Does working from home offer peace and focus — or a whole new host of problems?
Working from home is all the rage these days. Or maybe it isn’t. But it’s more doable, for more workers, than ever before — and, increasingly, people whose employers won’t allow them to work from home are rebelling.
But what about sensitive people?
Sensitive people make up about 30 percent of the population — and the workforce — and there’s evidence to suggest they are some of the most valuable employees. Yet, as I write in my book Sensitive, co-authored with Jenn Graneman, they are also among the most stressed. Which raises the question: is working from home the solution for overstimulated highly sensitive people (HSPs)?
I’ve been surprised how often I get asked this since the book came out. (Previously, I got asked about introverts and remote work.) It makes sense, though: sensitive people are at their best in calm environments, so remote work should be ideal for them, right? But my answer is always the same: it depends on the person.
For starters, working from home can be better for anyone, sensitive or not, for lots of reasons: maybe it allows you to balance work and childcare. Maybe it cuts down on an annoying commute. Maybe it means you can move farther from a big city (if that’s your preference), and thus have a lower cost of living. Anyone can enjoy these benefits, whether they’re sensitive or not.
Second, working from home comes with its own share of challenges — some of which come as a surprise to first-timers. Personally, I’ve worked remotely/from home for over a decade, first as a freelancer and then as an author, and I’ve developed a system that works for me; but even I have days when I wish I could just get get out of the house and have dumb chit-chat with a real, live coworker. (Yes, even as a highly sensitive person and and introvert.)
On the balance, though, I — like millions of other people — strongly prefer working from home. The flexibility and peace really is worth it for those who can do it. (Let’s remember that not all jobs offer this, and we’re privileged to even have the option.) And I do think that highly sensitive people, who are especially responsive to their physical work environment, tend to come out ahead by working remotely. In fact, I think it can supercharge us to be some of the strongest performers on the team. But you have to know how to do it right.
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How Working from Home Supercharges Sensitive People
A lot of ink has been spilled about the benefits of remote work, and for highly sensitive people — the 30 percent of the population who are wired to respond more strongly to the world around them — the most obvious benefit is reducing overstimulation. Sensitive people get overstimulated easily, and few places are as overstimulating as the modern workplace, so that’s the reason to work from home, right?
Not quite. I’d argue that sensitive people need a mindset shift about remote work. The main benefit is not eliminating a negative (overstimulation). It’s building a positive: the sensitive “Boost Effect.”
My co-author and I write about the Boost Effect in Sensitive. The Boost Effect means that sensitive people get more benefit out of the same things that boost anyone — like having a mentor, or going to therapy. The effect is not small: in studies, sensitive people are more likely to recover from depression or even save their marriage if given the right resources, whereas the same resources have very little effect on less-sensitive people.
The Boost Effect definitely applies at work. Remember: even without a boost, sensitive people are often the highest performers on their teams, despite also being the most stressed-out. But the science around the Boost Effect suggests that if you give sensitive people a conducive environment, not only will the stress go down, but the work performance will skyrocket. Sensitive people — with the right environment — can be absolute rock stars.
In my opinion, that’s the value of remote work for many HSPs. Yes, it will help reduce overstimulation, and hopefully that’ll knock out a lot of work stress. But that’s just the first stage of a multi-stage rocket. The second stage is creating a home work environment that truly lifts you up, and the final stage — the one that gets you into orbit — is finally being able to lean into your sensitive strengths and rise to the top.
That’s not every sensitive person’s goal, but that’s the potential you have as an HSP. And achieving it means taking on the challenges of remote work, not just the benefits.
The Surprising Challenges of Working from Home
Although an improvement for many workers, working from home is not a cure-all. Here are some of the key challenged it carries:
- You’ll suddenly need more self-discipline. There’s a sort of “freakout” many people go through when they start working from home for the first time. It seems like a dream at first, but suddenly they find themselves procrastinating, lost, or just struggling to focus. We’ll tackle ways to handle that below, but bear it in mind when deciding to work from home — if you’re bad at self-discipline already, a flex schedule with just a couple days a week at home may be the best place to start.
