Bright lights. Constant chatter. Disruptions. Deadlines. Pressure. An uncomfortable chair. A desk that is too high. Awkward social situations. Odors. Lack of privacy, quiet, and control.
That’s office life.
As an HSP, I’m highly tuned in to my environment and lots of little things become big things since I can’t stop obsessing over them. Here’s a list of some of the issues that made me swear off working in an office.
My Battle With Uncomfortable Chairs
I’m somewhat petite, and the office chair I was assigned at my previous job was meant for an average-sized man. No matter how I adjusted it, my back and neck were sore every day. It got to the point where the pain distracted me a great deal.
At my first job, they got me an awesome new chair, no problem. I was thrilled!
However, it was never again that easy. The HR department at another job required me to submit a doctor’s note! Like a schoolchild! Even my doctor thought it was strange as she basically scribbled on a pad, “Her office chair causes her pain”. What a waste of time for me and the doctor. I eventually got the chair, though.
My last job wouldn’t get me a new chair. So, I brought one from home (yup, I rolled it right into the office). They told me I couldn’t have a chair that didn’t fit the decor, so it had to go. Next, I permanently “borrowed” a chair from the conference room. It was big and plush, and not much better than my original chair. I would alternate between the conference room chair and my original chair so at least my pain would have some variety.
On top of the physical hurt was the embarrassment. As an HSP, I was very sensitive to the feelings of those who had to deal with my request. I felt like everyone thought I was a whiny, high-maintenance complainer. No one else in my office seemed to be complaining about their chairs! When I had to meet with HR and explain my grounds for needing a new chair, I was so nervous that I apologized the entire time. I said, “I don’t want to be a burden.”
An uncomfortable chair was only the start of my troubles in the office. I had issues with my desk, bad odors, noise, and lighting, as well. Read on.
My Battle with a Stinky Kitchen
I was seated directly next to an area with a refrigerator and pantry–it was a mini kitchen right in the middle of a hallway. People would throw perishable food into the trash can and since the bin was only emptied twice a week, it would start to smell. I remember one time I was sick of the stench, so I carried the giant trash bag outside to the enormous, disgusting dumpster, struggling to open the lid and dump in the trash…all while wearing a skirt and heels. Gross.
So I requested to have the current trash bin replaced with a model with a lid, and management obliged. Small victory!
Alas, then people would throw garbage in the trash and the rotating lid would get stuck in the “open” position.
I would be sitting at my desk, and I’d smell rotten food. I’d walk three steps to the pantry and sure enough, the lid was flipped to the open position. I could smell it every time it was open.
I printed out a sign that said, “Please make sure this lid is closed, it’s stinky!” and taped it to the wall above the trash can. That sign didn’t make a difference, so I put another under the lid. (Amazingly, I found a photo of the actual sign I made a few years ago. Here it is for your enjoyment.)
I could hear my co-workers discovering the sign and commenting on it. I even heard one person say the sign was stupid and ask why it was there, and I got so irritated that I walked over and quickly informed her that some people sit right next to the pantry and those people don’t like to smell sour, empty yogurt cups and rotting banana peels.
Inconsiderate coworker: 0
The Crazy Person Hanging Signs on the Trash Can (Me): 1
My Battle with Bright Lights
I had issues with lighting at all three of my previous office jobs, and in each, I either built or purchased a contraption to block the light.
At one job, I taped some folders to a ruler to the top edge of my cubicle, so the structure extended over my head–like a partial roof–blocking one of the lights. It was awesome.
At two other jobs, I was moved into a different cubicle because I complained about the bright lights. One move put me on the other side of the building from my boss and the rest of my department (a blessing in disguise!)
The lights were still too bright, so my workplace graciously purchased a low-cost contraption for my cubicle called a CubeShield. It looks a bit like a camping tent. It attaches to the top of the cubicle, blocking light.
I was mortified when the CubeShield arrived and the maintenance guys were installing it in my cube. I could hear everyone around me talking about it; people passed by and asked questions with confused looks, and others made jokes about me being in a tent. I was so embarrassed.
But after a while, I got used to it, and my co-workers got used to it. And one day, many months later, I noticed two more CubeShields rising from other cubicles!! Vindication.
