Navigating Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Challenging Stigma, Celebrating Strengths

For the last week of Mental Health Month, we partnered with the UBC IT Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Committee to discuss neurodivergence in the workplace. Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many ways and often refers to conditions like autism, ADHD, and learning differences. It is estimated that 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent. To gain a deeper understanding of the neurodivergent experience, we met with two of our UBC IT colleagues diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While we kept the names of these colleagues anonymous, we hope by sharing their stories to spread awareness of the complex spectrum of neurodivergence within our teams and beyond. 

Fear of stigmatization 

While people are becoming more comfortable with discussing diagnoses like ADHD and autism, it still can carry a fear of stigmatization, especially in the workplace. This fear can significantly impact interactions with colleagues within an office environment. Our interviewees described how they often make jokes about their ADHD to mitigate its perceived severity. They described this strategy as a "double-edged sword" that helps reduce stigma but can also minimize the real challenges they face. One colleague admitted to saying things like “who doesn’t have ADHD these days?” to try to reduce the weight of their diagnosis. This sentiment highlights the delicate balance neurodivergent individuals must maintain between acceptance and trivialization of their condition.  

Moreover, many neurodivergent individuals may choose not to disclose their diagnosis in fear of being treated differently by colleagues or because they feel that stigma may discourage employers from providing career advancement opportunities. For example, one colleague expressed concern about being overlooked for leadership positions due to the misconceptions of ADHD. These experiences contribute to a pervasive anxiety about being misunderstood or judged, which can inhibit open communication with teammates or management about the struggles they may be facing in the workplace. 

Unseen struggles and benefits 

Neurodivergent individuals often grapple with unseen struggles that impact their work performance and relationships. One interviewee described the challenge of managing social anxiety and the fear of not being liked, which has required significant personal effort to overcome. Another mentioned how they often feel embarrassed about needing to create personalized coping strategies to stay productive, such as reward-based systems and habit stacking. Despite these struggles, there are notable benefits of having neurodivergent colleagues within your team. For instance, the same coping mechanisms that may cause embarrassment may also lead to enhanced organizational skills and creativity. One interviewee noted their ability to see the big picture and manage multiple moving pieces effectively, which can be a considerable asset in dynamic work environments. Another benefit discussed was how having ADHD has made these individuals hyperaware of how people are acting and feeling, which can lead to higher empathy within a team. These strengths, however, are often overshadowed by the shame felt about misunderstandings surrounding ADHD. 

Learning to cope 

Developing effective coping mechanisms is crucial for neurodivergent individuals to thrive in the workplace. Our interviewees shared various strategies they use to manage their ADHD symptoms. Techniques such as habit stacking, using visual timers, and breaking down tasks into smaller, manageable parts were highlighted as effective methods. One colleague emphasized the importance of "letting go of how I was supposed to be" and instead working with their natural tendencies to create functional routines. For example, using the Pomodoro technique to maintain focus (consisting of 25 minutes of work time with 5-minute breaks) or setting brief, incremental goals. These approaches help mitigate the overwhelming nature of large tasks and foster a sense of accomplishment. Additionally, finding ways to stay organized, such as checklists and crossing off completed tasks, can significantly enhance productivity and reduce anxiety. 

What employers and colleagues can do to help 

Support and understanding from employers and colleagues is vital for creating an inclusive workplace for neurodivergent individuals. Drawing from insights provided by Harvard Health Publishing, simple adjustments can help make a workplace more comfortable for those with neurodivergence, including allowing for individuals to doodle or knit during meetings to help them maintain focus, providing advance notice to any major changes to work tasks, and not making assumptions about an individuals’ needs. Interestingly, both colleagues discussed how virtual meetings have drastically helped their focus because they do not need to make eye contact with attendees and can keep their hands busy with things like drawing without being noticed.  Additionally, providing concise verbal and written instructions for tasks and breaking tasks down into small steps can greatly assist neurodivergent individuals in their work. Both interviewees emphasized the importance of clear communication, concise instructions, and empathic attitudes from colleagues and employers. By incorporating some of these strategies, employers and colleagues can create an environment where neurodivergent individuals feel more supported and empowered. 

Looking at how you can further support autism and neurodiversity in the workplace? Consider taking UBC’s Workplace Learning free, self-paced online program for anyone interested in inclusive employment and learning practical strategies on how to support all employees to be successful on the job. 

Article written by Yvonne Hopkins