In every workplace, there is a level of conformity. Whether that is an expectation for people to follow instructions, or an expectation for people to sit still and concentrate in noisy environments. But in every workforce, there is a level of divergence as well.
Not everyone is the same, and an increasing field of research suggests neurodivergent people are more likely to find some workplace conditions stressful and anxiety-inducing compared to others.
The reason is not agreed upon but anxiety for neurodivergent individuals could stem from a tendency to deal differently with change, and a sensitivity to unexpected stimuli.
It is estimated that roughly 40% of individuals on the autism spectrum have at least one anxiety disorder and individuals with dyslexia are more likely to suffer from depression.
Some neurodivergent people have difficulty in reading people and what to expect from them, which is compounded in a workplace where colleagues constantly interact.
Much like school, where traditional learning can inhibit neurodivergent children’s development, office life can make neurodivergent people feel overwhelmed leading to social isolation and low self-esteem. Mental health and neurodivergence are hereby common occurrences.
So what connects neurodivergent people, workplace conditions and mental health? One theory is ‘working memories’. ‘Working memories’ is the amount you can hold in your focused attention before you start to forget things, and people with dyslexia sometimes struggle with this.
While neurodiverse people can have impressive long-term memories, difficulty in ‘working memories’ can hamper concentration in busy environments, disrupt conversations in packed meetings and create difficulties following tasks if someone is instructed only once.
There is a lack of general awareness about ‘working memory’ issues and auditory memory more generally, and line managers might exacerbate problems through over-complicating instructions or not understanding people’s difficulties with their environment.
In-work support can substantially help to address these issues though with, for example, IT solutions such as software and equipment updates. For noisy environments, the use of headphones and ear plugs can focus attention when working and it might be helpful to find a quieter place for neurodivergent colleagues in the office to work.
Other sensory stimuli like bright lighting can distract those with autism and ADHD so swapping overhead office lights for desk lamps, which mimic natural light, reduces stress.
Offering awareness training to employers and colleagues on mental health and neurodivergence can be beneficial too, and make them aware of the challenges neurodivergent individuals face in the workplace. This could lead to managers repeating instructions more than once and delivering instructions in a sensory format that is easier to process.
Most work desks no longer have trays and filing drawers either. But employee in-trays, post-it notes and additional monitors are common solutions to giving instructions in different ways now.
Time management tools:
Voice to text software:
There is also the option to coach individuals on how to approach these challenges personally and to improve their own internal strategies for coping in the workplace. Support circles and mentoring programmes inside and outside the workplace helps, and external coaches can take a holistic view of the employee’s well-being, including their mental health.
From knowing the rules of a chaired meeting, to keeping questions and comments in note form when needed, in-work support services can tackle problems springing from the environment, employers and employees.
The way a workplace relates to its workforce is integral to how people feel and respond in an office. While there will always be a level of conformity in the workplace, it is important to recognise divergence in the workforce too.
More and more research is showing neurodivergent people disproportionately experience work-related stress, which in turn impacts on their mental health.