My Battle with Distractions
As you can see, I’m highly in tune with my environment. If I’m uncomfortable, I can’t stop thinking about it. I obsess over it. I have to resolve it.
The same goes with noise in my workplace. When people are talking and chatting around me, I sometimes find it difficult to concentrate. Listening to music in headphones doesn’t work for me either, because I’m distracted by it.
There was the time I walked over to someone who was playing music from their cubicle and I straight up told her that it was distracting and could she turn it down? Pretty sure I got some crazy stares as I walked away.
What helped me was listening to white noise. SimplyNoise is one of my most-used tools for handling audio distractions in public places. I turn the volume up all the way until I can’t hear anything. It’s fantastic.
My Battle with Control
I’m learning more and more about how the perception of a lack of control is a struggle for me in my life. In the workplace, I have no problem submitting to authority, and I always show my bosses respect.
But not every boss respected me back.
I had one micromanaging boss. She was late for almost every meeting, and usually re-scheduled at least once. She also told me to physically walk into her office and bother her repeatedly when I really needed something, since she rarely read her email. She sometimes would stand directly over me when I was working on something she wanted urgently.
The first few months, I had a very difficult time working for her. I would come home every day and complain to my husband about her unprofessionalism. Simply put, to me, her behavior was not how a professional should behave in the office. End of story. She was DOING IT WRONG.
Then one day I realized, the problem isn’t her, it’s me. Since she’s the boss, I’m the one who has to learn to play by her rules. She doesn’t have to adapt to my expectations!
If she doesn’t like using email? I have to do it her way. If she is always late for meetings? I have to put up with it. I learned to be a bit more flexible. I can’t always be in control and expect things to be the way I think they should be.
More issues with control? Ok. At one job, we had to scan an access card to open the doors to the building. One day, it was announced that HR was tracking all our entrance times and matching them up with the times we entered in our timesheets. I heard co-workers saying they got called into HR and questioned about why they input a certain time for lunch when their access card showed something different.
I was enraged!
I despise the feeling of being watched or monitored. It makes me feel like my superiors don’t trust me as a professional. I’m here to work, not to be treated like a truant schoolkid. The most noteworthy thing about the whole scenario was when I wondered why no one else seemed as angry as I was. Why wasn’t everyone outraged by the injustice? It took me a while to realize it had to do with my issues about control. Being watched makes me feel guilty and paranoid.
I don’t like working in an office. I feel controlled, trapped, and bothered. My resolution? I’m trying to find a way to make an income working at home. Other people have figured it out, so why can’t I? Removing myself from the office environment will eliminate so many of the small things that add up to a major energy-suck for me.
Not everyone can just quit their job–I understand that. So, what is an ideal job for a highly sensitive person? Read about it here.
Have you ever tried music without words? I really like the band Explosions in the Sky.
Also, this is a really great website. Thank you so much. I’ve been doing lots of research and I’m just beginning to understand myself, and I’m trying to figure out how to explain this to others – especially family.
I am going to listen to that band right now–thanks for the recommendation. Sometimes I listen to a song on Youtube called “the most relaxng music” –it’s here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSgPDKG6bB0
It’s definitely not “cool” but it is relaxing. 🙂
Thanks so much for the kind words about the site; that makes my day. I am learning more about myself all the time, too. It’s a strange feeling.
I really appreciated reading this. I understand these battles completely. I wish I had figured this out sooner. I just thought I was an anxious person. Perhaps I am a little of that too, but it’s hard being so sensitive. I am so sensitive to my environment that my skin gets sunburned very easily! If you find a way to be successful working at home please let me know ASAP. I don’t know how I will survive financially depending on this insensitive office environment.
This HSP is reading this in her office while biting her lip trying to hold back laughter at the photo of the CubeShield. I love it and am nodding in recognition of all of these office irritations, but am just thinking of all the comments it would generate. My coworkers can’t seem to get over the screen cover I have on my monitor to reduce glare, and I too have left a note regarding inconsiderate coworkers’ highly odoriferous food (this one on the fridge, which was also too full of takeout to fit anyone else’s food).
