As a kid, I was always academically-mediocre in school. I skated by in classes with C’s and B’s in most subjects, and could never find my footing in subjects like math, science, and languages. I was always deemed the “creative” one, constantly doodling, daydreaming, running around outside, and making homemade gifts for all my friends and relatives. I had a lot of energy, often fidgeting or playing with something in my hands. Being physically active was an outlet for me starting at a young age and especially began to shine through when in college. I improved academically in college and excelled in sports. I earned a lacrosse scholarship, played on the volleyball team, and was even recruited to play softball in my off-season, a sport that I had never played in my life.
Like many young college graduates, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my career. So, I set my sights on working for a company that I was familiar with and had admired from my experience in the world of team sports: Nike. I started there as the administrative assistant to the marketing department and luckily had a boss who took me under her wing. This set my marketing career in motion, albeit accidentally.
I went on to have a successful marketing career working for some of the most admired brands in the world, and was able to excel at all levels. But, I felt like I was always working twice as hard as some of my peers to achieve the same career milestones. At 29 years old, while working for Levi’s, I started to suffer panic attacks multiple times a week. I was experiencing a paralyzing sense of overwhelm, I couldn’t focus on anything important, and I lashed out at my co-workers who innocently stopped by my desk for a social chat. I would lose my train of thought mid-presentation and be hit by a wave of intense shame and anxiety. I wondered if everyone had noticed my very public fumble. I went to my doctor wondering what was wrong with me. She promptly referred me to a psychologist who uncovered that my panic attacks resulted from the significant and compounding life events I was currently in the middle of. They were deeply rooted in living with undiagnosed, and therefore untreated, ADHD for most of my life.
With a late-in-life diagnosis in hand and mid-stride in my career, I embarked on a learning and discovery process about neurodiversity. I eventually came to two conclusions.
Firstly, so much of my adult identity has been wrapped in my work (On average, a person will spend almost one-third of their lives at work!). Secondly, that while society generally positions conditions like ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, and dyslexia (to name only a few) “disabilities,” when they are understood and harnessed in the right way, they can be some of the most powerful tools in the toolbox for employees and employers alike. I began to think about all the ways in which my workplaces and managers could have helped me harness the power of my ADHD for both of our benefits.
According to an article from Harvard Health Publishing, “Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no ‘right’ way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.” Different people think differently. This is not just because of differences in culture or life experience, but because individual human brains are wired to work differently. Much like how racial or gender diversity brings a broader perspective to the table, so too does neurodiversity. We all process and learn information in ways that work for our brains, which means the outcomes will be diverse, and in the case of ADHD, usually much more creative.
Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace is good for everyone, not just those with a diagnosed condition. It encourages empathy, collaboration, productivity, breeds creativity, and helps everyone feel heard and understood. It is also beneficial from a purely business perspective. It ensures that employers are harnessing the strengths of their employees instead of focusing only on areas of improvement, which leads to higher job satisfaction and higher employee retention. As the “great resignation” has recently shown us, when employees are happier and more satisfied, they stay at their jobs longer.
Now that you know a little bit more about neurodiversity and how it can positively impact the workplace, now the question is, how do we make this a reality? Here are a few easy and inexpensive ways that employers can make their workplaces more accepting of neurodiversity as we welcome people back to the office in 2022.
Core Company Values & Culture
The goal: Make neurodiversity a natural part of all Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. Promote a psychologically safe environment that encourages people to share openly about how they think, process information, and work with others – whether they have a neurodiversity or not.
HR and Recruitment
The goal: Share openly about company culture and attitudes around all diversities included in your DEI efforts, especially at the recruitment and interview stages. Ensure that job descriptions make it clear that the organization welcomes neurodivergent individuals.
How to make it happen
Onboarding: Ask employees if they have preferences in desk location based on their style of working and processing information. Offer an onboarding workshop that encourages everyone to learn about their processing modalities and how they can share this information with peers and management.
Employee Resource Group (ERG): Establish an ERG that holds regular programming office hours on DEI topics and allows for open conversations to be held regularly. Offer an anonymous employee suggestion box that allows for feedback and open conversations around possible changes to support neurodiversity and all DEI topics.
The goal: Make small and simple changes to your office environment to ensure all employees get the most out of their days and the way their brains work.
How to create a more neurodiverse-inclusive environment
Breaks: Encourage regular brain breaks – walks outside, walking meetings, breathing, meditation, or workout breaks. According to data sourced from the ADD Coaches Academy (ADDCA), people will usually experience 2 – 4 hours of high productivity & concentration immediately following a 15 – 20 minute session of movement!
Space: Ensure there are enough phone rooms for quiet work/focus time or conversations.
Lighting: Ensure access to natural light for all employees (not just management office space.)
Noise: Install noise-dampening features in working areas.
Establish productive office norms: Encourage meeting blocks to be under one hour to allow for transition time like bathroom breaks or snack and water breaks. Encourage employees to be thoughtful of others’ calendars when booking meetings, for example, not taking up the last 30 minutes in someone’s day. Encourage office behaviors that promote empathy towards how all people work, for example, respecting when someone has headphones on because they might be in deep-focus mode.
The goal: Promote a psychologically-safe environment for all employees by starting with your management and leadership teams.
How to make it happen:
Training: Train management so they feel confident in managing and having 2-way conversations about neurodiversity and healthy workplace boundaries.
Coaching: Work with a coaching organization to provide or subsidize coaching for all employees to get support.
Open conversations: Encourage open conversations between managers and employees about what employees need to be the most successful in their role whether it includes a neurodiversity or not.
Tools and Resources for a Neurodiverse-Inclusive Office
The goal: Consider providing simple tools or subsidizing apps that help people with focus and boundary setting.
How to make it happen:
Subsidize corporate memberships to a meditation app to encourage mental health awareness like Calm or Headspace
Subsidize corporate membership to a productivity music app like Brain.FM
Supply inexpensive tools to all employees, either received upon onboarding or available for daily check out like noise-canceling headphones, visual timers and fidget toys.
Explore the use of an “availability sign” on desks so passersby know when you’re ready to have casual, “stop-by” conversations.
I recently came across an Arianna Huffington quote that read, “The great resignation is really a re-evaluation. What people are resigning from is a culture of burnout and a broken definition of success. In quitting their jobs, people are affirming their longing for a different way of working and living.”
My hope is that embracing neurodiversity will, at the very least, encourage more empathy towards all, not just those grappling with a diagnosis. Neurodiversity is still misunderstood because for many individuals, it’s not outwardly-presented. You can’t physically see a struggle that they might be dealing with daily. A positive outcome of the pandemic is that we have proven that major change in the workplace and the way we work is possible without a loss of productivity. It has also brought about a heightened focus on the importance of mental health across the board. If you are in a position of management or can bring neurodiversity to the attention of your management, consider the good it can do for all employees.
It’s time that employers recognize their position to help forward mental health awareness and openness by safeguarding the mental health of their employees. Small changes will make a big difference in overall employee mental health, creativity, productivity and collaboration.