Helping Highly Sensitive Persons Navigate the Work Environment and Thrive

By Tiffany Greene

Developed by psychologist Elaine Aron in 1996, the term “highly sensitive person” (HSP) describes sensory processing sensitivity that is present in an estimated 15-20% of the population (Aron, 2020).  Although this sensitivity can provide challenges for HSPs in the workplace and job search, it also offers advantages. For example, HSPs tend to be diplomatic, intuitive, and creative and have strong listening skills and attention to detail (Fuller, 2023). Conversely, HSPs can experience analysis paralysis, a tendency to burnout due to hypervigilance, and such high levels of empathy and compassion for others that they may feel as if they are going through the experience themselves. Because of the loyalty HSPs show others, they may not know how or when to enforce healthy boundaries.

Career practitioners can play a meaningful role in helping HSP clients capitalize on their gifts and talents to thrive at work. They can also encourage an exploration of careers that best accommodate an HSP’s sensory processing when in the work world to maximize the opportunity for individual development. Working together to hone the appropriate sensory balance at work is of immense service to HSP clients.

Traits of HSPs

While the research on high sensitivity as a form of neurodivergence is growing, current studies show that HSP characteristics are rooted in sensory stimuli that may go unnoticed by the rest of the population. This sets HSPs apart in how they experience their environments, emotions, and situations in work and life (Parker, 2022).

There are four key markers of the trait, as differentiated by Aron’s research (Aron, 2020), that form the acronym “DOES”:

  1. Depth of Processing: HSPs have a strong desire to understand, analyze, and bring reflection to their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. As such, they study themselves and their environment, ask detailed and thoughtful questions, and take longer to make decisions. They are more likely to catch and prevent mistakes.
  2. Overarousability: HSPs notice more in their environment and get easily overwhelmed. Certain situations may overstimulate and lead to feeling distracted, anxious, or fatigued. All five senses are vulnerable to this overarousal state.
  3. Emotional Sensitivity and Strong Empathy: HSPs connect to the pain of others. They may feel the pain as if they were experiencing the situation themselves. However, too much attachment to others’ feelings can be harmful and negatively impact boundaries.
  4. Sensory Sensitivity: This can range from noticing aesthetic details in the environment that others miss, to detecting subtle stimuli that may warn of danger. HSPs are often primed to keep themselves and others safe, but hyper-vigilance is counterproductive.

To help in the identification of an HSP, Aron created a self-test. The Highly Sensitive Persons Scale is available online (adapted) and in the author’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person (Aron, 2020).

Sensory processing sensitivity is not considered a disorder, and its overarousability is distinct from clinical anxiety, which can interfere with daily living. Over the last decade, researchers have made breakthroughs in identifying the psychological, physiological, and genetic components of this sensitivity, and new studies are underway (Pluess, 2021).

How HSPs See Themselves and Their Environment

HSPs sense that they are more attuned and responsive to the world around them. As such, they often feel different, misunderstood, or lack confidence in their interpretation of events and situations.

HSPs bring a strong level of consciousness and conscientiousness to their work. They routinely turn over solutions and ideas, and they care about the experience as well as the outcome. HSPs are less likely to view things in black and white. They do well in creative spaces, and tend to be strong problem solvers.

When it comes to finding clarity around meaningful, fulfilling work, it is imperative that HSPs consider the mental, emotional, environmental, and physical influences. A thorough analysis of each of these areas allows for an alignment to the tasks, functions, and roles that are well suited for the HSP.

Helping HSPs Leverage their Traits to Thrive at Work

Here are some ways that career practitioners can champion their HSP clients in their career exploration and job search to facilitate a sense of purpose and professional growth in the workplace, inspired in part by Aron’s book chapter Thriving at Work (Aron, 2020).

  • Encourage alignment with organizational and leadership culture. Regular, transparent, and empathic communication between the HSP and their manager is essential to develop trust. Practitioners can help HSPs explore their values and priorities in relation to emotional and environmental influences at work, so they can express ideas openly and have productive one-on-one conversations.

Maximize the environment; minimize stimuli. Frequent interruptions, uncontrolled noise, fluorescent lights, and strong odors can be challenging for the HSP. Solutions for reducing stimuli in the workplace include installing sound barriers, wearing headsets, and establishing scent-free policies. Opportunities to work remotely or in a hybrid environment also can keep distractions manageable. Practitioners can help HSPs identify positions, companies, and industries that allow a flexible work setting. They also can coach the client on strategies to request such workplace solutions with their managers, while identifying assumptions or limiting beliefs that might hold the client back. They can help clients identify specific aspects of the request and collaborate on the best time and method to approach the conversation. For example, this may involve giving the manager advance notice of the topic so both of them can expect a focused dialogue.

