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Ten Tips for coping with sensitivity in a professional environment

by Nick Black

First of all, a bit about me: I've been a professional journalist for over 20 years, edit two voluminous newsletters in the field of oil and energy, and have to travel round the world on assignments and also to give speeches at conferences. To top it all I live in one of the world's noisiest and most crowded cities - London. Oh, add divorced (twice), bankrupt (once) and three wonderful grown-up daughters who do not live with me. Yet I'm also the kind of person who ticks all the boxes for highly sensitive people. I am acutely sensitive to noise, atmospheres, all the usual sensitivity traits. I need space and silence to live, and if you share this trait you will know exactly what that feels like. But I've worked out my life so that it does not necessarily show in my working career - unless you know where or how to look.

How can highly sensitive people survive and even flourish in crowded office environments, with tight deadlines and constant noise, let alone constant travel? I'd like to share my own tips for survival in stressful work situations:

1) Negotiate/tweak working hours where you can

One way for me to beat the threat of noise and overwhelm both from office colleagues and commuting is to simply tweak my hours. I'm lucky enough to be able to wake up at 6am, get into work at 7am, and leave work at 3pm. This is puzzling to others unless you are highly sensitive. Most of my other colleagues start work at 9 or 10am, so that gives quite a few hours of being blissfully alone, in a quiet environment. Living in London, the daily commute is a matter of trains - and a huge crush at rush hour. So the hours I work at a stroke cut out the major sources of city and colleague stress. Like other highly sensitive people, it is silence and alone time that is absolutely vital to anything I do, and by the time my work colleagues get in, I'm pretty relaxed and welcoming and have done most of the work I had to do. Without that vital alone time, life quickly can become overwhelming.

2) Keep a warm contact with the people in your company who matter

This is not quite as calculating as it may seem. The people who matter in a company might not be the ones in nominal charge, but the ones with warm hearts - which highly sensitive people instinctively gravitate towards, just as we quickly shun colleagues who are too loud, or rude, or aggressive. Nevertheless, a warm relationship with your bosses will be crucial to your long-term survival at any company. If you don't have this maybe, if you can, find a job where the bosses are likeable enough to work for. It took me some years and a few mistakes before finding a company that I really liked and felt at home in - and I have been here for 18 years now. Highly sensitive persons (HSPs) do not necessarily like the prospect of change, but finding the right bosses is crucial to your well-being. It is important, too, to feel that someone at least appreciates the work you do, it can make all the difference.

The strange thing about work in an office is that in many ways it can be very nourishing for HSPs, whereas others complain about its humdrum aspects. Office work has routine, the familiar, a desk you can call your home with just the right touch of intimacy and formality with your work colleagues. All this can spell safety and low-stress. So the whole experience can - if you get it right - be supportive. But I know friends with similar HSP traits who have fallen at the first fence and been unable to cope with life under conditions that can be agonising for HSPs, such as over-harsh flourescent lights, air-conditioning set "wrong", colleagues with voices that pierce armour-plated steel, and so forth. Me? I have the overhead light turned off, and in a large office manage to keep the A/C on "un-intrusive". Where colleagues get noisy, I'm lucky enough to be able to stick on a pair of headphones and listen to music.

You need your bosses to support you and put up with your quirks, but they will only do this if you can also reach out and be generally nice to be around with. Your insights into others can be a very valuable commodity, and your bosses may well learn to seek you out for your balanced, but practical insights into keeping an office environment smoothly functioning.

I find as an HSP rich rewards in having one-to-one conversations with friends in the office. Crowds I will always find unsettling, but over the years I've come to realise that what I thought as shyness was anything but, simply sensitivity at work. I love the company of people and find the lives of others fascinating. I love to laugh, too. HSPs are not at all gloomy or self-preoccupied - just a little wary of over-stimulation.

3) Give to the company you work for

Highly sensitive people run the risk of being taken for granted, because generally few of us are complainers because of the messy prolonged interactions this may cause. But I chose early on in my working life to be as loyal as I could to the company I chose to work for - once I found one that suited me. Go the extra mile in your work sometimes, store up a fund of goodwill and the big no-no is losing your temper in the office. But do not work too late. HSPs are usually morning people. We wilt, and do not conform to the classic "normal" image of the good worker.. staying late. Come in early instead, when you are fresh and your nerves are not frayed. If you have never tried this, see how refreshing getting up early can be, even in a big smelly city like London.

4) Trust your sensitive intuition

Sometimes you can sense that a colleague or a situation is not as it seems to be. Trust that intuition and learn to stay away from spark points. In a very real sense, you are a stranger in a strange land, so accept that you will never quite fit into the world like others do. But don't be dismayed by those sensitive instincts.

5) Get out at lunch

Don't make the mistake of working through an entire office day. For most HSPs there is an almost mystical link with the outdoors, with natural scenes that might pass most others by - the play of light and shade; the gleam of a winter sun on a sparkling, frosty sidewalk. I find that just a few minutes outside make all the difference to a day.

6) Exercise

The Romans certainly got it right with their famous maxim "mens sane in corpore sano" - a healthy mind in a healthy body. I'm getting older now and slowing down, but for years I went to a gym and found that a work-pout does wonders in resetting my buttons. If especially you are prone to depressions, getting the body moving once more is a vital weapon in your armoury.

7) Balance your work life

I wonder how many HSPs are intensely creative or pour their life energies into spiritual pursuits? I think it is almost inevitable for most of us. I've always worked to live rather than lived to work, and the regular wages have helped me pursue my real interests. Painting and music help balance my life out. So, too, does reading - I come from a generation pre-computers, and have never stopped reading. I started off in working life as a meditation teacher over 30 years ago when mefditation was seen as something very strange. I now find huge inner satisfaction as a lay member of the Carmelite religious order of the catholic church.

8) Accept that you will face difficulties

Everyone has to deal with complications in life and setbacks, and in the professional world this is no different. In the West we tend to have to work for a culture that stresses "hard" qualities alien to most HSPs - pushing yourself to the top of the pile; stabbing others in the back to succeed; ruthlessly accumulating wealth and goods. Yet HSPs often have a much more holistic sense of what a working life should be about. Even the safest of companies will be no bed of roses all the time, but accept that life will test you wherever you are, and remember to bend with the wind when it blows. Fatigue can creep into your life even if you are young. Given that HSPs can have sleep difficulties, how you cope with fatigue is vital. I've found that I have to sleep by around 10.30pm or else I can kiss goodbye to any hope of a good night's sleep. Oh, and stay away from office romances. They are devastating for HSPs.

9) Follow the golden thread

Each one of us, I believc, has a golden thread that runs through our lives, the thread which marks the most loving and wisest path we can take at any particular moment. It is all to easy to forget, in an office environment, that our lives really are fantastic adventures, full of rich possibilities. If you look back on your life you should be able to follow this thread all the way through from your childhood, and hopefully recognise it in your current situation. If your life is miserable and colourless, start looking for that thread. It may lead you out of your current job to somewhere you are meant to be.

10) Travel

Some of us are lucky enough to travel for our work. I've been all around the world on assignments, even to such far away places as Libya (when it was embargoed), Angola and Namibia and seen many marvellous sights. My own travel tips are pack light, so you are not weighed down by bags, forget any diet you might be on, and if you are in a different time zone then accept that jet lag and adjustments really do take it out of you!

Nick Black

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