What I’ve learned when neurodivergence has been hard to talk about at work. And the change I’ve felt when it isn’t

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about careers, ambitions, progression and the goals we all set ourselves, whether intentionally or not. I’ve written about finding an inclusive workplace and the difference it makes when everything feels more accessible. I’m pretty open online and in writing about my ADHD & Dyspraxia these days, but despite years of shouting about this stuff, leading workshops, writing letters to anyone who would listen and speaking on several live radio programmes, sometimes neurodiversity doesn’t feel a comfortable topic of conversation. And rightly so, the first rule of sharing anything personal whether online or in person, is that you don’t owe anyone all of you. You can choose which bits of your story to share. And why. The why is important. I often ask myself in the comms I produce at work; why am I sharing this? Why does it matter? Why should people know? Asking yourself why helps to frame whether it is relevant right now, or if it can wait. And to judge if it needs to be shared at all. When it comes to sharing in a context that is not the communications of a charity, we need to first be honest with ourselves before we can begin to trust and be honest with other people. And we need to be in an environment that cultivates and allows this honesty.

It is only now that I am in a place where I feel listened to and accepted at work, that I can put together some thoughts about why it is so hard to vocalise how we feel in the workplace and to start those conversations about the barriers we might face. These barriers are often the assumed ‘easy tasks,’ resulting in years of workplace trauma and a feeling of “I’m just not good enough to be here.” If you don’t feel good enough, the last thing you’ll want to do is be honest about your vulnerabilities and the idiosyncrasies of your brain.

But why can’t I just do that thing?

The perceived simple tasks can be as everyday as struggling to find your way around a building you’ve been to many times before. Or having to rely on google maps so much for routes you do regularly rather than trusting your brain, to be taken the long way round with no understanding of how to get off the scenic route. Google maps makes you late for a meeting, again. Other days before work you worry about finding your way to a new place more than the work itself, so you overcompensate by setting off several hours ahead of when you need to, only to make yourself exhausted.

It can be forgetting your keys when you’re in charge of locking up after a youth session at night, and failing to remember to text on call to say you’ve arrived home safely, triggering phone calls from annoyed managers who want to sign off for the night, then eventually the police. Sometimes when you’re not forgetting things, you’re asking a lot of questions to help you process information and give you the reassurance you need, this leads to your colleagues misreading you as being difficult, and managers questioning your ability to cope.

During an induction for one job you take notes but because of the time it takes to process new information, your notes make no sense and you fail to turn up to a meeting the next day; a meeting you were explicitly told to make a note of. Or you put the wrong date in your calendar and turn up early or late. Sometimes you don’t get paid for your 0 hours sessional work because you didn’t get your timesheet in on time, and no one offers accountability to support with challenging admin tasks.

Sometimes you loose focus and struggle to know what to prioritise and so miss your deadlines, or end up hyperfocussing and working over your hours to get things finished. You regularly spend longer than you should on a piece of work because you can’t judge how long it will take you to finish without a clear structure and deadlines. Other days you feel so overwhelmed by a busy noisy office, that you need time away on your own; this makes people assume you are being rude or unsociable. Most days though, the practical tasks are challenging, and you fear the tea run and your clumsiness making you spill it everywhere, adding further to any social awkwardness and appearing incompetent. Your colleagues don’t understand why you never offer to make the tea for everyone when you head towards the kettle, it becomes a topic of office banter. When working in a school you are told to organise a crochet club for 7 year olds. Your lack of fine motor skills and dexterity makes you pretty much a spare part during this session. Another day you’re asked to get a 5 year old to rub out a drawing he had worked hard on, this triggers memories of your own school experiences and you walk out in tears. You are pulled up for questioning your manager and not doing as she had asked. In youth sessions you hope there isn’t any activities that involve ball games.

On other occasions colleagues shout at you for getting things wrong, managers will try to get you to talk it out as if they’re dealing with some playground argument. One time you’re sent to mediation with a colleague, where she proceeds to spend the hour telling you how awful you are, and what this has done to her. On other days an activity you had planned for young people is sabotaged by colleagues who don’t like your way of doing things. You’ve been told you can’t be this, you shouldn’t do that, your Myers Briggs personality doesn’t fit. Concerns have been raised about your personality by more than one manager, in more than one workplace. You’re shamed for not disclosing your dyspraxia sooner. You feel uncomfortable now they know. You confide in a supervisor who appears to know it all; you look at her to guide you, you want to be more like her and less like yourself. She takes advantage of your caring nature and apparent vulnerabilities. You’re told you are not at a level where you can have a say or should worry about strategic thinking, you believe you will never be at a level to be listened to at work. Your anxiety makes you believe that you shouldn’t be there. You stop contributing in meetings and avoid talking to colleagues more than you need to. Sometimes you’re so terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing that you physically can’t speak. You try to make yourself invisible.

Can you see how all of this forming part of your early career story can be exhausting? Some often, others happening once is enough to be bring back difficult memories. All of these scenarios (and more that I’m unable to talk about publicly) have happened to me at work or on university placements over the last decade.

