Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person
Book Review by Rachel A. Klein
Jaeger, Barrie., Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person. McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Over the years, I've referenced Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person more than any other book in my professional library. This is because it offers a unique threefold value: It serves as an excellent tool for working with sensitive clients suffering from work-related stress, as a manual for any client wishing to improve their morale, and as a perennial reminder that counselors, as service professionals, can also find personal value in Jaeger's thoughtful advice.
The book begins with a primer on the subject of Highly Sensitive People or "HSPs." While Jaeger offers a lengthy description of the qualities shared by HSPs, they are perhaps most effectively summed up early on in chapter one: "The HSP is like a gallon bucket holding two gallons of water." Essentially, an HSP is somebody who is very receptive to external information and therefore more vulnerable to stress and burnout than your average employee, and their tendency to be quiet and reserved makes them an attractive target for workplace bullies. They are also often highly gifted, creative, and idealistic. The subsequent chapters take us on a journey beginning with a description of the kind of soul-smothering work that is particularly catastrophic for HSPs (Drudgery) and through a liberal dose of HSP anecdotes, quizzes, and checklists, the reader is prompted on a path towards work with integrity. This step-by-step process is of great use to career practitioners who are hoping to usher a particularly despondent, economy-wary client population into meaningful work by calculated degrees, rather than by dramatic leaps.
The overall concepts covered in the book easily apply to the general population, though some suggestions are more pertinent to HSPs, such as defending personal boundaries and freeing oneself from the clutches of workplace bullies. These resources are also extremely helpful for all career counselors to have in their tool belts. While each of the ten chapters offers useful tools and insights, I've found the following chapters particularly useful in my work with clients.
Chapter 2: The Worst Kind of Work: Drudgery
Many of our clients are besieged with human drama sufficient to fill every theater on Broadway. How often have we heard about bosses with a flair for inflating the trivial, and Machiavellian colleagues who consistently manage to escape reproach? They are usually part of the cast of workplace characters. Yet it's the work itself that usually headlines the play: Dull, unrelenting and detached from intrinsic value, work can become a brutish companion.
Jaeger approaches this familiar topic by outlining some of the qualities of Drudgery work: Boring and unchallenging, performed in the absence of any meaningful appreciation with manifold restrictions on when and how it is to be accomplished. The list goes on. I have found this particular checklist to be a useful inventory for clients at risk of burnout and for those on the verge of an impending career change. Jaeger then outlines the many reasons why HSPs take these Drudgery jobs; for example, sticking with a simple job in hopes of avoiding overstimulation. Jaeger bids the reader to consider the actual cost of such choices in emotional stress and loss of morale. This chapter is a wonderful call to action, validating the experience of the underemployed and the generally "stuck" while presenting compelling arguments for moving forward.
Chapter 7: Being Visible as an HSP
While boss-bashing has been a popular workplace sport since time immemorial, the cumulative effect is often more damaging to the employee than their boss. While Jaeger never advocates salvaging a relationship with an emotionally predatory boss, she does champion the employee who sets about the task of changing their communication style in an effort to improve this relationship. She calls this approach "creating a reverent dialogue with the boss." This information is particularly timely during the current economic crisis, where employees are better poised to adapt to their current job than to jump ship. Jaeger presents specific phrasing that HSPs can use to address unrealistic workloads, deadlines, and how to say "no" without saying "no." These dialogues make wonderful material for mock discussions with clients who are trying to cope with overly demanding bosses.
Chapter 9: Psychic Income
What I find most useful in this chapter is the simple premise that work is most satisfying when it meets the holistic needs of the individual. The environmental conditions such as the commute, the lighting, and the office location can amplify other positive or negative work factors, such as one's co-workers and job tasks. And while actual income is critical, it must be weighed against these "psychic income" factors. While this holistic perspective on work is hardly revelatory, Jaeger's graphs on pages 198 and 199 comparing psychic income to monetary income make a useful tool for illustrating this concept to clients.
While the points listed above highlight a few key concepts, I encourage you to read this book in its entirety, as there are many more helpful insights and tools for working with uniquely sensitive clients. This book could easily be re-titled "Making Work Work (for anyone!)" as many of the anecdotes highlighting the varied experience of HSPs are thought provoking and relevant to every reader and a wide range of clients. While HSPs may experience a more deeply-felt discordance with Drudgery jobs, those who are more capable of "tuning out" stimulus aren't far behind. And in today's competitive and demanding job market, the resources in this book can help career counselors in a variety of settings to help our clients cope and adapt to the changing world-of-work.
Rachel Klein, M.S., N.C.C, DCC, is a career counselor at the University of California Berkeley. She also serves as a liaison to the campus Workability IV program. Her past counseling experience includes counseling and teaching at two California community colleges and distance counseling in the non-profit sector. In a former incarnation, she worked as a recruiter in the legal field. In 2007, she co-authored a career guide for the Princeton Review. Rachel is in the process of developing her private practice and enjoys interacting with other professionals in the field. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org