I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been seeing a few similarities in the challenges faced by veterans in transition and neurodiverse people in the workplace. In a previous article I made the statement:
“A neurodiverse team member is like the Big Gun in your team. Their interest and expertise might only impact in one specific area, but when an autistic person brings a skill to the table – they bring it in a big way.”
I got a fantastic response from a manager with a Big Gun neurodiverse team member reminding me about workplace burn out. Military personnel are conditioned not to refuse requests for assistance or formal tasking. From personal experience I can tell you that military conditioning is not easy to break. In a similar fashion is it often difficult if not impossible for an autistic person to refuse a workplace tasking request.
Both communities are prone to workplace burnout.
So what can you do as a manager to protect your Big Guns in the workplace?
Two simple things will get you started.
Let me explain.
You’ll be familiar with the saying - “If you want something done, give the task to a busy person.” Allowing your team to perpetuate that kind of thinking will burn out your Big Guns fast. First of all - fix it so that your Big Guns are comfortable to refuse work requests from team mates. It’s not enough to just tell them that they can – that won’t work. You need to take a Whole-of-Team approach to this. You’ll likely need to put processes/training in place to re-align the thinking of the rest of the team. If you are the autistic person’s direct manager you may wish to fix it so that all tasking requests come through you or another trusted team member until the team gets a good understanding on what is a reasonable ask and what is not. Your Big Gun will thank you for good strong team boundaries around direct and implied tasking- even if they may not be able to say so. Don’t be surprised if you see a positive follow on effect in the rest of the team around tasking boundaries as well.
Second. Don’t expect your Big Gun to self manage when it comes to rest breaks and time off. You are going to need to set strong boundaries for the rest of team around rest breaks and start/finish times for this person. Again – it is not going to be enough to just tell people to take their breaks. To me this is the key difference between a Manager and a Leader. A manager will tell someone to take a break but won’t really care if another team member butts in on the break period and casually asks if your Big Gun “could take a quick look at this when you get around to it”. The neurotypical team member may think they have given the Big Gun a choice – but a request like this is highly likely to be understood as a non-negotiable order.
A Leader will clearly designate the rest times and start/finish times for their Big Gun to the rest of the team and will step in and correct the team when those boundaries are forgotten or ignored. Your neurodiverse team member may not be able to speak up for themselves. Remember – your neurodiverse team member is not at work to socialise and is likely to be more focussed while working. You’ll be getting your money’s worth if you know what I mean. If you need to personally escort them out of the office at the end of the day until they establish a desirable habit – so be it. A leader will monitor task loads and unplanned overtime carefully. Be mindful of when the last leave was taken and fix it so the person can get the rest breaks they need – even if it means a late notice unscheduled day off. A leader will always be mindful of the fact that for many autistic people everyday social interaction and executive functioning is exhausting enough without factoring in excessive task loads and unpredictable start and finish hours.
Watch and see the effect on your team when you show that you care enough about team wellbeing to act on someone else’s behalf.
Think about it.