You may think you are doing a lot in the name of neurodiversity and for your neurodivergent colleagues. You may think they feel included and not marginalised or stigmatised. But have you actually asked them what they think and how they feel?
Often even the most well intentioned companies are failing on the neurodiversity front, according to neurodiversity consultancy auticon, which normally undertakes an assessment when it starts working with a new client, to gauge where improvements need to be made.
“A lot of companies that have inclusion and wellbeing at their heart have very good intentions. So, that makes it even harder to discover, often through anonymous feedback, that you are making a lot of effort but your neurodivergent employees still feel they are being negatively impacted,” says Kirsty Cook, Global Director Neuroinclusion Services at auticon (pictured).
Is your OH provider really skilled in neurodiversity?
The other thing that can be a surprise and disappointment to companies doing their best is the fact that they “expected that their occupational health teams would understand neurodiversity and the support needed, but that’s not always the truth,” adds Cook.
Unfortunately, in Cook’s experience, some people would go to their occupational health provider expecting they understand the topic. However this isn’t always the case. She advises any companies serious about neurodiversity and getting the best out of neurodivergent employees to check their occupational health provider’s knowledge on this front, and that it aligns with their own approach. Do they have neurodiversity expertise? Some, for example, have recently set up dedicated business units.
Neurodiversity is a competitive market
“There is a growing realisation that this has become a very competitive market,” says Cook. “We are seeing some providers build neurodiversity training themselves, rather than bring in a partner to do it, for example.”
So, how can well intentioned companies do the right thing, or find the right support?
Cook advises, as well as reviewing the usual credentials, that you actually speak to people who have used the services you are using, or considering: “Lived experience is so important, and so valuable.”
As well as this, she suggests a joined-up approach and regular, consistent communication between the neurodivergent colleague, the occupational health provider and the line manager, or HR, or whoever is managing the case.
As with much wellbeing work, the line manager is central to success, and neurodiversity is yet another area of responsibility to add to their already-overflowing workload. However, Cook suggests emphasis on not understanding the detail of every single condition but, rather, have a general understanding and approach each situation individually:
“It makes it much easier to have a conversation talking about someone’s planning and prioritisation challenges, as well as their strengths, and certainly less ‘scary’ than talking to someone about ‘executive function’ and autism,” she says. “It’s about normalising the conversation and destigmatising it. The best thing a line manager can do is be open-minded and curious to understand the other person.”
You need to have action, not just awareness
But support can’t just be talking and awareness-raising. It has to be coupled with action.
One of the recurrent issues that Cook sees which negatively impacts on the wellbeing of neurodivergent employees is perfectionism. Many neurodivergent people may have perfectionism as a trait, and it means that they often feel highly fatigued at the end of a work day and at the weekends:
“When in a job that suits them, many neurodivergent people don’t know anything else apart from operating at a high performance level, at the same time as managing things like sensory processing and unexpected phone calls and social situations that may be draining for them. So, every work day is a 110% effort day. Sometimes this can come from shame and trauma, having grown up being told they are ‘not working hard enough’ or ‘too lazy’. This can result in a coping mechanism in adulthood to just try harder.”
An employee that constantly puts in 110% effort may sound highly desirable to some employers but it’s not sustainable and it comes at a high cost to the individual’s wellbeing. So, how should line managers and organisations deal with this trait?
Perfectionism and burnout
“They can help a neurodivergent person, or any colleague, with valuable feedback about their work to increase confidence, better communication about what’s expected of them and advising on improved boundary setting,” she says. “This could look like helping someone understand their work is of very high quality and explaining that that level of effort isn’t always needed, or able to be given under the circumstances because of, for example, time constraints.”
The other common scenario Cook hears about is neurodivergent employees using their weekends to ‘catch up’. This is common when, for instance, a neurodivergent person has struggled to finish a task at work due to sensory overload, such as a noisy office or an overwhelming number of meetings.
Commonly, they struggle to regulate themselves after being stimulated/activated. Couple that with masking, that neurodivergent employees often do to fit in, and it’s a recipe for exhaustion. Hence why, if a job is not adapted or suited to them, it’s common for neurodivergent employees to take days off, or even periods off, to restore energy levels.
Role of line managers
Cook remembers one particularly empathetic manager who really took time to understand their neurodivergent team member. They learnt to work so well with this individual that they would give them a ‘percentage score’ at which to pitch their effort:
“They’d say something like, ‘we need you to put in 90% for this task but only 50% for this one as we don’t have time to keep it to your usual high standards or we’ll never get it done to deadline!’”
Yes, admittedly, this level of attunement to a colleague is unusual and takes time as well as much observation of how the individual operates. However, Cook argues that if a line manager takes this time he or she will be rewarded richly by their neurodivergent colleague in terms of less absence and much loyalty, not to mention that holy grail of high performance (see here for more on this topic).
“But without putting in this time to understand your neurodivergent colleague,” she says. “You risk absence, quiet quitting or actual quitting.”
Chief People Officer at Bank of Ireland talks about working with auticon, and the wake-up call its assessment was, in this article