I absolutely love this website and the podcast. They have gotten me through many a rough moment, knowing that while I’m surrounded by the loud, brash non-sensitives, there are many other highly-sensitives somewhere out there who know exactly what I’m going through.
Carry on, Kelly! You’re doing great work. We are quietly grateful.
Hey Kimberly, thanks for the comment!! It is appreciated. Wow, your co-workers are surprised by the screen cover?! Yeah, the CubeShield might blow their mind! I was soooo mortified when I got that thing! Heh. Please continue to know that you aren’t alone, and I bet there are other people in your office who wish they had a screen cover!
Thanks for tweeting this post. I sincerely wonder about the millions who tolerate the stresses of cubicles. In my past, I experienced all those issues and commend your pursuit of solutions!
Haha thanks Deborah! 🙂
You’ve described one of the biggest reasons I decided to quit the corporate life and start my own business where I work mostly from my home office. All of these things in an office made work frustrating and draining. For several years I was HR manager in a distribution center, which meant background noise included beeping forklifts, tape guns and a PA system. It was not a good environment for an HSP. I had not realized how bad it was until I left the job and moved to one in a calmer office. I’ve read a lot on HSP in the last few months and found your website after a recent interview on KPBS. Thanks for sharing your stories. It is nice to hear other people talk about their experiences as a reminder that we’re not crazy for experiencing the world the way we do.
God – how many years was I told ‘just block it out’!?
I am so glad someone told me – about 3 years ago – about HSPs. I am one and always have been one. Add hay fever/allergies on to that and you have my life!
Couldn’t concentrate, everything bothered me, altho when I was a teen, my parents asked how I could do homework with the radio on. It helped me!
So much I could say about this topic, but it’s all been said. Thanks for your site and blog.
Oh my goodness, I can’t tell you what a relief it is to have found this blog.
I’ve had, and hated, so many office jobs it’s just … well, I don’t know what to say
At my last job, I had a colleague on one side of me who used to come into work riding his bike, have a shower, then drape his stinky towel over one of our meeting chairs (we had a round table in the middle of our pod with some chairs, for informal meetings), and stick his smelly shoes and bike pants under his desk. The smell drove me mad and when I had a quiet word to our boss he told me I was being picky, and that nobody else had raised it. That same man was so incredibly messy – he had papers everywhere that would find their way onto my (neat and tidy and perfectly clear) desk – that drove me nuts too. To top his behaviour off, he ate really stinky curries and Chinese food at his desk.
On the other side of me I had a grunter. I HATE little noises! Oh my goodness it was annoying. Grunt. Grunt. Grunt. All. day. long. And he sniffed when he wasn’t grunting. I offered him a tissue on more than one occasion which drew blank looks from him.
I started going into work at 3am/4am to get some decent peace and quiet to get my work done, which wasn’t ideal as I would then get ratty when people came in at 8am and wanted to stand around the kitchen gas-bagging (the kitchen was right next to my pod). And the coffee machine would go constantly from 8am-9am which was another distraction.
The walls of the office were a really awful lime green (company colours), with blackboard paint applied to some sections. Just my luck that in front of my pod (next to the kitchen) was one such wall, and the ladies from marketing and human resources used to spend a lot of time standing at it, chalking inspirational messages and laughing. On the other side of that board was a meeting room that everyone seemed to slam the door to.
It was so hideous that I just couldn’t stand it anymore and left.
I wish there was a worldwide organisation where all of us HSPs could work!
PS: Man who sat beside me (the grunter) was a guy I reported to on a project, and he would constantly interrupt me to ask what I was doing. Like I wasn’t a responsible adult who knew how to prioritize my work and make the most of my time. I would politely explain to him what I was doing, and then what I was planning to do next … that would send him away happy for a few minutes until he interrupted me to ask something else.
If my phone rang, he would come over to my desk, hovering over the display to see who it was – if there was no caller ID he would mouth, “Who is it?”.
In meetings, he would stop proceedings to tell me I didn’t need to write down such-and-such – which would make everyone look at me and wonder what the heck I was doing.
I actually resigned from that job because I thought I was losing the plot … I just became so angry and frustrated with absolutely everything that I couldn’t take it anymore.
