When your work turns into drudgery, it’s hard to keep going. To thrive, sensitive people need meaningful work, sustainable conditions, and positive work relationships. We also need learning and stimulation—but not too much overarousal. 

How do you create a sustainable work life? For many sensitive people, there’s no simple answer to that question. Work presents us with a life-long puzzle to be solved, a puzzle in which the pieces are always changing as conditions change—sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.

I was pondering this topic when a message announcing the 2020 Wiki Loves Earth photo competition winners arrived in my email. When I saw Michael Angelo Luna’s image (featured above), I was struck both by its beauty and by the caption: “Merely two days after the violent eruption of Taal Volcano in the Philippines, the photographer visits its nearby lake to find locals fishing for tilapia despite imminent danger.” The scene is a vivid reminder of the endless variety of ways human beings balance changing conditions as we strive to earn a living.

Fortunately, we now have a lot of information about what does and doesn’t work for HSPs at work. In her useful, insightful book, Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person, Barrie Jaeger uses the word “Drudgery” to describe the worst kind of work experience: mind-numbingly boring, meaningless, or overwhelming.

Jaeger offers five reasons HSPs end up in a state of Drudgery at work. Before we look at those, though, here are three real-life examples to illustrate some the ways Drudgery can come and go at work.

1—Drudgery from “day one”

Some jobs are sheer Drudgery from start to finish. Take my brief stint as a teenager at Arby’s, a fast-food roast beef sandwich chain here in the U.S. My manager was a twenty-something guy who deliberately mortified me with crude, sexually suggestive jokes. The kitchen smelled like bleach, old iceberg lettuce, and fry oil. The work itself was intensely boring, with occasional bouts of overwhelm during the lunch rush.

Bad relationships, bad conditions, low pay, zero sense of meaning: these are the essence of Drudgery. Arby’s had them all. The two waitressing jobs I held during and after college were picnics in comparison. My managers were respectful. My fellow waiters were fun.

I also made better money, and giving good service meant better tips, so I had some sense of control. As a card-carrying introvert HSP, I still came home totally overaroused after my shifts. However, the Drudgery factor was tolerable, particularly as I knew it was a temporary solution.

2—Work that becomes Drudgery when conditions change

Barrie Jaeger emphasizes that for HSPs, certain conditions can sink even the best job. My partner discovered this years ago when he got his dream job, at the United Nations in New York City.  There was just one catch: the 90-minute commute from Long Island to Manhattan.

My partner is a sensitive person who loves peace and quiet. But he couldn’t afford to move closer to downtown. Three hours a day on the intensely noisy, crowded train turned out to be a deal-breaking condition. The job turned into Drudgery for him.

Ironically, he has since created a work life that frequently requires him to fly halfway around the world—to Nepal, Nigeria, Sri Lanka—to do restorative justice and conflict resolution work. Flying is a form of travel that is manageably overarousing for him. And the demands of the travel itself are more than offset by his love for the work, his connections with the people he meets, and his delight in visiting new places.

Now, with Covid, his work has moved online. He has temporarily lost the stimulating beauty and variety of people, places, and things he used to experience in person on his trips. In addition, he has discovered it’s harder on Zoom to create the kind of connection in a group that you can achieve in person. Because the work itself is as deeply meaningful to him as ever, it still meets the standard for Jaeger’s most rewarding category of work, “Calling.” But he has had to adjust his expectations in the face of major changes in his work conditions.

3—A shift from Drudgery to Craft

During my first career as a professional oboist, a big part of my work was keeping myself supplied with good reeds, which I made myself. Unfortunately, I hadn’t received much help or guidance with reeds as a student. I had managed to get by through sheer persistence. But I really didn’t know what I was doing.

When I got my first job in the Honolulu Symphony, my reed making situation went from stressful to downright terrifying. My confidence was low. The stakes were high. My results were wildly unpredictable. In short, the reed work was worst kind of Drudgery, and the constant stress filtered into my playing too.

Once I left Honolulu and moved to Rochester, though, everything changed. I began working with Richard Killmer, the oboe professor at the Eastman School of Music. He gave me the information and support I had been missing. Virtually overnight, my reed making transformed from Drudgery to what Jaeger calls “Craft”—that is, work at which we are highly competent.

Five reasons HSPs end up in Drudgery jobs

How do HSPs end up in Drudgery jobs? In Making Work Work, Barry Jaeger goes into more detail, describing five ways this can happen. As you read this section, consider the different kinds of work you’ve done and are doing now. Have you experienced any of these circumstances yourself?

1— “The ghost of Drudgeries past:” By “Drudgeries past,” Jaeger means “trauma.” If you have trauma in your past, she explains, it can interfere with your work life by “draining away energy that would normally be channeled into developing both the interpersonal and professional skills needed for a successful career.” In effect, you bring Drudgery with you into the job.

2— “The simple stress-free job:” We may take a job we see as non-taxing, in order to avoid getting overwhelmed. But entry level jobs typically require long hours under rigid conditions which sap the very energy we are trying to protect. In addition, Jaeger warns, we may end up “feeling the loss of connection with others, the ability to do challenging work, and the subtle demoralization that shadows someone in an entry-level job.”

3— “The idealistic path:” Because sensitive people are naturally idealistic, we may allow our excitement about a job to blind us to the ways in which the work itself, or the hours, or our colleagues aren’t a good fit. As a result, burnout is a constant risk for us.

4— “The ‘Icarus effect:’” Icarus plunged to earth after flying too close to the sun. Jaeger describes the “Icarus effect” for HSPs at work:

Some HSPs are sensation seekers…they enjoy new tasks, new opportunities to learn something different, and they especially enjoy a nice big challenge. Repeatedly, they take on a new job that catches their attention. But within a few years, or less, the job is no longer exciting, and in fact has sunk to being boring. Then, like Icarus, the job plunges down into Craft, and then into Drudgery.

5— “The attack from within:”  Jaeger explains that—

 …Another frequent way jobs turn into Drudgery is because of problems within the company: a corporate culture that isn’t right for you, an abusive individual, an unethical decision you can’t accept. All of these have made wonderful jobs Drudgery, sometimes for a little while, sometimes permanently.

Understanding Drudgery can help you avoid it

Now, if you sense your work is edging towards Drudgery, you have tools to recognize what is happening. You can analyze the reasons, then consider your options. Perhaps a necessary conversation will fix the problem, or an adjustment in some condition.

However, many of us fit Jaeger’s description of the “Renaissance HSP,” possessing a wide variety of interests and talents not easily encompassed by a single job. In that case, you may decide that frequent job changes are the best solution to keep you engaged and stimulated.

Last but not least, you might decide to follow the route I’ve taken, by creating a work life in which variety and stimulation are built in. I’m constantly mastering new skills and diving into new areas of information to make me a more effective practitioner. In addition, running my own business provides an unending stream of opportunities (some looked for, some not!) for learning.

Whatever your work situation, I highly recommend Jaeger’s book. Even if your work is stable and satisfying, Making Work Work can give you valuable insight into the choices that brought you where you are now. The more informed you are, the better you can address any issues that threaten to turn your work into Drudgery, and the more quickly you will move towards Jaeger’s happy realm of Calling, in which you express your highest purpose through work.

Image: Thanks to Michael Angelo Luna, CC BY-SA 4.0