The Hidden HR Challenge: Supporting Neurodivergent Working Parents

The Hidden HR Challenge: Supporting Neurodivergent Working Parents

Most neurodiversity articles for organisations are on the theme of recruitment and retention. There are plenty of articles in the media that identify the positive reasons behind recruiting exceptional and diverse skillsets which are being taken on board and implemented by many organisations. It’s great to see that efforts that promote an inclusive corporate culture by tackling judgement, bias and misconceptions via training in unconscious bias as well as supporting neurodivergent self-disclosure and self-advocacy are also starting to become embedded in organisations.

So instead, I want to bring your attention to something you may not have considered – supporting neurodivergent working parents.

Why are neurodivergent working parents a particularly vulnerable group of employees?

Neurodivergent individuals will often experience sensory overload. This is because the level of sensory input can be so much greater than is able to be processed, and employees will be self-regulating and managing this throughout the day. They are likely to be putting in place coping strategies that colleagues and peers will not be aware of.

This can be exhausting and therefore, many neurodivergent working parents will be using evenings and weekends to re-charge in the way that they find works best for them. For some this is walking in nature, for others it’s gaming and connecting with an online friendship group. This downtime can be critical for calming and managing a nervous system that is on super-drive throughout the working week dealing with the overwhelming sensory, and also social demands. One of the best ways that a neurodivergent working parent can restore themselves mentally, emotionally and physically, especially if they are on the autism spectrum, is by taking time out by themselves for peace and quiet. No noise, distractions or overwhelm.

But, family life is busy and neurodivergent employees who are parents are unlikely to be getting that critical downtime to recharge. They will be coming home from work to busy bedtime routines and often spending weekends juggling childcare duties and other responsibilities that come with being a parent such as swimming lessons, noisy children’s birthday parties, soft play venues etc. which can be stressful and exhausting.

Why is this important for an employer to understand?

And how does it affect workplace accommodations? Sometimes Monday morning can bring a welcome calm and peaceful environment and there’s sometimes a valued sense of agency of being able to manage the working week’s diary and scheduling downtime when needed.

It’s important for a neurodivergent parent to use their energy carefully and wisely. Many will do this instinctively so for example, a reaction to not wanting to attend another meeting particularly at short notice, isn’t necessarily a lack of loyalty or a productivity issue, it’s an instinctual reaction to self-care.

Avoiding exhaustion and burnout is important and accommodations may already be in place in the work environment to support an employee, but awareness and mindfulness of the employee’s holistic life helps to create a deeper level of understanding and empathy. In the same way that managers might be mindful of an employee’s extensive caring responsibilities for elderly parents or a recent return to work from maternity leave, an understanding of someone’s life is incredibly beneficial for creating a compassionate and inclusive culture.

Tim, an autistic software programmer, explains that a team meeting first thing on a Monday morning is extremely difficult for him as he needs to re-adjust to the workplace and values a few hours to get his head back into the work zone. Once he has done that, he said his ability to hyper-focus on projects and his productivity are exceptional. “My strengths and challenges are the same as before becoming a parent, but I have found that I need to manage myself better and more carefully since becoming a dad as the challenges can feel exaggerated when scenarios arise such as sleep deprivation, stress at work or disrupted travel journeys into work. My manager is very understanding but it’s taken a couple of years of open and honest conversations, and he’s been able to see that I can deliver over and above what is required when there is understanding of what I need and the right accommodations are put in place.”

So what can you do as an employer to support neurodivergent working parents and employees?

A positive and inclusive working culture across the whole team/department/organisation will be hugely beneficial, as this approach and mindset will automatically benefit neurodivergent employees. This requires a mindful approach to all employee’s individual challenges.

Other ideas are;

  • Encourage self-advocacy amongst all employees. What do they need? An example might be to encourage all staff to share their ‘must have’. ie. what is the one most critical thing they would value and appreciate in order to be able to do their role.
  • Enable working from home where possible if it’s identified as very important to the employee, their mental health and their productivity.
  • Respect neurodivergent employees as individuals as everyone’s strengths, challenges, needs and circumstances are different.
  • Be mindful that the workplace environment is usually not set up to be neurodiverse friendly. Bright lights, noisy areas and a lot of face-to-face conversations may be very draining for a neurodivergent employee.
  • Knowledge, understanding and empathy are critical to a successful working environment and a good relationship with your team.
  • Be aware of ‘masking’, where a neurodivergent employee may seem ok but they’re actually not. Feeling psychologically safe is critical for self-disclosure and self-advocacy in the workplace.
  • Many neurodivergent employees have faced discrimination and bullying in organisations so may be resistant to speak out for what they need. An impartial and objective sounding board such as counselling or coaching can support them moving forwards.

Authored by: Louise Hallett, P&P Coach

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