Supporting neurodivergent staff in the post-lockdown workplace


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Matthew Trerise and Angela Armstrong discuss the challenges neurodivergent people may experience when returning to the workplace post-lockdown, with practical tips on reintegrating employees.

Employers have an opportunity to use their collective experience of the coronavirus pandemic to drive a positive, cohesive shift in workplace culture. They can redesign the outdated nine-to-five office lifestyle.

If we re-evaluate what we value in working culture, how we work, and what we actually need to maximise outcomes, this will provide more opportunities for a diverse and neurodivergent workforce to thrive.

Flexible and remote working

Flexible and remote working practices have demonstrated that many people work equally, if not more, effectively from home. Neurodivergent people are often significantly more productive and under less personal strain when distanced from workplace/commuting, sensory overload and non-essential social interactions.

We must increase our efforts to accommodate individual working preferences as opposed to making staff adapt to a one-size-fits-all model.

Advice

  • Increase the number of supervisors, managers and leaders who are proficient at managing remotely by outcomes/results rather than by task/presenteeism.
  • Global businesses like Twitter recently announced that all staff can work from home indefinitely and many others have followed suit. This clear direction and certainty can help reduce anxiety and speed up the process of establishing new routines.

Disruption to usual routines

Many neurodivergent people throughout lockdown have experienced difficulty navigating public spaces, even with social distancing and guidelines in place. Some have struggled to adapt to guidelines that disrupt typical behavioural routines, display conflicting advice/information, or situations where others are not adhering to the rules, for example in shops or public transport.

If organisations are considering job redesigns, redeployment or mergers between two roles, they must consider the capabilities of each employee.

Advice

  • Provide clarity with health and safety notices
  • Fewer environmental transitions may have become the norm – returning to a workplace is more stressful if you’re someone who needs minutes to transition to new environments and resettle your energy. Going from home to public transport to work to the canteen to work, back on transport and home again requires six environmental transitions. Some might be more affected if they also need to transition on a more local level between meeting rooms or different buildings.

Sensory overwhelm

Some neurodivergent people are hypersensitive and sensation avoidant, others are hyposensitive and sensation seeking. The impact of sensory overload on returning to the workplace is not to be underestimated.

Advice

  • Ask staff if they prefer not to be touched before any meet ups, as there is likely to be more intense interactions in the early days.
  • Respect that some individuals may be medically exempt from wearing a face mask due to sensory issues.
  • Restrict the urge to go back into offices that are solely ‘open plan’ – provide areas for project work and quiet zones.
  • Continue using video calls for meetings even when back in the same building or consider a reduction in face-to-face meetings. Video calls have been very beneficial for many – only one person can speak at once, there is an audio-only option, volume control, reduced direct eye contact and less physical proximity.

Mental health

There may have been increased risks of co-occurring mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. An abrupt return could significantly exacerbate symptoms for those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and lead to increased or problematic safety behaviours like excessive hand washing and cleaning rituals – especially as we have been instructed to avoid public spaces and not use shared equipment for months.

Advice

  • Provide reassurances throughout the building for how often rooms and toilets are cleaned to reduce anxiety.
  • Furloughed staff may need more time and care for a return to work. They will likely have had limited work interactions and workloads, routine changes, and, most importantly, they may feel additional anxiety now for job security.
  • Encourage staff to learn or develop skills in the build-up for a return to work that may increase confidence. Internal training programmes will encourage staff to share concerns and useful coping mechanisms.

Social overwhelm and reduced confidence

We must consider that many people in society, especially people with communication difficulties or social anxiety, who typically have smaller social circles, may not have had as many opportunities to communicate with others during lockdown.

This could mean that some will have been very isolated for months and may benefit from a phased return to the workplace.

Advice

  • Mental health conditions may have been exacerbated over the lockdown period, so it is essential to do a wellness review prior to a return to assess anxiety levels, degree of previous isolation and whether someone is less confident with social interactions.
  • Let all the extroverts return first, as over-exuberant celebrations will be ‘too much’ for some – perhaps provide an option for a delayed return to the office until a week or two after the majority if that is preferred. Ask staff to use that time to gradually go out more and get used to environmental and social changes.
  • Limit how many people go back into the office each day and try to encourage set space for individual teams. Consider certain teams working from home on allocated days of the week.

Build awareness and advocacy

Failing to consult neurodiverse individuals in the design of changes put in place to support them is likely to be ill-informed and could do more harm than good, even if it is well intentioned. Open dialogue and consultation can go a long way here.

Advice

  • Mandatory training for all staff about neurodiversity in the workplace will help – educate others, make simple adjustments.
  • Have a neurodiversity representative (employee, advocate or consultant) available to the HR and L&D departments to help assess current practices and advise on small changes that can make a huge difference.

Now is a time for innovation and redefining how your business interacts – not just with your customers but also your employees. The neurodiverse community have a key role and can produce extraordinary results but may need some reasonable adjustments in order to thrive.

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