When you hear the word “career,” what feelings come to mind? Do you think of doing something you don’t really want to do, just to earn a paycheck? Do you picture overbearing bosses and a cold-hearted focus on productivity? If you’re a highly sensitive person, there’s a good chance that work is not a satisfying part of your life.
Of course, highly sensitive people (HSPs) aren’t the only ones who stress over finding the right job. But HSPs face obstacles that many other workers don’t. Part of what it means to be highly sensitive is that you’re prone to overwhelm, you may struggle with rushed deadlines, and you’re particularly sensitive to common workplace stressors — including the personalities of those you have to work with. Perhaps most importantly, highly sensitive people seek meaning in their work, and truly aren’t at their best without it.
And all too often, the business world simply isn’t set up to accommodate or even show concern about these needs.
But that doesn’t mean that every job has to be this way. In fact, there are career paths that work very well for the sensitive among us — especially if you know your own strengths.
In this article, let’s explore why sensitive people are so often unhappy at work, and how they can build a career that actually brings them meaning.
HSPs Want a Job That’s More Than Just a Paycheck
Job satisfaction is hard to find no matter who you are — in the United States, barely 50 percent of workers report being satisfied in their jobs (and that’s considered a landmark high). But there’s no question that it can be even more elusive for highly sensitive people, who generally want to feel some sense of meaning and purpose in their work.
There’s a good reason HSPs feel this way. As an HSP, a day at work involves more than just doing the job itself. It also means:
- Being aware of, and often managing, the emotions of everyone else you work with
- Noticing all the subtle sounds, scents, and details that most people view as background
- Deeply processing every part of your day — and giving it far more of your mental energy than other people would
In other words, work can be far more draining for highly sensitive people than it is for others. Even on a good day, you may be overstimulated and out of energy by the time you get home. It’s no wonder HSPs want their job to be meaningful: It might be the only thing they get to do most days.
Unfortunately, meaningful jobs can be particularly hard to find. Partly, this is just the nature of the economy; our modern way of life demands a certain amount of repetitive work, and most of it is ultimately drive by profit, not mission. But even within fields that are considered creative or “meaningful” (like nonprofit work), any given job may or may not scratch that itch — the personalities of those you work with play just as big a role in your job satisfaction as the work itself.
That doesn’t mean that finding a meaningful job is luck of the draw, however. According to Kelly O’Laughlin, author of A Highly Sensitive Person’s Life, there are red flags you can learn to avoid. They include:
- Any jobs that are mainly focused on sales or hitting numbers, especially if they don’t directly speak to your own personal values.
- Jobs that will, by nature, include a lot of confrontation (such as negotiating).
- Any job where the work environment seems to be loud, hectic, or chaotic — use the interview to scope this out!
- Work that seems to be heavily focused on “face time” with other people (whether it’s customers, or nonstop collaborative work with colleagues). HSPs are great with people, but they need private time to process and do their best work.
O’Laughlin also warns that, more than anything, your coworkers and work environment will make or break your sense of happiness at a job. Even in your dream career field, you’ll feel burned out if you’re dealing with a rude, aggressive boss every day or a stressful office dynamic.
The Best Careers for Highly Sensitive People
Highly sensitive people also have a lot of strengths as employees. In fact, they provide unique talents that many other workers don’t have. For example, HSPs are supportive and encouraging to those around them. They listen to others, pay attention to details, and take time to think things through before rushing into action. As leaders, they put a great emphasis on building consensus, which helps them build incredibly capable, loyal teams. And in all settings, they pick up on subtle nuance and have an intuitive sense for how to deal with people.
These strengths make an excellent guide for what kinds of careers HSPs will enjoy the most — and thrive in. Here are our top recommendations for specific jobs for sensitive people, based on O’Laughlin’s suggestions, and a few of our own:
- The caring professions. This broad category includes careers such as nurse, doctor, and physical therapist, as well as social workers, psychotherapists, and personal coaches. These fields play to HSP strengths, including empathy, compassion, and intuitive awareness of others’ needs. Of course, you’ll deal with a lot of emotions from other people, but HSPs in general seem drawn to these fields and often find them extremely fulfilling. (Check out recent advice from HSP therapists on how to manage emotions through self-care and set boundaries.)
- Creative professional. This includes roles such as graphic designer, copywriter, animator, movie set designer… anyone who puts their artistic talents to work as a day job. These professions can be a nice way to build professional experience and earn money while developing your talents as an artist. As a bonus, these jobs tend to be very easy to do on a freelance basis, which gives HSPs the flexibility and autonomy they crave in their schedules.
- Clergy. Many HSPs are deeply spiritual, and often take their beliefs more seriously than those around them. At the same time, HSPs are likely to be encouraging and open-minded. This makes for a potent combination in any clergy person. Of course, HSPs tend to be more intuitive than dogmatic about their spirituality, and may have to put up with a certain amount of structure to work as clergy. But that could be well worth it, especially to serve in one of the few professions where sensitivity and intuition are still valued.
- Academia. Academia can be competitive, but it also tends to move at a thoughtful pace that allows HSPs to use their strengths. You get to spend part of your time doing careful, focused work where deep insights are valued. You also get to spend time teaching and helping students, but only for part of your day — and not even every day. Perhaps most importantly, you get to do meaningful work related to a topic you truly care about.
- Business owner. As an employee, many HSPs feel unfairly passed over for promotions, as if they aren’t “leadership material.” But that’s simply not true — an HSP can be a powerful force at the head of a company. Many of the most successful small businesses, such as boutiques, galleries, and coffee shops, can flourish when headed by a sensitive person. An HSP will create a welcoming, calming atmosphere; design a space that truly stands out; and build a loyal team of staff who enjoy their jobs and like helping customers. If you have a vision for a business, it’s a good way to go.
- Non-profit professional. This one comes with a big caveat: Non-profit work can be just as stressful as private sector work. Many non-profits aren’t as well organized as traditional businesses, and some use their good mission to justify long hours or below-average wages. But don’t let that deter you. There are just as many non-profits where the culture is healthy, cooperative, and focused on truly creating good in the world. Non-profit professions that are especially good for HSPs include administrative roles, executive director, marketing, membership manager, grant researcher/writer, and potentially even major fundraising jobs (depending on how aggressive the funding goals are and how supportive the culture is).
- IT professional. Coding is very much a creative process, and one that’s best done by someone with an eye for detail and strong intuition. That means that HSPs have a distinct edge as a software engineer, website developer, or in any role that requires tech savvy. Many technology jobs also sport a more relaxed work atmosphere and a focus on remote work, which are also boons for highly sensitive people.
These are our top picks, but they’re just a starting point. As a highly sensitive person, the best way to find a meaningful job is to think about your own personal strengths and start from there — and pay close attention to the culture of a workplace before signing on. If you can plant yourself somewhere that feels nurturing, you’ll find that work can be fun… and maybe even burnout-free.
You might like:
- 14 Things HSPs Absolutely Need to Be Happy
- 13 Problems Only Highly Sensitive People Will Understand
- Why Do Highly Sensitive People Absorb Other People’s Emotions?
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