend to do my end-of-studies' memoire on naturopathy for hypersensitive people who care for others one way or another.. (therapists, teachers etc..)

    • Sandi Marie profile image

      Sandi Marie 3 years ago

      To Jaydene,

      I am going through what you are experiencing. I feel the same, I just wanted to let you know you're not alone.

    • kjoy82 profile image

      kjoy82 3 years ago

      Thank you for your article! I found my calling... painting on canvas! I had a good job painting crafts for a local artist. I loved it... worked 14 years at that job. I worked at home and only had to see "people" once a week to drop off my work. It was awesome... I just sat down to paint something on canvas for myself only, to see if I could do it. I was in a gallery 1 year later!!!!

      Alas.... my boss married an unemployed man... and could not afford to keep us both.... she let me go....

      I had to sell my sanctuary, could not afford it anymore. Had to work 3 sometimes 4 part time jobs just to squeak by and survive. I moved to Indiana from S.C. BIG MISTAKE! For a better chance of finding one job instead of 3. My life no longer belongs to me.... I can no longer paint, too exhausted from work. No painting.... no life...

      I now HAVE to be around people almost 24/7 .... work 55 hours or more a week. Bosses that only think about money not their employees. No painting anymore, I do not feel that creative spark anymore.....

      I miss my old life, hate the city and the smell of car exhaust. Cannot stand the cold, ice and dirty snow.

      By reading your article... I now know that I am not going crazy.... thank you!

      I will not give up.... I will get my dream back.....

    • profile image

      crusader77 4 years ago

      Thanks for this series...I've been struggling with these very issues for the 7 years I've been with my current employer. On the up side, I work for an educational nonprofit with a great mission. On the down side, the more competitive types who are managing the organization have frozen the rest of us out of the best and most meaningful roles, so we are consigned to low paid, humdrum administrative and clerical tasks. I've had time to sort through various outside options, but the main conclusion I've come to is that the things I am most interested in do not come with any occupational structure attached. One would have to be invented. I am definitely not the independent, entrepreneurial type- I respond best with a structure already in place. I will definitely take a look at some of the recommended reading for a possible direction. Thanks again!

    • sassytuts profile image

      Anshuman 4 years ago from Kolkata

      Underemployment is a curse which causes even more worries. Experience has to be gathered over time in work .

      The idea is cool a bout work ethics3and communications play an important role in that. Further it is best to have a work plan.

    • profile image

      idaeliho12 4 years ago

      Hi, I am quite new to this Hub business, but want to express my thanks to you for writing about the challenges of being HSP. I have known most of my adult life that I had a number of interpersonal issues. My mother used to describe me as a nervous fullblood horse but a series of not so healthy work situations for a total of 27 years as an academic health professional have sent me soul searching for an explanation of why I react as I do. I have known for 5 years that I am ENFP (Myers Briggs) and for a year that I am also HSP. I would really appreciate if anyone could write about the challenges of being extraverted HSP. My youngest daughter is 12 and has the same traits and I would like to giver maximal support. Thanks very much!

    • profile image

      Petra v B 4 years ago

      This was very recognizable and spot on indeed. I did found my calling, at least I think so, but it's incredibly hard to handle two jobs, a drudgy one for income and a really great one but hard to make it fulltime (as a freelance illustrator). Especially because the first one is also picky about people having interest in the job. Sometimes I wish I could be fully open and clear with them but I just have to fake that I like working there for the sake of income. I hope that in 1 to 2 years I can live from my freelance income. Until then it's a big fight. I think most HSP people are also one of the most persisting and devoted people in the world, because they have to to survive.

    • jaydene profile image

      jaydene 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      So glad to find this article, I am currently," stuck in a wedge" it feels. I am daunted and overwhelmed by what to do for money. Being an Hsp, I am now often scared, anxious, and feeling trapped because I really haven't the skills for the corporate world, and none of the degrees or certification. This plagues me daily, I want to get away from a small disability , to an income that is enough I can live on. The fear of being in the wrong environment with the wrong people has me frozen right now. I have brainstormed for months on what i could do. It seems to come down to two choices, a) invest thousands in school, or b) invest thousands in a business. It is very nerve wracking. I see an employment counselor next week, and I suspect that 90 percent of the conversation will be based on what I already know.

      So I remain , frustrated and skeptical. I wondered if anyone has had similar problems.

    • Esmeowl12 profile image

      Cindy A. Johnson 5 years ago from Sevierville, TN

      Very interesting. From this hub I learned that I do not have this personality trait. Thanks for enlightening me.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 5 years ago from California, United States of America

      Everything you said is spot on, vlbrown. Money is the only thing that keeps some of us trapped; and I also can't understand those who can tolerate the drudgery, the abuse, etc.

      Definitely keeping best wishes for you and for anything you decide to do.

    • Denmarkguy profile image

      Peter Messerschmidt 5 years ago from Port Townsend

      vlbrown, thanks for the comment and feedback.

      Ultimately, yes, we need money. We all do. I've experienced "being without," both living in my car and on a park bench (at different times), and it's not pleasant.

      I also did contract work for a number of years. The nice thing about it (at least for me) was the fact that contracts tend to be "finite." You go in there, do something, get out. Dealing with "hell" is a little easier when you KNOW it's only for 30 days, or whatever... and you'll be well compensated. Even so, I can appreciate your apprehension-- and I wish you all the best with your "gig!"

      Sometimes the whole "create your own reality" dialogue gets bogged down in New Age mumbo-jumbo which may be inspiring and optimistic... but not very helpful. The fulfilling work IS out there, but sometimes WE have to create it. And a lot of times we get mired down because we lack the skills to TRULY "think outside the box." It reminds me of the smarta$$ back in college who responded to a visiting lecturer on creative careers "Yeah, but what if you're only good at sleeping?" The lecturer didn't miss a beat... "Then you go work as a mattress tester, or work in a dream lab."

