Neurodivergent workers are burning out at record pace — here’s what employers can do to improve support

Female office workers in discussion with a male colleague in an open plan office space.
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Neurodivergent tech workers are at particular risk of burnout due to the stress caused by ‘masking’ in the workplace, according to research, prompting calls for greater support options for staff. 

In the UK alone, there are five million people who consider themselves to be neurodivergent, with conditions including autism or autism spectrum disorder, ADHD or ADD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show only 22% of neurodivergent adults are in paid work, thanks to problems such as office politics, time management, and unannounced meetings.

Other barriers include small talk and office politics and sensory stimuli such as background noise, bright lights and strong smells.

The challenges faced by neurodivergent workers across a range of industries have prompted repeated calls for employers to bolster support schemes for this workforce demographic.

Delving deeper into this portion of the workforce, research shows that neurodivergent women are at particular risk of burnout.

A study conducted by Code First Girls, for example, found that 90% of female respondents had dealt with this issue due to factors such as sensory overload and the energy required to hide certain traits in workplace environments.

Ed Thompson, founder and CEO of Uptimize, which helps organizations support neurodivergent staff, said that masking can take a significant toll on workers and must be addressed by employers.

"Neurodivergent masking might be the big contributor to burnout you never knew you had," he said.

"Neurodivergent workers specifically, such as autistic people, ADHDers, and dyslexic people, frequently feel like they have to expend significant energy to mask their neurodivergence. Not surprisingly, this can make them particularly prone to burnout."

Code First Girls’ report noted that inclusive hiring practices should be a key focus for employers dealing with neurodivergent talent.

Furthermore, this should start at the early recruitment stage, and could include making questions available ahead of time, providing an itinerary and directions, or by simply creating a welcoming environment free of too many stimuli.

For staff already in the door, tailored adjustments should be made, led by workers themselves, such as hybrid working, and amended hours to accommodate energy peaks or role flexibility.

"Extra time to complete tasks, extra breaks when I feel overwhelmed, and additional equipment to aid me in my daily tasks," said Daniella Polor, Code First Girls ambassador.


Essential skills for managers: Develop resilient employees

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Build empathy within your leadership team

Company-wide neurodiversity training can help build a more inclusive atmosphere, the study noted. With neurodivergent women 1.2 times more likely to still be at a junior level than their neurotypical counterparts, employers should also provide mentors to help them navigate office politics and decode career progression opportunities.

Meanwhile, leadership metrics might need a rethink to shift away from being personality-based to becoming led by skills. Organizations that foster diversity, Code First Girls said, are 87% more likely to make better decisions, 56% better at job performance, 36% more profitable, and have half the levels of employee turnover.

"As many as 15 to 20 percent of people may be neurodivergent in some way. At work, because of cultural ignorance, many are uncomfortable disclosing their neuroidentity," Thompson said.

"And because neurodiversity is a human fact - no two brains are alike - whoever you are, you already work in a neurodiverse team, regardless of whether colleagues are openly sharing that they are neurodivergent."

Emma Woollacott

Emma Woollacott is a freelance journalist writing for publications including the BBC, Private Eye, Forbes, Raconteur and specialist technology titles.