Neurodiversity in the workplace

Neurodiversity in the Workplace

This is a guest post by Emma Robdale, a freelance writer who describes herself as neurodivergent. Brighton Digital Women embraces all forms of diversity, so we were intrigued to find out more.

As a neurodivergent individual who also has a job, I would like to share why I have chosen to use this term to describe myself. I will also explore some of my (mainly unfortunate) revelations about the neurodiversity in the workplace to raise awareness of this topic.

What is neurodiversity?

If you have not come across the term “neurodiversity”, it is an umbrella term encompassing a range of diagnoses, including:

  • dyslexia
  • ADHD
  • schizophrenia
  • autism
  • Asperger’s
  • dyspraxia
  • bipolar
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • OCD

It was first used by sociologist Judy Singer in 1996. She believed (rightly!) that many of the current words surrounding “mental disabilities” were inherently negative and wanted to start creating more positive lexis surrounding disability.

Why might people identify as neurodivergent?

There are a number of reasons people may identify as neurodivergent. These are explored below:

1) Solidarity

The term “neurodiversity” is all-encompassing so helps achieve greater solidarity.
If an event is held for neurodivergent people it is likely to attract far more people than if it was just for people with OCD. Some information might be equally helpful to people with anxiety, depression, autism, Asperger’s, or PTSD (e.g. think LGBTQIA+).

However, with that said, it is important to stress that specific experiences are associated with different diagnosis (e.g. bipolar, OCD, autism). Many individuals do benefit from tailored groups and events. Neurodiversity is not meant to undermine people’s individual diagnosis, but give solidarity in terms of larger movements.

Neurodiversity and solidarity

2) No need to specify

You can identify as neurodivergent without having to specify a specific neurodiversity (as I’m choosing to do now!).

Neurodivergent individuals may be comfortable with people knowing that they are neurodivergent, but not want them to know an specific diagnosis. This can prevent people making specific assumptions and enables a neurodivergent person to disclose only as much as they wish.

Added to this it is common for neurodivergent people to have more than one official diagnosis. For example:

“I have dyslexia, dyspraxia, OCD, autism, ADHD, depression and anxiety.”

Many neurodivergent people are averse to describing elements of themselves as a list of labels, and would rather say, “I’m neurodivergent.” Elements of their personality have been labelled by medical industries to help identify certain traits, however, in reality, a neurodivergent person has one brain with all parts interacting.

3) Shared experience

People who are neurodivergent are likely to share similar experiences and stigmas.
Many neurodiversities have overlaps and similarities by nature, e.g. high anxiety, depression, problems with processing information can all be affiliated with many diagnoses. People may also experience similar situations, such as deciding if to take medication, or needing to see a therapist.

However, it is not necessarily only these similarities that link neurodivergent peoples. Their shared experiences can often stem from how “neurotypical” people perceive neurodivergence, and how that translates into social and working environments.

For example, as neurodiversity is often “invisible”, a person with schizophrenia and a person with ADHD might both have to ask for reasonable adjustments to be made in a workplace. They might both worry about how an employer will react if they disclose.

Sharing neurodiverse experiences

Neurodiversity in the workplace

The good news is that pretty much all neurodiversities are legally protected under the Equalities Act 2010 (whoop!). However (slightly less good news!), many individuals have a challenging time being acknowledged because most neurodiversities are invisible.

Unfortunately, this can equate to some employers believing them to be ignorable. Which, sadly, leaves many neurodivergent individuals feeling incompetent, anxious, and fearful for their job. (A situation that I’ve been in.)

A shop keeps a chart of how many items each staff member sells per hour. Yours are consistently less than the expected average. Other colleagues might make fun of you for being slow. Your boss says that you need to improve. You explain that you’re dyslexic but are told to stop making excuses. Unless you improve you will be let go.

Unfortunately, the above scenario (my experience!) is far too common. And the best advice I can give is:

Always get support from a witness

If you have a conversation with your employer get a member of a union (ideally), a trusted colleague, or the head of equalities (if your workplace has one) in there with you. Make sure that your witness is in the meeting. And make sure what has been said is recorded so you can refer to it.

Just because people are legally obliged to respect the Equalities Act does not mean they automatically will. In my own experience at a workplace (which I will not name) I was told by my manager to find a new job. However, after getting a third party involved, reasonable adjustments were made.

REMEMBER: Employers behave much much better when monitored (you will feel more secure too!).

Get a doctor’s note

Also, I know it is the last thing you want to do when having problems, but if something is anxiety/stress/depression related (such as sick leave/time off), try to get a doctor to back you up. Not all bosses will understand neurodiversity, but having medical evidence will put you in a much stronger position.

To sum up: sadly, people can be A-holes, but employers are legally obliged not to be.

Disclosing

Fortunately, not all employers are awful people. That said, sometimes perfectly understanding bosses just don’t understand. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t want to. If you feel your employer is a decent person, tell them what’s going on for you (preferably still with a witness).

The difficulties neurodivergent people can have in the workplace are vast. So, even if your boss knows your diagnosis, they might not have anticipated the right way to help. A face to face discussion is generally needed for reasonable adjustments. Also, it can sometimes be the case that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. You shouldn’t have to struggle unnecessarily.

Many neurodivergent individuals (myself included) have a certain amount of embarrassment around disclosing neurodiversity. Neurodivergent people may have masked problems for years (which could cause them intense psychological stress) and only decide to disclose because they’re at breaking point.

I urge you not to wait until then. I know it’s hard, but try and make the workplace comfortable from the beginning. And, if you are an employer, keep in mind that a neurodivergent person might feel very vulnerable when disclosing.

Things I’ve learned

  • Some employers react better than you think.
  • Some don’t.
  • Probation can be a dangerous time. Either disclose early and rely on legal support, or, if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, mask well!
  • If your employer is blatantly refusing to make reasonable adjustments, seek legal advice/help.
  • There will always be other neurodivergent people in your workplace (even if they’re masking well!). You are not alone.

Moving on

It is unfortunate when you have to leave a role, but do not stay in a place that compromises your wellbeing. There are good employers out there, and if you have tried everything and are still in despair, there is no shame in leaving. This is something I’ve sadly had to learn!

You have not failed, they have failed you. It might feel like they have won, but spending years in a place you’re not appreciated is losing. Fighting as an individual can be exhausting, but as a community we will have the strength to move forward.

Takeaway

Things are getting better (in some places). Views are changing (with the help of legal support!).

To any neurodivergent kin: hopefully the need to mask will become less necessary, and with the help of a larger network of neurodivergent people, things will continue to improve. Some workplaces are already very supportive (I’ve heard it said). I could simply be jaded from my own personal experiences.

I am a proud but wary neurodivergent individual.

Any more thoughts on neurodiversity and strategies in the workplace? If you’ve had your own experiences and would like to share strategies, I would love to hear your comments!

A massive thank you, Emma, for sharing your experiences with our community — from the Brighton Digital Women team.


Freelance writer and content strategist by day. Brighton Digital Women director by night. I write about health, wellbeing, and marketing. When I'm not writing, I enjoy connecting people through Brighton Digital Women's inclusive events. I'm outspoken about mental health and believe sharing our experiences reduces stigma.

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