- You’re going to get to know your dog, kids, or partner better than you ever wanted to. Unless you live alone, chances are you’re going to have at least one human, small human, or animal in your space while you’re trying to work. They will all want your attention. They may not say it, they may promise to leave you alone, but one some level they’re going to want it. Kids are your biggest threat on this front — “Mommy needs to work” means nothing to young children, and older children will be suspiciously quiet long enough that you start to look for them. Your dog, however, will be absolutely convinced you’ve stayed home exclusively to play with them, while your partner may be more subtle. Set boundaries around your work time and, with kids, understand that work simply won’t be as productive unless they’re old enough to do their own thing.
- It can be lonely. The flip side of being interrupted is the loneliness if you are actually left alone. Remember that many highly sensitive people are extroverts — but believe it or not, this goes for introverts, too. We often take for granted how much benefit we get out of small interactions at work or just the simple presence of changing, varied stimulation. Left to yourself at home all day, you may find that — introvert or not — you really, really want to get out of the house at 5 p.m. and talk to someone.
- Not all stress is eliminated equally. This is maybe the biggest thing to remember about going remote as a highly sensitive person. Yes, it will eliminate overstimulation that comes from open offices, loud or obnoxious coworkers, commutes, and depressing cube-farms. But if your stress comes from a toxic boss, an excessive workload, or simply not liking the career you’re in, that won’t change. There are ways you can use remote work to help address those things (you might have more free time, sans commute, to apply for new jobs), but you should be realistic in your expectations.
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How to Make Working From Home Work for Sensitive People
1. Set a schedule for yourself. Yes, for real.
I often tell people, “I’m self-employed, but my boss is a jerk.” What I mean is that I have to be more disciplined with myself now than I ever was working in an office — there is no one else to hold me accountable. So, despite being perhaps the most disorganized person you will ever meet, I set myself a schedule that I have to follow most days. This may sound like a bummer (isn’t flexibility the whole point of working from home?) but you end up having even more flexibility when you’re getting things done in a timely manner than when half the day is gone and you suddenly realize the only thing you did was dishes.
A good schedule will look different for different people, and some will prefer stricter versus more loosey-goosey. But, in general, I recommend at least the following:
- Reserve certain times of day for certain activities. For example, perhaps you use 8 a.m. – 9:30 a.m. to do focused project work, and check email every day at 9:30 a.m. Perhaps you do all your client calls in mid-afternoon when you know most people are around. Choose blocks for recurring activities and stick to them.
- Set timers. Don’t trust yourself to notice it’s time to switch projects, at least not at first. Set alarms on your phone or use a timer on your desk. (I like to have my alarm go off five minutes before I need to switch tasks, so I have some warning.)
- Use short blocks, not long blocks — and include breaks. Some people swear by the pomodoro method of 25-minute work stretches, but my mind doesn’t work that way, and I’m not convinced that that much task-switching is good for productivity (with some exceptions). Instead, I think 45 minutes to an hour is a good block of focused work time. Some people might go longer, but anything over 90 minutes is likely to become stagnant. Start out with blocks that fill an hour at most, and always schedule at least a 5 minute break between your blocks.
- Never communicate “on the side.” Don’t cheat on your current task by fooling around with email or Slack on the side. Unless absolutely required by your job, eschew constant communication, turn off notifications, and corral workplace communication to scheduled blocks in your day. Nothing shatters HSP calm more than constant, urgent, “Oh, someone is waiting on me, I feel bad” style interruptions.
- Accept that meetings will mess everything up. Unless you are in the absolute most progressive workplace or have the very bestest of bosses, your boss — and countless other people — will schedule meetings and calls willy-nilly all throughout your work week. Do learn to communicate your availability and say no to meetings where possible, but in general, the best thing you can do for your mental health is to accept it and adjust your schedule around it.
