How Does a Highly Sensitive Person Survive the Hell of the American Workplace?
For those who are new to the term, "highly sensitive person," it was coined by psychologist and personality researcher Elaine Aron to describe a trait found in up to 20 percent of the population. People in this group react distinctly to their environments, both inner and outer. They tend to have a heightened awareness of emotions and respond more intensely to loud noises and other sensory stimuli. They also exhibit distinct patterns in the way they think and work. They are especially imaginative and have a tendency toward what Aron calls “deep processing” of information. HSPs tend to be conscientious, loyal, good at catching mistakes, and committed to high performance. (Take the online test to find out if you are an HSP.)
The good news is that HSPs are extremely valuable workers, contributing their intuition, wise counsel, conscientiousness, and creativity across a broad range of industries and professions. The bad new is that today’s typical office setup is completely at odds with their working and thinking styles. HSPs typically need quiet and calm, and do their best work when they can plunge into a task without interruption. They tend to be uncomfortable being watched and don’t like being drawn into office politics. They need downtime and they can become especially distracted if they are physically uncomfortable at work.
Unfortunately, in today's work environment, employees are expected to tolerate noise, be good at multi-tasking, enjoy meetings, excel in networking, tolerate long hours under florescent lights, and thrive working in teams that sit face to face much of the day. The International Management Facility Association estimates that 70 percent of American employees work in open-plan environments — what used to be called “bullpens.” These layouts are designed to maximize space, minimize cost and reduce or even eliminate private spaces or offices. Basically, it’s goodbye doors and walls. Hello cubicle and group workstation.
Research shows that open-plan offices carry a number of risks that cost both employers and employees, including more bickering and conflict, high blood pressure, stress, plummeting productivity, and high turnover. The noise alone is a huge challenge: As a Cornell University study has pointed out, noise is the number one complaint of office workers, and numerous researchers have shown that the sound levels in open-plan offices can reduce productivity by as much as 66 percent.
It doesn’t take much. Even a conversation at normal decibels is enough to short-circuit the attention. Many workers in open-plan offices feel surveilled, unsatisfied, unable to concentrate, and constantly distracted.
Undoubtedly there are some people who thrive and feel energized by open floorplans — lucky them! But many people find them difficult, and for HSPs, they are close to intolerable. The noise problem alone, which Aron calls the “bane of the HSP’s existence,” is often enough to seriously impact their performance. The stress of these office spaces, which combined with long hours and the need to be “on” and available outside of work hours, can create a state of constant overstimulation, as if their bodies and minds are set on a single fight-or-flight channel.
If 70 percent of people work in open floorplans, and one out of five of those people is an HSP, what you’ve got is a recipe for skyrocketing anxiety, productivity ground to a screeching halt, and a host of other problems that can be quite dangerous. Feeling helpless to change their office environment, HSPs with jangled nerves may find themselves heading to the psychiatrist’s office, seeking to alter their internal state, which, in the case of an innate trait that is likely genetically coded, can be a fool’s errand. Muscles tense and head pounding from over-arousal, some HSPs may reach for something — anything — that seems soothing, like a cocktail or prescription pain medication.
There are probably deep cultural roots in the expectations of American office behavior and performance so contrary to HSP needs. As Aron notes in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Western cultures tend to divide people into two classes, “the tough warriors and kings on the one hand and the more thoughtful, learned priests, judges, and royal advisors on the other.” HSPs, as you might guess, are overrepresented in the latter class, but American work culture tends to favor the first sort. Societies need a balance between these two types, and so do work communities, but this point is lost on employers who insist on a one-size-fits-all office environment that penalizes HSPs for their natural tendencies—and gifts.
A conflict with an employer over the work environment can be especially daunting for an HSP. Many are people-pleasers, and it can be a struggle to recognize, much less defend, their own needs. They may not like to ask for things, and when the larger culture’s prejudices enforce the notion that an employee should behave and work a certain way, it’s very difficult for HSPs not to see themselves as flawed when they don’t fit that mold. Ideas about how employees should operate also play into gender prejudices. Sensitivity is coded female in a negative way, so when a woman acts like an HSP, she is dismissed as typically female, or worse, hormonal. Men with the trait are seen as abnormal and “sissies.”
