Why Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) Are Prone to Burnout

Burnout is real. 

Before I knew I was a highly sensitive person (HSP), I suffered burnout at work not just once but several times. And I didn’t know how to cope with it. 

Instead, I turned inward.

I thought I didn’t have what it took to deal with the pressure. But the truth is, everyone is vulnerable to burnout. Though HSPs are more prone to it, burnout is an epidemic in our society that glamorizes the hustle and the daily grind. 

Unfortunately, how we approach work is drilled into our heads, which is it’s common for anyone (including non-HSPs) to burn out and burn out fast.

When I found out I was an HSP after years of experiencing burnout at work, it all made sense, but it wasn’t my sensitivity to blame — there were so many other factors.

But with burnout being so common, HSPs have an advantage:

HSPs can sense when it’s time to take a break, and we’re very in tuned to our needs. We already have the skills and the tools to protect us from burning out. And if we do find ourselves burned out, we have what it takes to get out of an overwhelming, demanding, or toxic environment, or take a step back from work (even if we love what we do). 

If you know you’re an HSP, it’s important to be proactive in avoiding burnout. Fortunately, you have what it takes to protect yourself. 

Here is a closer look at how burnout impacts HSPs, plus ways to survive burnout based on my own experience.

Why HSPs tend to burnout faster

It’s important to note that HSPs are not the only ones unprotected from burnout. It’s an all-too common emotional problem across the world. 

But there are additional factors that cause HSPs to be more vulnerable to burnout, such as:

  • A higher need to rest — Our strengths take up a lot of energy
  • Sensitive to physical space — fluorescent lights, chatter, etc.
  • Our desire to do work that is meaningful — being understimulated can also cause burnout
  • Deep empathy — we absorb and carry other people’s emotions
  • Attentive to detail — we constantly notice subtleties, putting our brains into overdrive

Signs of burnout

Burnout creeps up fast. There are physical signs to look out for, such as:

  • Tension headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling sick and achy

Mentally, I often hear my clients say:

“I don’t have time to do anything else.”

“I’m having a hard time sleeping.”

“I just don’t have the energy to do the work.”

“I’m not doing what I love.”

“I don’t feel creative.”

“I have nightmares about work.” 

Constant negative talk about work is a big sign. If you find yourself talking to your friends and family about how much you can’t stand your job, you constantly complain to your coworkers, and you feel as if you never leave work (because you’re always talking about it), you might be experiencing burnout. 

Additionally, people close to you might notice you withdrawing from responsibilities outside of work, social events, or hobbies that usually bring you joy.

Emotionally, you went into the job feeling excited and confident only to feel like an imposter or a failure. You find yourself questioning your talents and skills. 

When you are constantly questioning your abilities, this is burnout attacking your emotional wisdom, which can do a lot of damage to your self-esteem. You might feel shame, guilt, helpless, or incompetent. Instead of feeling like an empowered HSP, you fall into the danger zone — known as “survival mode.”

Why understimulation is just as dangerous as overstimulation

Just because HSPs get overwhelmed easily doesn’t mean we don’t need stimulation. I like to think of HSPs as “emotional minimalist” as we need to be cautious about how we spend our energy. 

Energy is our emotional currency and we have to be careful not to spend it too fast.

I love this quote: 

“The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.

Ellen Glasgow

For an HSP, feeling like we’re not doing meaningful work or we’re just downright bored, it’s not uncommon to feel empty (or dramatically speaking — dead inside). 

I’ve been in certain environments and have done work that is so incredibly boring that my creative abilities just falls to wayside. 

As an HSP, the dangers of being understimulated are not talked about as often as overstimulation, but it can be just as emotionally draining. In fact, both HSPs and non-HSPs do their best with an optimal amount of stimulation

At work, feeling understimulated can happen when:

  • There are too many decision makers and not enough room for you to express new ideas
  • Your work has to go through a rigorous approval process before you can complete it
  • You spend too much of your time doing mindless or “busy” work
  • You find yourself working on projects that lack purpose 

Ways to prevent burnout

The scariest thing about burnout is that it can suck up all your energy and lower self-esteem to the point in which all your emotional wisdom within you is depleted. 