      The scope of "real jobs" out there is SO much greater than what we're familiar with. The TRICK is knowing where to find the right information.

    • Denmarkguy profile image

      Peter Messerschmidt 5 years ago from Port Townsend

      Jacquelyn, thanks for commenting, and for the book recommendation-- another to add to my "books to read" list.

      Sometimes is does work to remove "what we DON'T want" and then check what's left behind-- I've done that, myself, on a number of occasions.

    • Denmarkguy profile image

      Peter Messerschmidt 5 years ago from Port Townsend

      Phyll, thanks for the kind words! Work is such a HUGE issue for HSPs, and there are so many angles to be explored. I am trying to take a balanced approach, since SO much of what I've read on this topic is "long on ideas, but short on practical advice." Some people just need exercises and plans to follow, more than mantras and positive thinking...

      I appreciate the book recommendation and will definitely add Gratzon's book to my ever-growing "to read" list.

    • profile image

      vlbrown 5 years ago

      re: there's absolutely NO reason to work at ANYTHING unless it gives you purpose, meaning, fulfillment and enjoyment.

      Sadly, there is one reason. Income. Income buys food, housing, medical insurance.

      It's always "interesting" for me when I meet (in person or online) people who are the opposite of HSP, who are INsensitive to the drudgery, the hierarchy, the Command & Control management styles, the noise & distraction, the incessant blather, the psychological stress of the workplace. Some of them will literally take _any_ job because "I need to feed my family".

      HSPs have it harder. We also feel the need to feed out families, and ourselves, but we need to feed our spirits too and we react badly (physically and mentally) to the stress of the workplace. It's a fine tightrope to walk.

      I've been unemployed for 9 months now. Everything about that (other than the loss of income) has been delightful and low stress. (I'm collecting Unemployment benefits of slightly better than minimum wage, so even the income isn't totally gone.)

      Yesterday I received an offer for a 90-day "contract" position with option to continue if it works out. I've said yes. But, as you might presume, I'm of two minds about it. The job sounds like a good match for my interests, but it's 8 hours/day out of the house, a 45-minute one-way commute. Cubicles. People.

      Send me your positive wishes everyone!

    • profile image

      Jacquelyn 5 years ago

      Great article Peter ... another great resource I'd suggest is: The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People by Carol Eikeberry ...

      My own career journey was always led by my deep sense of intuition -- it didn't lead me directly to what I am doing now....but it always led me to what I knew I DIDN'T want .... thus many contractual jobs along the way ... plus "testing the waters" for where I was being led.... It is definitely a journey .... one that is worth pursuing....

      With gratitude for all you do for the HSP community Peter,



    • pepstar27 profile image

      pepstar27 5 years ago

      SO TRUE! Thank you, Peter, for hitting the nail on the head in this very important topic: work. Your article is "spot-on" with regard to HSP's and our challenges with the work-place as we know it. Another book I'd like to recommend (and author and thinker) is Fred Gratzon's excellent book about work or, shall I say, the perils of it: "The Lazy Way to Success". Fred is totally

      against "work" as we know it, that is, the drudgery, long hours, tedium, boredom, hierarchies, minutia, lack of meaning, purpose, and "fun!" He slams work, right from the get-go, saying there's absolutely NO reason to work at ANYTHING unless it gives you purpose, meaning, fulfillment and enjoyment. As an HSP, I couldn't agree more! Thank you for raising this topic, Peter, I look forward to hearing more from you and other HSP's on this challenging and controversial topic/issue.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 5 years ago from California, United States of America

      I know what you're talking about, and that's why it became more difficult for me to have a bad job; there is a contradiction, a conflict, a division with the rest of life. As far as I'm concerned, life must be whole, there cannot be contradiction; the contradiction corrupts the whole. I look forward to your next Hub on this subject.

    • Denmarkguy profile image

      Peter Messerschmidt 5 years ago from Port Townsend

      Nate & Andrew, thanks for your comments and feedback!

      One of the things I learned about work and being an HSP is how our lives tend to be more of a "whole" than the rest of the world (this will be part of a future article). Many people seem able to "compartmentalize" their work life and deal with a bad job as "just work," especially if it pays well... and they get their happiness elsewhere.

      HSPs have more of a "work is part of life, and life is part of work" approach... so if work sucks, life pretty much sucks by extension. This makes the work issue very complex... because it's not enough to merely have "work that supports our life," we have to choose a "life that supports our ideal work." It's hard to explain this dynamic in a comment... but suffice it to say that sometimes you have to reorganize your LIFE, in order to reorganize your work.

    • profile image

      Andrew R /UK 5 years ago

      Great article. Thanks for distilling my dilemmas with work over the past 30 years!! Finding the right personal recipe for work can take several attempts in my experience, and........enjoying cooking is SO different from running a restaurant so to speak, but sometimes one just has to try things out and if it doesn't work out. Better than never having tried at all... and that's why I'm offering Coaching, to help people by providing a space to really explore things and park their inner critic.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 5 years ago from California, United States of America

      When reading this excellent piece, I felt like you described exactly my experience at work. Thank you for bringing this issue to light. It is a very neglected subject, wish someone had talked to me about it years ago. I'd be so dragged down by work, knowing something was wrong inside and out, it eventually caused many problems for me. I was always good at what I did, but I'd mess it up eventually because I knew I had to get out. Such work is damaging to those who are highly sensitive (and everyone else, too, I think). It is true, the main task is to explore and find out what it is you truly want to do; if you want to do it, you just will, without the stress and coercion of the typical job. Thanks, again. Enjoying this series very much.