I’m an HSP, and I’ll never forget the awful day when a new manager at the organization where I was employed called me into his office to announce certain changes. I would be removed from the small office with a door where I did my writing and editing work. Our entire office would be turned into an open floorplan with rows of desks arranged without dividers to “facilitate teamwork and innovation.” That news hit me like a sock in the gut. I could imagine exactly how it would be: the sounds of phones ringing, constant interruptions, trying to blot out the cacophony with noise-canceling headphones. I had experienced this type of work environment before and I knew the result for me: blinding headaches, stress and declining performance.
Not only was this new manager completely set with his plan, dismissive of any objections, and uninterested in options like working from home or organizing the space differently, I could also see he was going to penalize me for not complying. Because I was a valuable employee with a high performance record, I was able to take the risk of fighting back. In the end, I took a gamble and I reminded this manager that he might have liability exposure if he forced me to work under conditions that would cause serious stress (don’t do this without consulting a lawyer!). Luckily for me, it worked. I got to keep my office, but the manager resented it deeply, so it was hardly an ideal outcome. If I had been lower on the totem pole in my office, I might have fared worse.
Now that I have more information about HSPs and have seen research on the negative impacts of open floorplans and cubicles, I make my case differently today. I try to avoid getting into an “I’m right, you’re wrong” kind of debate that will cause an employer to lose face if I am accommodated. I seek instead to present information that opens up as many possibilities and options as I can. I try to state my case in a way that is both self-assured and respectful. I aim to convey that I want to do excellent work for my employer, and seek to set up conditions that are mutually beneficial. Sometimes that means a trial period of working from home, a part-time contract, or a schedule that brings me to the office only at certain times. None of this is easy, and the process of getting the point across can be maddeningly slow and difficult. You really have to demonstrate top-notch work and extra commitment to the job. Sometimes you have to find a different employer or take the risk of being self-employed. When you have rent to pay and mouths to feed, such a dilemma can feel insurmountable. But when you think about the risks, you have to consider the impact on your health, and to your performance, which, if it declines, may well send you packing anyway.
If you’re not able to get out of the open floorplan for the entire day, see if you can negotiate a private space for a couple of dedicated hours a day. For another option, sound consultant Julian Treasure recommends wearing headphones with sounds like birdsong playing. That doesn’t work for me, as I find even the birdsong piped into my ears distracting. But it may help others. I can find some improvement wearing earplugs, although if the conversations and phones are too close, earplugs may not do the job. Plus, they can be uncomfortable for long periods of time, day after day.
To improve work life in America, we often focus our energies on things like raising the minimum wage. This is certainly important, but it’s not just the compensation for our work that matters. The quality and conditions of our workplaces allow us to thrive as human beings. The individual solutions will probably only go so far, and many of the cultural trends seem to be moving in the wrong direction for HSPs, which will end up hurting everyone. As Aron writes, “As the world becomes more difficult and stimulating, it is natural for the non-HSPs to thrive, at least at first. But they will not thrive long without us.”
There are signs of pushback. Lindsey Kaufman’s recent article in the Washington Post, “Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace,” was widely shared on social media. Kaufman, who works in the advertising industry, described her reaction to her boss’s announcement of an open floorplan in a way HSPs everywhere can relate to: “After nine years as a senior writer, I was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies.”
In a New Yorker piece from January 2014, Maria Konnikova gave a stinging indictment of the harm inflicted by open floorplans and their tendency to destroy the very things they have been touted to foster — teamwork and innovation, while promoting absenteeism and dissatisfaction. Her article surfaces research showing that the idea that younger people better tolerate open floorplan conditions is mostly bunk.
One thing is certain: our well being, both economically and socially, depends on an outcome in which at least one fifth of the American office population is not consigned to hell. HSPs of the world, unite!