In the midst of burnout, it can be challenging to move forward, make changes, and establish yourself in a new environment that works for you while getting the rest you need along the way to recharge. 

As I look back at my time feeling burned out, helpless, and stuck, these are the tactics that helped me move forward. 

(Note: I have to admit, it wasn’t easy. I had allowed myself to live with burnout for too long and didn’t know enough about my sensitive trait at the time. So it took me much longer to make changes and get to a place that is right for me.

That’s why I believe that knowing you’re an HSP and accepting it is your armor. You know what you need, which is the first step to finding meaningful work to prevent burnout. Lastly, meaningful work can also lead to burnout if you don’t give yourself time to rest.)

1. Pay attention to your environment

Not just the space but the people operating the space. 

Being surrounded by people displaying negative behavior, like passive-agressiveness or disrespect towards others, can also suck up your energy. If everyone around you seem always busy, overwhelmed, constantly moving, late to meetings, talking about each other negatively, blaming others, then it’s not an active and lively work culture — it’s just chaos. 

In my opinion, a lively, productive, and creative work environment provides structure, flexibility, respect for one another, and trust to enable people to feel inspired, work together, and love what they do. 

The actual physical space does matter too. Be sure to do a walkthrough of the workspace before accepting any job. If it’s all done virtually, ask for a virtual tour. For instance, a lack of windows might make you feel too closed in.

2. Accept your way of working (take your time)

HSPs bring a lot to the table. We’re creative, detailed-oriented, and make great mentors and leaders with our empathy skills.

But are greatest strengths can only be used when we take our time at work. For instance, to be creative, we must allow our minds to wonder, brainstorm, look for inspiration, or take a break to clear our minds. If you’re doing editing work or checking anything for errors, it’s always important to take your time. 

Your colleagues might move faster than you. Let them. At the end of the day, you know how to produce your best work. If deadlines are too tight, you might want to consider talking to your manager about timelines that work for you (as well as your team) — which takes us to the next tactic. 

3. Ask for what you need

“If you ask for what you need, what’s the worst that can happen?”

I often ask my clients this when they make it clear what they need, yet they tend to avoid asking for what they need.

A lot of times, we tend to assume that our employer won’t provide us flexibility, but in most cases, it’s because we never asked. 

But we can’t control how other’s respond. So when do we ask for what we need, there is always a chance we’ll be turned down. Believe me, I’ve been in these situations, and they totally suck. But looking back, this was exactly the validation I needed. Once I asked for what I needed, I couldn’t make any more excuses; it was time to move on. 

The more you ask for what you need, the easier it will become and the more confident you will become. 

4. Be the observer, not the participant 

As HSPs, we want to feel a deep connection with what we do and work closely with the people we work with. But this can backfire if we get too involved if the environment isn’t emotionally healthy.

It’s easy to be a chameleon to our work culture. We absorb people’s emotions, which makes us vulnerable to becoming part of the problem. 

For instance, if you see someone else struggling, you might look at it as a way to connect with someone for validation, vent, and gossip. It brings a sense of emotional relief short term, but long term — you only become part of the problem. 

Instead, become the observer. Watch what we people do, how they behave, and look for signs as to why things are the way they are. You’ll learn so much about what drives people to do what they do, what motivates them, and what makes (or doesn’t make) a healthy work culture. 

This knowledge will come in handy when your interviewing for your next job move or you find yourself in a leadership position

Burnout happens. Don’t blame yourself …

Don’t blame yourself and definitely don’t blame your sensitivity. 

Knowledge, acceptance, and emotional wisdom — these are your tools. Learn how to use them and always ask for what you need to do your work and do it well.