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Jennifer Newman: How to deal with 'highly sensitive people' in the workplace

Some people may be easily overwhelmed or frazzled while on the job — but being highly sensitive at work it is not a “disorder,’ says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

Workplace psychologist says some workers can be easily overwhelmed — but it's not always a bad thing

Some people may become easily overwhelmed or frazzled while on the job — but being highly sensitive at work it is not a disorder, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Getty Images)

Some people can become easily overwhelmed or frazzled while on the job — but being highly sensitive at work it is not a disorder, says workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman.

Newman sat down with host Rick Cluff on The Early Edition to explain what issues can arise for those who are what she calls "highly sensitive people" and their colleagues, and explains how colleagues can better support each other instead.

Rick Cluff: First off, what is a highly sensitive worker and how can you tell you might be one?

Jennifer Newman: A highly sensitive worker is someone who experiences intense emotions. In psychology terms it's called "sensory processing sensitivity." And men and women are equally likely to be highly sensitive. These folks are greatly affected by what's going on around them, whether it's the lighting or room temperature. They are quite sensitive to noisy, busy or chaotic environments. They are also detail oriented, and like to process information slowly and methodically.

Highly sensitive workers may find themselves easily overwhelmed and rattled if they have to do a lot in a short period of time. They don't like having to do too many things at once. It's a temperament and not a disorder. Their motto may be "do it once and do it right," rather than "just do it and do it again, if it's wrong."

What's it like if you work with a highly sensitive person?

It depends on the co-worker's temperament and attitude. Some colleagues find sensitive people great to work with because they tend to be really good at picking up on social cues, so they'll be supportive of peers. They can be quite tuned into their co-worker's emotions, which can be good because they'll try to make things comfortable for everyone.

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman. (Jennifer Newman )

For example, I've seen sensitive workers at meetings make sure everyone has a seat, or that the temperature in the room is good, or the lights, or sun isn't bothering anyone. They attend to details with others in mind. They try hard to avoid mistakes or forgetting things. So, colleagues may find them accurate and reliable. Other workers may not "get" their highly sensitive counterparts, which can cause issues.

What kind of issues can come up, when working with highly sensitive colleagues?

If the co-worker is a "just do it" type it can be frustrating. Highly sensitive workers are comfortable digging deep into things, and this can be painful to less detail-oriented workers.

I've seen situations where sensitive workers will be assigned a task like create a policy manual. In a way they are the best workers for this kind of job. They'll go deep, look at all the nuances, as they are no-stone-left-unturned types. To others they seem slow and 'lost in the weeds'. They may seem too emotional to some.

For example I've noticed sensitive workers cry when someone does something nice for someone at work. It can be off-putting to less sensitive workers when their colleague starts wiping away tears. They wonder what's wrong, and if it's during a conversation, they wonder what they did.

Shouldn't highly sensitive workers toughen up a bit — it's work after all?

That's part of the misunderstanding surrounding highly sensitive workers. They can't — the trait appears innate. And, it's not a disorder. They are just more sensitive than other workers, and it can be advantageous.

For example, in my work in organizations I've noticed workers with this trait tend to be well-thought of by their supervisors. The workers themselves are more affected by stress, but they are really appreciated by their bosses.

So, there's a downside to being highly sensitive?

Yes, feeling everything strongly can be exhausting. Picking up on peers' feelings and moods all day saps energy, busy environments become overwhelming, and having too much to do will set them on edge.

For example I've worked with highly sensitive workers who had to build down-time into their day. They would refrain from "working lunches" so they could decompress. Otherwise, they felt like nervous wrecks.

What can co-workers and highly sensitive workers do to assist each other?

If you work with a highly sensitive colleague recognize they are susceptible to picking up your mood. So if you are frazzled they'll absorb it. So, work on remaining calm and relaxed.

Highly sensitive workers can work on understanding their colleagues too. Understand your peers may be unsettled by tears, or a burst of enthusiasm. So, let them know you feel stuff deeply, but everything is okay. Colleagues can refrain from seeing sensitivity as a weakness, and can find ways to approach their co-worker without overwhelming them.

One thing I've seen work is, if your colleague starts crying, hand them a Kleenex, go get them a glass of water and let them take their time telling you what they want to tell you. The intensity is not a cause for alarm, it's a signal to take it easy.

This interview has been edited and condensed

With files from CBC's The Early Edition

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman explains what to do if you, or a colleague, is a 'highly sensitive person'


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