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Neurodiversity and Workplace Burnout - WithYouWithMe Project Possible

Mel O'Sullivan - July 14, 2021

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.  

  • Clear task allocation boundaries 
  • Enforcement (strong word – but necessary) of regular rest breaks and time spent at work. 

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.  

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2 comments on “Neurodiversity and Workplace Burnout - WithYouWithMe Project Possible”

  1. Hello,

    As a military veteran & both a racial and religious minority in Australia, I’ve had to balance being both the activist and the pragmatist. For me, openly wearing the Kirpan (dagger) has always been an issue due to people’s preconceived notions and cultural preferences around weapons. Similarly, for the neurodiverse we run into issues on what it means to an individual and what constitutes merit and hard work.

    Anyone who deviates from the norm attracts scrutiny and unfortunately, has to justify to the organization why their special needs cater to the overall organizational goals and amplify the team’s ability to work and meet objectives. However, we also know that the broadened perspectives that diversity initiatives allow us to access oftentimes bring unexpected advantages.

    For those beyond the pale like ourselves we have to be aware that training, administration and teamwork all draw from limited resources such as willpower, workhours and morale (energy). We have to not only justify and advocate for ourselves but also put in an equal or greater effort to produce more work than the average because we are marked out as extra-ordinary. Thus, it comes down to advocating for broad policy changes vs successfully ‘winning’ many small concessions. As long as we have a clear idea of our end goals either approach is fine.

    I am very proud that an Australian company is taking the lead in bringing neurodiverse perspectives into the IT industry. Please feel free to message me,

    Sher Singh

  2. Thanks for the response Sher,

    I recently learned about a concept called "intersectionality". I don't know much about it but it essentially encapsulates the reasons why minorities have to be so vocal and active in advocacy - women military veterans, Sikh military veterans, Islamic, Hispanic, African Australians - any relevant minority group. Essentially we really do have to be twice as good to even "make the norm".

    I knew the dagger was a part of Sikh cultural heritage but didn't know it was called a Kirpan or why it is so important. Thanks for teaching me that. Sadly, we both know there are too many Australians who don't know about the long contribution the Sikh community has made to economic, social and cultural well being in this country - especially the tradition of free communal food/hospitality in the community. We largely have the Sikh community to thank for the presence of Indian cuisine in the Australian diet after all.

    Also a long tradition of service in the Australian Military -

    For myself, I may be courting controversy when (as ex military myself) I say I'd rather be able to see a weapon being openly carried where everyone can see it than concealed. After all - we both know that just because you are carrying it doesn't necessarily mean you intend to use it - or even that you have chosen to learn how to use it effectively. Like every other weapon - it is only a tool after all. Anyone who carries a pocket knife in their handbag or pocket is technically carrying a concealed weapon. This does not mean I want to see people carrying automatic weapons in the grocery store - that kind of behaviour is illegal in this country. As is the carriage of weapons (religious or otherwise) in our schools. Like you I believe pragmatism and common sense are the key words to apply. After all - we have to give thought to the historical context of the culture when these traditions started - some of which no longer apply in the modern world.

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