Why Neurodiversity and Wellbeing Need to be Considered Together in the Workplace

Amanda Kirby

We only have one brain!

Neurodiversity and wellbeing seem to be hot topics in the workplace but are often considered separately. We know that challenges in work because of lack of support or misunderstanding at the least, or worse being bullied, will directly impact your mental and physical wellbeing. For the person and the employer lost productivity and lost talent can be the outcome with people leaving work or needing to take time away from it.

Workplace bullying is characterized by repeated or enduring psychologically aggressive behaviours at work. Bullying isn’t necessarily obvious and can be insidious. Even an obtuse comment masked as workplace banter can still be wounding. One study from 2018 with 79,201 working people from Sweden and Denmark showed that being bullied in work had a impact on cardiovascular health, greater than violent episodes in work. There is evidence that bullied individuals are three times more likely to report a depressed mood. Bullying can lead to anxiety. The impact of bullying can increase cardiovascular risk (e.g., having a heart attack or higher blood pressure).

What about the combination of neurodiversity + mental health?

Neurodiversity is increasingly understood today to represent the different ways we process the world and in which we think, move, hear, see, communicate. It does not represent a single condition but describes our cognitive variability.

While we all have diverse and different brains with billions of different neurones connecting in so many ways neurodiversity also encompasses many people who may diverge from our ‘social mean”. Societal expectations and design are set up for us generally being able to read, spell, write, communicate freely, have good working memory and be physically fit. The reality is that around 20% of will not do all these things and barriers will present to accessing all areas of society as a consequence of this.

Some individuals may meet a diagnostic threshold for neurodevelopmental conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, autism spectrum condition (ASC), dyscalculia, developmental coordination disorder (DCD) – also called dyspraxia, developmental language disorder (DDLD) and tic disorders. Important to note is that these conditions often co-occur. ASD and ADHD, for example which has been long treated as separate “disorders”, are now increasingly diagnosed together alongside a better understanding of the underlying common genetic reasons for this.  

Our brains don’t know that neurodivergent conditions are separate!

What’s the impact on mental health?

Our past can sometimes predict our futures. There is some evidence that the impact of bullying on some neurodivergent children is greater compared to those who are not. This may mean you arrive in the workplace being more vulnerable to workplace stressors because of past negative experiences. Some people frame this as ‘rejection sensitivity dysphoria’. This is a relatively new term which has been used to describe the extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized by important people in their life. It may also be triggered by a sense of falling short failing to meet their own high standards or others’ expectations.

Navigating workspaces can be challenging for some people with neurodivergent traits who require some productivity tools and adjustments to be their best self. Some people have had bad past experiences or delays in gaining support. For some just considering whether to tell someone in work they have ADHD or not for example can cause anxiety. The term disclosure is often used which I think makes one feel we are hiding something. This can cause a sense of shame. At the same time if we decide not to disclose and camouflage who we really are to fit in with others this can have an impact on our wellbeing too. We can see this happens more often for females on the autism spectrum (who are autistic). 

Workplaces need to feel psychologically safe spaces to ask for help. This starts with sound leadership saying that this is a place that encourages this to happen.

Not surprisingly one brain means there is good evidence of increased risks and rates of depression and anxiety co-occurring with neurodivergent conditions at all stages of life. 30% of children diagnosed with ADHD have an anxiety disorder. Autism has also been associated with higher rates of anxiety, eating disorders, gender dysphoria, mood disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, personality disorders, schizophrenia, and substance misuse disorders.

What this means is that we need to embrace complexity. We need to stop thinking of neurodiversity and mental health as separate constructs and focus more on individuals and our individual brains. Workplaces need to embrace the need to recognise each person is different and their support needs may change over time because life is messy! 

You can hear more from Professor Amanda Kirby on this topic at The Watercooler event which is taking place on 25th and 26th of May at Olympia in Central London. The event is all about helping employers connect to achieve the right joined-up mental, physical, financial, social and environmental wellbeing solutions that deliver the best possible outcomes both for employees and for the business.  You can find out more and register to attend free here. 

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Amanda Kirby

Professor Amanda Kirby is CEO of Do-IT Solutions, a campaigner for neurodiversity, and a medical doctor. She comes from a neurodivergent family and is also an emeritus professor at University of South Wales, and an honorary professor at Cardiff University in the UK. She has written many books on neurodiversity, including the most recently published book “Neurodiversity at Work: Drive Innovation, Performance and Productivity with a Neurodiverse Workforce” with Theo Smith.

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