“I mean I know she always delivers in the end, but does she have to be so rude, sitting there with headphones on all the time?”
“Creative sure, but she’s just a bit weird though isn’t she, repeats herself in meetings and never knows where we’re going or what time we’ve to be there, it’s a nightmare when you have to let her be client facing...”
“Always looking out the window, I swear she’s somewhere else half the time, maybe she just thinks she’s too important for this conversation, somewhere better to be…”
“So frustrating, she has never done the pre-read or even looked at the brief before she steps in the room, and don’t even get me started on how little attention she pays to the charts I’ve spent ages putting in the slides,,,”
An End to Silencing our Secret Selves
Be honest. Have you ever heard something like this said at work? You might have even said it yourself. But have you considered what invisible challenge might sit behind these assumptions and judgements?
Last year at BloomFest, we challenged ourselves to break the silence about our “Secret Selves”, those secrets that we keep to keep our jobs. The secret selves we fear to reveal to colleagues, to clients, to anyone who might see that we don’t fit with the perfect extrovert ‘adland ideal.’ The secret selves we bury so we don’t risk judgement, or being labelled ‘a bit difficult’. The self that in fact might still be so secret, even we aren’t aware of its definition.
For over 15% of the population, that secret self, that hidden challenge might be their neurodiversity. For many, pre-existing conditions can be triggered by workplace stress. For some, despite increased awareness, they may not even be aware of their neurodivergence, or not feel like they have the permission or confidence to vocalise it. For others further on their journey, adaptations, interventions and self-management techniques can work to limit the effects. But for some, the impact of that ongoing silencing, can have a devastating impact on their mental health.
What Neurodiverstiy Means at Bloom
Put simply, neurodiversity is a collective term that refers to neurodevelopmental conditions like ADHD, ADD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and Tourettes, as well as mental health conditions such as anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, schizophrenia, OCD and anti-social personality disorder.
Mental health and neurodiversity are resolutely not the same thing, but they are interconnected - your brain is your brain, your wiring is your wiring, and neurodiverse people quite literally “think differently”: and those thoughts are not always positive or manageable.
But although it’s not possible to separate neurodiversity and mental health, and it would obviously be unhelpful (and incorrect) to label all conditions as mental illnesses, we can surely agree the need for a focus on the mental health of the neurodivergent, particularly when given current conditions, we are all thinking about the future of work with a new sense of focus, and hopefully, empathy.
So whilst one doesn’t necessarily equate to the other, there’s an increasing amount of research that shows a link to increased depression, stress and anxiety, particularly at work, and often over and above the day to day effects of living with some of the challenges that any of these conditions present. The impact of workplace stress on mental health and wellbeing has been (relatively) well documented, but the story of neurodiversity within that narrative hasn’t necessarily been.
Although in many ways we have moved past the language of ‘cure’, ‘treatment’ and ‘disability’, and the awareness of the strengths that those with neurological differences can bring to the table is ever increasing, there’s still some way to go in developing a wider understanding, and embracing of what neurodiversity, particularly in the workplace, and especially when it comes to mental health. It’s time to think about the “I” in Diversity and Inclusion.
What Neurodiversity Means to Me
I may have only dealt with ADHD diagnosis as an adult, but looking back, the adaptation and coping mechanisms I successfully use stretch back to at least my teenage years. I’ve managed to almost subconsciously build an external system for organising my thoughts, my work, my life, that replaces and supports the one missing inside my head. My neurodiversity journey is my mental health journey in many ways - they are inextricably linked. My brain is one set of wiring, my chemicals, my cycle, my hormones - they influence both. (And the latter? That’s not a weakness of my gender, it’s a reality of my humanity.)
I’ve come to think of the way my ‘condition’ manifests itself most days as my brain being like a waterfall. (Tthink less like an idyllic hidden lagoon in a shampoo ad, and more like Niagra Falls.). If I don’t build a hydroelectric power plant to harness and channel the power of all that water, it will be at best wasted, and at worst, I’d drown in it.
Some days, it just flows. Everything works right, and the hydro plant hums away nicely, doing itsit’s job, powering me up and keeping the lights on. Sometimes there’s a blockage, and there’s not enough power, and I know when I’m honest, I can release that block by working it out with others, or take the time to figure that out on my own. Sometimes there’s too much power, and I get overstimulated and overwhelmed, and I know I need to check out for a while to focus on the noises worth listening to and block out the ones that aren’t.
