Mental Health and Neurodiversity

There is little doubt that modern living and, more specifically, modern working, is more stressful. This change is due to many factors – ‘always on’ culture brought about by technological advances, reductions in job security, pressure to balance work and personal commitments and the very changing nature of work.

Managing stress and anxiety in the workplace to achieve better employee engagement and productivity outcomes is at the top of many HR Directors priority lists. Many organisations are developing employee wellbeing programmes that go beyond perks and free massages and are delving into mindfulness and meditation.

The question remains though – how much do these programmes address the underlying causes of anxiety and stress? A mindfulness session can undoubtedly help manage symptoms of stress, but what of the stress trigger?

I’ve been discussing this a lot recently, I meet a lot of people in HR, Occupational Health and Occupational Psychology because of the nature of the work Lexxic does, and it occurred to me – how much workplace stress and anxiety could be attributed to undiagnosed neurodiverse conditions? How many people are stressed or anxious because they find certain tasks or behaviours completely bewildering and they don’t know why? Do they feel ongoing pressure to do things or behave in certain ways that are not natural or uncomfortable for them?

Think about it – Employee A works at a tech firm and is a brilliant software developer, but really struggles with part of their job that involves building relationships and social interactions. Understanding body language and social nuances can be hard work and doesn’t come naturally – and trying to do this is stressful for them. In addition, because they find it harder to interact, they can sometimes be perceived by colleagues as standoffish or cold, which places stress on Employee A’s colleagues as they struggle to form social bonds (that come naturally to them) with their colleague.

Managers too are put under pressure – Employee A has a brilliant mind and produces outstanding code, but the problems with forming relationships within the team is affecting the whole group. What can the manager do?

Better understanding of neurodiversity would perhaps help the manager, team and individual to identify that Employee A is likely to be on the Autism Spectrum.

Just being aware of psychological difference can be a major factor in enabling neurodiversity to flourish in the workplace. Let’s think again about Employee A. If the individual, their colleagues and their manager were aware that their brain worked differently, it would help all parties to understand the difficulties Employee A has with social interactions. Most people perceive the world by how they expect people to be and if people don’t conform it causes both them stress and the person who is ‘different’ stress.

Expectations of behaviour are the foundations of unconscious bias – something I will discuss in a later post, but for now I’d be really interested in your experiences of stress in the workplace that you think might be linked to neurological difference – I’ll wager it is more common than people realise.

Whilst it is amazing that many companies are recognising the brilliant skills neurodivergents can bring to certain roles, it is imperative we think about how they are understood and supported within the workplace to ensure a stress-free environment for them, their managers and their colleagues.

By Nicola James, Founder and CEO of Lexxic

Aidan Healy