Are you running away from your Neurodiversity?

A couple of years ago I worked with a senior finance manager, Jane, who was questioning if she was in the right job. Despite being very technically competent, and having years of experience, as her workload increased she started to experience strong emotions that knocked her confidence. She would regularly break down in tears in front of workmates and seniors, who found her emotional responses unsettling.


She asked me for techniques to help her control and contain her emotions.


I found myself questioning the root cause of the issue. Was it an emotion regulation issue, a manifestation of working excessive hours, or a neurodiversity issue?


For hundreds of years workers have struggled to fit into a ‘one size fits all’ architype of how the perfect employee dressed, behaved, and tackled work tasks.


How often do we hide behind a mask of conformity at work or socially?


Perhaps we fear that showing too much vulnerability, emotion, or too much of ourselves, might be perceived by others as a weakness?


The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) encourage employers to embrace neurodiversity. [1] As employers face the challenge of ‘the great resignation’ its more important than ever to recognise that people experience and interact with the world around them in many ways; there is no one "right" way of thinking, learning, and behaving. Differences should be embraced rather than viewed as deficits. ­


"Neurodiversity refers to variations in the human brain and cognition, for instance in sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions”.

Armstrong, Thomas (2011). The power of neurodiversity


As remote working, more flexible working hours become more accepted, should we also be making a greater effort to embrace neurodiversity?


The term ‘neurodiversity’ grew from the need to change how we think about developmental disorders such as autism and ADHD. In recent years it has been expanded to include wider forms of cognitive differences, mood and attention.


In my experience, many employers place far too much emphasis on activity (hours worked, working continuously all day) and too little emphasis on productivity (your work outputs). By focusing on productivity our outputs increase, leading to increased wellbeing, a reduction in working hours, and better balance in life.


Man working long hours sitting over laptop

The idea of working eight hours a day originated nearly 200 years ago. [2] In recent years a large-scale meta-analysis study concluded suggests that working for more than 8 hours a day is associated with poorer overall health and with a 40% higher risk of developing heart disease or stress related diseases. [3]


Despite this the long hours working epidemic is thriving. In 2021 employees were putting in an average of 9.2 hours of unpaid overtime per week – up from 7.3 hours from the previous year. [4]


Many employees work more than 50 hours a week.How many of those hours are we fully productive for? 40 hours? 30 hours? 25 hours?


Studies suggest that an individual can focus only their attention on intellectual work for a limited time before we need a break. Whilst some studies say 52 consecutive minutes, others say 1h30. In any day we are only fully intellectually productive for about 6 hours. That’s 30 hours of productive work a week. If we work six hours straight without a break, we are even less productive. [5]


A failure to accommodate neurodiversity, an always-on mentality, long working hours, your working environment, and cultural norms are all factors that further reduce the number of hours that we are productive in any working week.

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So, to return to the issues facing Jane, working long hours were probably the trigger for her emotion regulation issues. But when we delved deeper, Jane reflected that she had “always experienced emotions intensely”. 75% of the time this served her well. When she experienced positive emotions, she experienced a state of bliss, and her experience was very vivid. She did not want to lose this. When she was under pressure or stressed, strong emotions could trigger her to cry at inconvenient moments.


Jane decided to embrace her neurodiversity and be more authentic at work. In tandem with this I provided her with a range of tools to help her to recognise emotions arising and diffuse them before they escalated out of control. Her company made some simple adjustments to allow for her neurodiversity and provided a senior mentor to help her manage her workload more efficiently. She now works alternating four-day and five-day weeks, allowing her to regularly decompress and bring her best self to work.


Different people experience and interact with the world around them in very different ways. One person’s productive working regime may prove highly unproductive for others.


Embracing neurodiversity benefits both employers and employees. Employers benefit from more engaged, more productive workers. Employees benefit by letting go of the heavy burden of trying to be someone they are not and feeling more valued and accepted.


The hardest step for Jane was to trust in who she was.


Do you feel safe to be your authentic self at work?


At times, many of us feel the need to mask our true self to fit in with social norms. At what point does the burden become too great? Only you can answer this.


How can you bring your best self to work?

With love from the Cambridgeshire fens,


Juliet Adams

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Links

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References


  1. https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/neurodiversity-at-work_2018_tcm18-37852.pdf

  2. To create balance it was advocated that each 24 hour day should consist of eight hours work, eight hours rest, and eight hours sleep.

  3. https://academic.oup.com/aje/article/176/7/586/122221

  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinstoller/2021/04/28/employees-are-working-an-extra-day-inunpaid-overtime-each-week

  5. https://youmatter.world/en/schedules-working-days-productivity/


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