Sometimes I’ll become too focused on tinkering with how the hydro plant works, and will waste an entire day thinking about the equivalent of one tiny dial on the massive control desk, and others I’ll make an impulsive decision to paint the whole thing pink in the space of 5 minutes. Sometimes there’s a power surge, and if I channel it right, I’ll get hyper focused enough to achieve a full week’s work in a day.
And then sometimes the pressure of the waterfall builds up, and I will feel something running down my arm, only to discover that it’s my own blood, and in order to stay present in the meeting and not interrupt, shout out, vent my frustration or get out of my chair, I’ve dug my nails so far into my own forearm, I’ve drawn blood.
Addressing the Challenges at Work
In every environment, there’s a natural level of conformity. Every workplace culture, no matter how seemingly alternative has some rules and expectations, some are unspoken which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always heard by everyone, and even when they are, they might not make sense. The assumption that even if you come in ‘different’, it’s on you to adapt when you arrive, can have a significant impact on your mental health. Not being able to bring your whole, honest, true self will rarely result in your best work. And diversity isn’t diversity if it’s only about adopting the minority into the majority and forcing them to adapt.
Where neurodiversity policy even exists, research has found it’s rarely adhered to. Some workplace conditions are more anxiety inducing than others: a sensitivity to a certain type of level of stimulus might not be recognisable to everyone, The open plan office is one person’s brightly lit, exciting, vibey, collaborative hotbed of creativity; and another person’s over-stimulated, distracting, noisy, overwhelming nightmare. (Hence the ‘she’s so rude’ headphones…).
Think of your working memory of your brain like that of your computer: quite often, neurodivergent people already have quite a few tabs open, just to process and deal with the basics of the working day. Start to open too many more tabs and focused attention might be a challenge, details being thrown at you might not even get logged, and although you might have a super impressive long term memory storage drive, end up with too many tasks, tabs and programmes open at once and you get the inevitable spinning wheel of doom, or worse, the crash. Repeated stress at that level can cause aftershocks, initiating episodes and spirals in some conditions that only compound the initial problem.
It’s getting harder for everyone to focus, concentrate and think everywhere, never mind at work. As frustrating as that can be for some, factor in a challenge with say reading, following or tuning into any of the information in the first place, for others the anxiety that can trigger can have serious impact on mental health that lasts much longer than the last ping of the Whatsapp or the vibration of the Slack notification.
So What Can I Do?
This is just my experience - that’s all any of us have in reality. Not everyone with any kind of diagnosis (working or confirmed) manifests in the same way. But we can draw on it, and use it to think about how we can channel our empathy into action, and how we can reduce the impact on mental health that can be compounded by work, an environment the vast majority of us did not design, and do not control.
Striving to achieve a culture and an environment at work that supports neurodivergence and those that might have mental health challenges isn’t a nice to do - it’s a business necessity. Creating spaces where people feel empowered, safe, enabled and able to do their best work will make them do just that. And the best way to do that is to create the platform to simply ask: what makes work work for you? Maybe helping someone else to articulate what they might need. And then actually listening to the answers. (And doing it more than once.)
Neurodiversity might be part of your story, or of someone else in your life, your team, your company. It might be part of the story of someone who doesn’t even know it yet themselves. Either way, we can all be champions: supporting, lifting up, taking the time to think about what might work best for everyone in a room, how we can adapt, reflect, create space for everyone, not just the reverting to ‘how it’s always been done.’ The businesses that win in the 21st century will be the ones who adapt to their workforce, not those who force them to adapt to their workplace.
A More Inclusive Future
Our future as an industry depends on our ability to innovate and harness diverse perspectives to fuel creativity. Insights and real creative solutions often come from the parts of ourselves we don’t all share - surely making unlocking the power of our “secret selves” can only benefit all of us, not just those of us who for whatever reason have had our superpowers hidden?
At this point in our industry we all have a much deeper understanding of ‘isolation’ that we ever did before, so let’s make sure that we challenge our own assumptions, and call out the assumptions of others when they risk shame and secrecy in others. Let’s make sure we consider the impact of the words we use and the environments we create, the processes we use and the systems we build.
Because when we turn our differences into our strengths and superpowers, and when we hold each other up when they turn against us, it’s not just our mental health that will benefit. When we enable ourselves and each other to bring our whole true selves to work, we all win.
Co-Founder, The Fawnbrake Collective