Prioritize autonomy. Careers that allow for choice in how tasks are completed are best for HSPs, who do not like to be micromanaged. Close supervision threatens the space and time necessary to think deeply. Many HSPs thrive in self-employment for this reason, an option that can be discussed during career exploration (Aron, 2020).

Career practitioners can be powerful thought partners in exploring the HSP’s motivations, skills, and interests that indicate a desire for entrepreneurship, consulting work, or starting a business. Assessments, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Energy Leadership™ Index Assessment, DiSC, Enneagram, and CliftonStrengths, may further clarify the traits that align with starting a business. Career profiles on the Department of Labor’s O*NET website may also be useful in identifying the soft skills needed for certain roles associated with consulting.

Istock 1332793115 Credit Andreypopov

  • Encourage consistent communication. Because HSPs usually take longer to make sense of their environments, they may benefit from connecting with transparent leaders and regular dialogue around performance, instead of an annual review. Practitioners can guide the HSP client on how to ask for regular feedback, which increases communication and maximizes the relationship while minimizing the element of surprise.
  • Evaluate burnout and boundaries. HSPs can become consumed in a task, project, or idea. They burn out more easily because of the energy expended in thoughts/emotions. Practitioners can help clients create and implement healthy boundaries, ranging from the hours they work, to how they advocate for themselves. Guide the client in developing a career that fits with their life, instead of trying to manage a life that suits their career.
  • Be aware of the potential for other medical conditions. An HSP may have co-existing conditions that require ADA accommodations. They may be more prone to illness, given the mind-body connection. Practitioners can help the client identify reasonable work accommodations beneficial for their career and wellbeing, and can coach them on the best approaches for requesting accommodations from the employer. Practitioners can also refer to NCDA online resources at www.ncda.org for clients with disabilities (NCDA, 2023).


Clients who are highly sensitive may inspire new and creative tools, methods, and dialogues for career practitioners because of the depth in which they experience their rich inner worlds. Practitioners can help HSPs honor their traits and find the best strategies for deploying them at work and in their career development, so they can thrive.



Aron, E. N. (2020). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you, 25th Anniversary Edition. Citadel Press. (Original work published 1996).

Aron, E. N. (1996). Are you highly sensitive? The Highly Sensitive Person.  https://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/

Fuller, H. (2023, May). Serving the highly sensitive person: Considerations for career service providers. Career Convergence. https://ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/506346/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false

NCDA. (2023). Internet sites for career planning, special populations: Clients with disabilities. https://ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sp/resources

Parker, E. (2022, October 24). Am I a highly sensitive person – Or do I have anxiety? Sensitive Refuge. https://highlysensitiverefuge.com/am-i-a-highly-sensitive-person-or-do-i-have-anxiety/

Pluess, M. (2021, November 26). Here’s everything researchers know about high sensitivity, as of 2021. Sensitive Refuge. https://highlysensitiverefuge.com/heres-everything-researchers-know-about-high-sensitivity-as-of-2021/



Tiffany GreeneTiffany Greene is a career and leadership coach with 25 years of corporate HR experience. As a former HR vice president, she guided organizations to operational excellence in recruiting and selection, compensation and benefits, and professional development. Today, Tiffany helps clients navigate the thoughts and feelings arising from career transitions by exploring awareness around mindset and conscious choices. Using compassionate and intuitive coaching, she partners with clients to find clarity and connection in their work, leading to greater confidence, professional purpose, and true growth and progress. Tiffany is an Associate Certified Coach with the International Coaching Federation. She is also certified in the Energy Leadership Index TM Assessment. She can be reached at tiffany@greenecareercoach.com and at linkedin.com/in/greenecareercoach/

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Marcela Mesa, Psychologist and GCDF, CEO Orientarte LLC   on Thursday 10/05/2023 at 09:37 PM

I loved the various tools you mentioned in your article, I followed up and found them very useful. This is a very relevant and practical topic for my career development practice. Congrats on your article!

Cynthia Lowman, MSCHRD, GCDF   on Wednesday 11/29/2023 at 11:19 AM

I really learned a lot from this article, and I am interested in learning more about the assessments you listed.

Tiffany Greene, ACC, CPC   on Tuesday 12/05/2023 at 08:28 PM

Cynthia, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or my website (in the above section of my bio) and I would be happy to direct you to additional resources.

Marcela, Thank you so much! I appreciate that.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.