Thanks for your comment, T. I can relate to some of these things. Smells are tough to deal with. Sometimes when there are just too many things making you miserable, finding another job isn’t a bad idea 🙂 Congrats for getting out of there! I hope your new environment is better.
After 2 decades of excruciating pain in an office environment I have finally managed to get into a work from home situation and I can’t be any happier. This is without a doubt, the best period in my life. And I can’t believe it took me so long to carve out such a situation.
Granted it wasn’t possible in the past because of the career paths I took. But now that I’ve achieved it, it honestly feels like heaven. My head has never been clearer and my heart has never been more at peace.
I would highly recommend other HSPs to work out a way to do this. Given our personality types, this might be the most ideal ‘job’ to have. For me I run my own art business now, which is how I got out of the hell that is an office job.
I could have written this blog post. I’ve had so many issues of the same nature as these. Right now, I’m in an office with an open floor plan. I sit next to a guy who slams his desk drawers, uses his stapler like he’s trying to kill spiders AND has BO.
For most of my life, I’ve been trying to force myself to just get over these things (as I’ve been told to do so many times). Am I stressed out? You have no idea. I’ve been breaking out in hives and my hair has started falling out. I’ll be leaving this job as soon as I’m able.
By the way, in past offices, I’ve asked the maintenance guy to unscrew the light bulbs that were right above my cubical. I couldn’t work with the fluorescent lights shining on me and I figured it was the fastest way to productivity. In one case, it took two years for them to notice. In another case, they never noticed, and I worked there for five years.
the Aeron chair looks great! I’ve always wanted one.. And that cubeshield is GENIUS! haha. Great blog post 🙂
I am an HSP and an ergonomic professional! I belong to an HSP support group in my area that I found via meet-up. It was very helpful for me to know I am not alone.
As an ergonomic professional, I have to deal with lots of varied situations in cube and non-cube settings.
Have you read the book Quiet by Susan Cain? It is really good and has a whole chapter or 2 on the “new” modern open cube settings. Here is what she says about open office plans: Open plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. Associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, feel unmotivated and insecure. High blood pressure and elevated stress levels. They argue more with their colleagues. They stress about their coworkers listening to their private conversations. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They are subject to loud and uncontrollable noises which raises heart rates and cortisol levels Makes people more quick-tempered and slow to help others. Excessive stimulation seems to impede learning.
The simple act of interrupting is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.
I found your website because I am problem solving to help find shade in a cube setting for someone with migraine headaches.
Many, many thanks to your post!
I have been reading your comments and I also suffer from migraines for over 30 yrs. Seem no one is very sympathetic to individuals who have a neurological chronic medical condition. Is sad when you are disrespected in the work place. I actual made myself and roof over my cubical. I purchase black poster board from the dollar store. and purchase two pieces of wood from home depot and made my own cover so it lays flat. I hope to find a job so I can work from home soon
It’s not just me! I’m an HSP, too. At my old job we moved from a building where I had an office in which I could turn the lights off to another building where I got stuck in a cubicle with overhead lights that killed my eyes. I never thought to put up a tent until now. When a bulb would burn out, I tried to prevent them from replacing it. And when we moved into the new building, the chemical smell from all the new building materials was so strong, it made me really sick with a bronchial issue in a couple of days of inhaling it. Other people said they didn’t smell anything! I’m like how can you not smell that? It’s so strong. It was the week before Christmas, so I was in the office for 2 and a half days, left work early, took a sick day the next day, and then left on vacation (during which I was sick the entire time) for a little over a week. When I got back it still smelled, just not as strongly, and that lasted a month before the smell finally went away. Nightmare. Don’t get me started on my supervisor. lol
As a 42 year old Male, I finally have come to understand that I’m a HSP. I thought something was wrong with me and I’m difficult. Thank God I found this group and discovered the similarities between myself and everything described in this blog and other resources.
**I’ve recently had a desire to take up Stand up comedy and utilize my creativity to share love and contribute to the world. (Any thoughts?) Share what you guys think….:)
Even with a doctors note….I lost against HR to be allowed to use either an umbrella / shade from florescent lighting. Even though it caused me migraines and reduced productivity at work. Very frustrating when you want to do your job & be healthy – seems like a win-win but Nope! Any suggestions?