Time, trust and power

I have spent the last few years trying to navigate adulthood, careers, ambitions, who I want to be and where I want to go. Whilst also trying to understand how and why my neurodivergent brain should be accommodated, and dreaming of a reality where that isn’t a question to ask anymore. Those are heavy questions for a 20 something when I first started out on this journey, partly because there’s still so much internal bias, stigma and prejudices within systems, and secondly because exposing your vulnerabilities is hard. It’s especially tough when we’re first starting to build a career. I didn’t disclose my dyspraxia (ADHD diagnosis came later so that wasn’t an option) when I was very young because I didn’t want it to disadvantage me. I didn’t want my neurodivrgence to affect any opportunities or future career prospects. And most of all I didn’t want to appear different. I say this now with a deeper understanding of the disadvantages I faced at work simply because I was in an environment that was not built to include me. Just writing that sentence breaks my heart, knowing I had to experience all of that to truly value the place I am in now.

Starting these conversations is hard, and when we finally do find a way in to bring it up, the lack of mainstream understanding of dyspraxia and particularly inattentive ADHD means that to get adjustments or a system that is built to include us, we must become an educator first. Most of us don’t want to do this, or aren’t ready to take on this heavy and draining role. I know I wasn’t equipped to deal with teaching others about my brain in my early 20’s when I experienced my first lot of workplace trauma, as I was still trying to make sense of it all myself. A lot of neurodivergent people, especially early on in their careers, don’t have the means or power to make changes in their company or organisation. “No one will listen to the new girl,” you assume. In many workplaces you have to have the status and credibility to raise issues and be taken seriously, and most of us aren’t in an influential position to be involved in structural change within an organisation. Every time I have written a complaint often about workplace bullying, it has been looked at internally within the charities I have worked for and not by anyone impartial, so essentially the CEO and senior managers were investigating themselves.

Most neurodivergent people are accustomed to fighting for things and holding people to account, and sometimes these are really basic things to help us function at work. I say function, as thriving feels like another level. To thrive disclosure needs to feel accessible and easy. Starting these conversations needs to feel like you’re not suddenly exposing your inner vulnerabilities to a new manager. It should support your productivity at work, so you don’t sign off several months down the line with burn out. And if you’re not yet ready to disclose? The system should be built for you; to include you, support your strengths and make work a positive place to be.

A different reality

When I worked for a mental health charity, the one workplace alongside where I am now that hasn’t traumatised me, we had ingrained in us the importance of having conversations. People would ask how you’re feeling all of the time and they wouldn’t take “I’m fine” for an answer, which at first I found adjusting to hard but now I can see why it was helpful. Time would be made for conversations at work, not always mental health or work specific conversations, just general check ins to see how we were. We weren’t judged, it didn’t feel awkward, and I was able discuss a WRAP (wellbeing recovery action plan,) with my manager. I explained to her in detail what I needed from my workplace and her as my line manager if I wasn’t okay, and how they could recognise this before I have to say anything. It’s the kind of conversation you can’t really have on the first day of a new job, but it is an incredibly helpful conversation when you have settled in, and of course you have to trust your manager.

When I was new to the world of work, I feared speaking honestly as I was so worried someone would use it against me. Now with more experience and understanding of my neurodivergence; I disclose on application forms and at interviews, drop a load of papers all over the floor when I first meet people and explain honestly what my neurodivergent brain needs from a line manager in the middle of an interview.

I’m a world away from the trauma I’ve experienced before and being here has given me the space I need to reflect on the dreaming I did years ago, when I always believed I was destined to be my own advocate, fighting for accommodations to make those simple things I shared at the beginning of this piece, easier. But actually I don’t need to anymore – although memories of previous workplaces still haunt me and I often still question myself – I can let the guard down slightly now, knowing there are places out there that are built for us.

Finding a working environment where you can fit means:

  • Being sent a clear timeline of deadlines for the week without having to ask
  • Not having to ‘explain’ anything because the system supports you
  • Someone checking in on you to see if your doing okay
  • Being told when you’ve done something well. The positive feedback meaning everything, because your manager actually means it
  • Having a personal development plan to revisit and monitor progression and progress
  • Not being questioned when you say you need something
  • Being encouraged during a “fun” work activity, even if you are set on giving up
  • A presentation going well and everyone in the team saying so
  • Using virtual to-do lists to keep instructions in one place
  • Reassuring you that it’s okay to ask for help
  • Building in accountability time into team meetings to get admin done
  • Calls to talk you through something when you get confused
  • Recording sessions, so your notes don’t miss important information
  • Emailing a detailed travel plan when working away, so you can keep track of where you have to be and when
  • Reflection and learning forming a core part of the working day. Realising that everyone can always do things differently and knowing there are safe spaces to explore this
  • Being encouraged to keep in contact with your manager, not for micro-management reasons, quite the opposite, to ensure you have a conversation before getting too stressed and overwhelmed.
  • An inclusive, welcoming, accepting ethos embedded across the organisation, with a non biased interview process that focuses entirely on strengths
  • Everyone, what ever their level in an organisation, listening to the whole teams ideas, feedback and reflections

Most of what I’ve experienced doesn’t cost very much, if anything at all. And that’s the thing, being inclusive, accepting, understanding of past trauma and welcoming doesn’t have to and won’t break the bank of most companies or organisations. No one’s going to be any worse off, just because you’re made to feel that you want to be there. It’s about creating a culture where this stuff is second nature, with structured time for learning and developing practices further.

I know most workplace’s are much further away from the practices in my current job – but the fact that my outlook on how I see and understand ‘reasonable adjustments’ has changed – means it’s really not hard for others to build and design an environment with and for us, not just an occasional extension we have to ask to use. And it’s everyone’s responsibility to be involved in that design.

This is what real change feels like. It’s wanting to be there, and knowing my contributions are valued.

This entry was posted in ADHD, Dyspraxia, Inclusion, Mental health, Neurodiversity, The workplace. Bookmark the permalink.

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