2. Don’t get rid of your morning routine
Many HSPs benefit from a morning routine — one that allows them to start the day with minimal overstimulation and a reserve of inner calm. Yet, when you start remote work, it’s easy for that routine to disappear. After all, you no longer have a commute for your podcasts, or a need to dress up and do makeup/hair, and if you don’t need to shower, why not save your workout till later? But this is a trap. Remote work can be less physically overstimulating, but it’s going to come with just as many mental challenges, urgent deadlines, and stressful conversations. And they’re going to happen in your own home. Your sanctum. The place you go for peace. The last think you need is to jump into that directly out of bed, with no buffer between your work and your home life.
So maintain (or create) a morning routine that gives you that buffer. We often hear the advice that remote workers should have a specific spot dedicated only to work, so that the kitchen table or crafting room don’t become stressful “work zones.” As important as that physical boundary is, though the mental boundary is even more crucial, so take it out with something that happens just for you before your workday. For example:
- Do your morning workout in a part of the house where you cannot see your work station, and stick to it every day.
- Take one hour in the morning — after your coffee is made — to read a book, read non-work articles online, or listen to a podcast. Don’t fill this hour with mindless scrolling or addictive games; use it to spend time with activities or content that matter to you.
- Maintain a morning meditation and/or journaling practice. My personal favorite is to do “morning pages,” as described by bestselling author Julia Cameron, followed by a brief mindfulness mediation and setting my purpose.
- Have a routine that involves physically leaving the house. For example, go to the gym each morning, go for a long walk or jog, or make it a point to stop at your favorite coffee house after dropping the kids at daycare. Leaving the house creates a very physical boundary indicating when you’re having “you” time and when you’re working.
3. Give in to the jiggler.
HSPs tend to be risk-averse, and we generally want to follow the rules. But some rules are not only stupid, they’re actively harmful for your mental health. If your company requires some kind of remote productivity tracking software — the kind that alerts them any time your mouse is still too long — you should just do the right thing and get a mouse jiggler. You might feel like you’re cheating at first, but you’re saving yourself potentially years of feeling stressed in your own home. (And if you don’t get one, I guarantee you you’ll just be mindlessly jiggling your mouse by hand every ten minutes anyway.) Getting a mouse jiggler doesn’t mean skipping out on work, of course. It just means allowing yourself to focus when doing non-keyboard work, like reading or phone calls.
4. Communicate your successes and achievements.
Even a physical workplace, HSPs’ achievements often get overlooked — we don’t like to brag, we like boosting others, and we’re not always the first to speak up if someone else takes the credit. But, at least in an office environment, people see you regularly, notice when you;re working hard, and regularly chat about what everyone’s up to; your successes are naturally more visible to your manager and coworkers.
Once you’ve gone remote, however, there is no way for anyone to see your wins unless you speak up for yourself. You can do that at check-ins with your boss by starting with a list of your accomplishments and tasks completed. You can do it in team meetings by asking if anyone’s had any big wins. And you can do it in any context by leaning to read between the lines: anytime someone asks for a “status update” or “what you’re currently working on,” you can and should start by saying what you’ve completed and what great results, if any, you’ve gotten.
Reporting your successes this way is not bragging and it is not a bad thing. (If it feels like it is, read this and this — and remember you have tremendous worth.) It’s just corporate for, “Hey, I’m proud of this, and wanted to show you.”
And that’s not a bad deal. Especially if you’re sensitive.
Working from home is not the right choice for everybody, and certainly not just because you’re an HSP. But, if you have the option to do it — and if you structure your home work environment around your needs as an HSP — it can be one of the best decisions you ever make.
You Might Like:
- How to Be Happy at Work as a Highly Sensitive Person
- 7 Ways to Make Your Home Office Work for You as a Highly Sensitive Person
- The 7 Best Careers for a Highly Sensitive Person
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