The Connection Between Neurodiversity and Mental Health in the Workplace

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Mental Health and Neurodiversity

There has ALWAYS been a need for increased dialogue and awareness around mental health as well as solutions for better supporting employees in their mental wellness. However, now more than ever, the issue of mental health is the elephant in the room that cannot be ignored.

Why? We can thank the events of the past few years — a global pandemic that brought new levels of fear and stress and a shift in home-and-work dynamics, not to mention nationwide political unrest and heightened racial tensions. These events have introduced new stress factors that have contributed to higher prevalence of reported mental health issues among American workers, as well as an increase in employees leaving their jobs due to mental health reasons.

With more employees dealing with these challenges in recent years, many companies have been compelled to take a more hands-on approach to delivering mental health support for their employees.

As employers reevaluate and improve their approach to mental health support in the workplace, it’s important for them to realize that this conversation cannot be had without discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

This post will specifically look at the intersection of DEI and neurodiversity in the workplace. Neurodiversity refers to the natural variation in the wiring of people’s brains and how they process information. For example, a company’s employee base will likely consist of “neurodivergent” employees, such as autistic employees, ADHDers, and dyslexics whose brains process information differently than the majority of the population (“neurotypical” employees).

Understanding That Mental Health and Neurodiversity Are NOT the Same Thing

Many people immediately think of mental illness and disability when they hear terms like “autism,” “ADHD,” and “dyslexia.” However, it’s important to note that just because someone is neurodivergent, this does not necessarily mean they have a mental health condition or that they identify as being disabled – they simply process information in a different way.

Instead of defaulting to these stereotypes, employers should recognize that both neurodivergent and neurotypical employees alike suffer from mental health challenges and need to be supported. The issue of DEI comes into play when employers ask the question, “Do ALL of our team members have proper access to the mental health benefits and resources they need?” And “Are we considering the unique needs of our minority populations?”

Paving the way for a neurodiverse workforce is only the first step. The next step is to ensure that employees across all different neuroidentities (as well as all races, sexual orientations, ages, etc.) are equipped with the support systems they need to sustain mental well-being.

Identity “Masking” Negatively Impacts the Mental Health of Employees

Unfortunately, there is still a great level of stigma around both neurodivergence and mental health issues in the workplace, which forces many employees to resort to “masking” their true identities at work for fear of being treated differently than their coworkers or losing their jobs. Masking can take a serious toll on staff members’ mental health and satisfaction within their jobs.

One study found that hiding one’s true identity work is actually pretty commonplace. A poll of more than 1,900 Americans workers by JobSage found that nearly two in three people (64%) are afraid of being their true selves around their coworkers, and seven in 10 say they assume a completely different personality when they’re at work.

Furthermore, nearly two in three employees (64%) say they’ve experienced backlash from their coworkers when a private detail of their life became known at work. Mental health issues and disabilities were among the types of details commonly exposed.

Some employees may be dealing with marginalization on multiple fronts when they are part of multiple minority groups. For example, this may be an autistic black woman, or an ADHDer who is part of the LGBTQ+ community. Individuals who are part of multiple minority groups may face even further adversity, considering that some of these groups are known to experience additional barriers to success in the workplace and access to mental healthcare.

When employees do not feel accepted or valued for who they really are, this can heighten feelings of anxiety and depression and ultimately result in the exit of talented team members from the company. This is why it is so important to create an environment of diversity, equity, and inclusion and a place where there’s open discussion about mental health, along with mental health resources that are readily available to all.

How to Boost Neurodiversity, DEI, and Mental Health Support in Your Workplace

Historically, the workplace has not been set up to be neurodivergent-friendly. Many employers unknowingly have environments, processes, and policies in place that favor neurotypical candidates and employees, meaning these individuals are more easily hired and promoted while neurodivergent individuals are left behind.

In order to foster greater DEI, employers need to adjust their hiring and management practices to be more inclusive and supportive of neurodivergent individuals. This may require them to be more flexible in their scheduling and work site requirements (i.e., allowing for remote and hybrid work), to adjust their communication styles based on the employee’s individual needs, and provide training and education to managers and HR on the latest best practices for supporting a more neurodiverse workforce.

On the mental health front, employers can combat the disparity in access to care by making it a common topic of discussion by leadership (therefore killing the stigma), creating employee resource groups, and offering high-quality, comprehensive mental health benefits to all employees. It can also be helpful to train managers on the various barriers that specific minority groups commonly face when it comes to access to mental healthcare, such as stigma within a specific culture or group, language barriers, lack of diversity among healthcare providers, etc.

Other efforts by employers that have become increasingly popular (especially during the pandemic) include offering paid mental health days, more frequent breaks during work, flexibility to attend mental health appointments during the workday, and four-day workweeks to improve work-life balance. 

The #1 Takeaway

What it all boils down to is that diversity and mental wellness go hand-in-hand. Even with existing mental health initiatives, employers cannot truly build a healthier workforce unless they have DEI practices in place to ensure they’re providing quality support to all employees across the board.

The companies that focus on mental health and employee support from a DEI perspective are the companies that will improve employee satisfaction, reduce turnover, and become more profitable in the end.

Fortunately, there’s greater awareness and more resources available today for employers who want to take a step in the right direction in properly supporting their employees company-wide. If you would like to learn more about how to improve your company’s DEI practices, read about our neurodiversity hiring and training solutions at Uptimize, or contact us here.

Interested in viewing our webinar on the subject? Get free access to “The Connection Between Neuroinclusion and Mental Health”​ 

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