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Autistic burnout - a checklist for employer responsibilities

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett February 27, 2023
Summary:
In the first of this two-part series on autistic burnout, we explored the symptoms and lived experience of an executive who has gone through it. In this second article, we look at what employers can do to support their autistic workers in order to prevent such a situation occurring, and also what autistic workers can do to help themselves.

priorities

When trying to prevent autistic burnout, or any other kind for that matter, prevention is always better than cure. But making prevention a reality requires a number of key actions: 

Providing education and awareness training for the entire organization 

The aim here is to help employees gain a better understanding of what autism is all about in order to help normalise it and encourage colleagues to be supportive of one another. As Richmal Maybank, Employer Engagement Manager at the National Autism Society (NAS), says:

Understanding is so important because once you understand people and their behaviour, it’s much easier to be kind, and it also helps alleviate some of your own worries about getting it wrong. But even if you do, it’s still important to keep trying.

Creating an open dialogue in this way also has the advantage of helping autistic people, who have not had a diagnosis, to understand themselves more effectively too. It is certainly something Michael Queenan, Co-founder and Chief Executive of data services integrator, Nephos Technologies, who is autistic himself, feels he would have benefited from:

I spent the last 10 years of my life going to see every single specialist I could find. I felt there was something wrong with me as every three to four weeks, I’d end up having to spend time in bed. They all said ‘there’s nothing wrong with you’, and it was only when my daughter was diagnosed that I looked into getting a diagnosis for myself. 

Another approach that can help autistic people feel more comfortable in workplace is to develop clear company guidance on how best to support neurodiverse workers. As Queenan points out:

Currently, it’s about putting the focus on the individual to disclose [their diagnosis] in order to tell someone how to support them. But companies need to be more proactive too – it’s about trying to remove the stigma and an open policy on how to support people would help. If the policy said ‘these are the things we could talk about’, such as how to manage diaries and putting breaks in, it makes it easier to have the conversation. 

Making reasonable ‘accommodations’ (US term) or ‘adjustments’ (UK term)

Employers are under a legal obligation to provide their autistic workers with practical support to do their job should they require it. This could include offering headphones to individuals who are sensitive to workplace noise or allowing them to work more flexible hours. As Queenan points out:

Understanding how best to support people ensures they work in the best way for the company. For example, you may get more out of people if they do three hours in the morning, three in the afternoon and a few hours at weekends. It could be more productive than working the usual eight hours. I myself do better breaking the week up as it’s a better energy spread for me.

Russell Botting, Lead Job Coach at Auticon, an IT consultancy that exclusively employs autistic professionals, agrees:

Rest is a good strategy to prevent burnout, although for organizations to support it, there does need to be collective agreement. But letting people take a break between meetings, for example, could be the difference between burning out or not burning out, working or not working. So it’s about rationalizing adjustments in those terms and realising just how important they are for neurodivergent people.

A common mistake once someone appears to be thriving though is to subsequently remove the adjustments provided, believing they are no longer necessary. But as Maybank points out: 

It’s the same as providing a ramp to someone in a wheelchair and then removing it as they’re accessing the building so well. Because you can’t see autism, people forget that someone is doing fine as a result of the adjustment, so it’s important to be aware that they’ve been put there for a reason – although it’s also worth reviewing them periodically as people’s needs do change.

Ensuring line managers take employee wellbeing seriously

If managers succeed in building a mutual relationship with their team members, it not only enables them to pick up on any potential changes in an individual’s behaviour but also to react more sensitively to their broader life context. As Maybank advises:

Burnout symptoms are not always necessarily obvious or visible so it’s important to check in with people and ask questions, such as ‘are you OK?’, ‘how are you finding work?’ and ‘how are you feeling in yourself?’ It’s harder to spot if people are feeling overwhelmed when they’re working from home a lot, but you may find they’re regularly sending late emails, for example. This could mean they’re overworking or obsessing over missing deadlines, so it’s important to ask what you can do to help. But rather than instantly rush in to try and make someone feel better, take it slowly and listen and try and understand the root cause. For many people, feeling heard is the most important thing of all as it makes them feel valid, and that’s appreciated.

Another useful thing for managers to think about in this context is role-modelling appropriate behaviour. This means not working excessive hours or through lunchbreaks themselves as it only encourages team members to follow suit. 

Last, but not least, meanwhile, is finding ways to create a psychologically safe enough environment for people to feel they can disclose their diagnosis and discuss their needs in the first place. As Maybank says:

It can be hard for autistic people to self-advocate, and disclosure can be a big issue for some. Many people worry about being discriminated against or judged, and others don’t want to be defined by their diagnosis. So being able to have someone you trust is key.

Creating a buddy system 

Because autistic people often lack self-confidence, they can find it difficult to initiate conversations when finding something difficult, points out Botting. This means that providing a buddy - who is not their line manager - to go to for support with day-to-day issues and challenges can prove very helpful.

As for what to do if you are autistic and keen to avoid experiencing burnout, Botting recommends first and foremost learning to recognise the signals that things are going wrong. Here he points to Dr Kathryn Hayman’s ‘self-care battery’ analogy as a useful tool to help people understand the state of their own wellbeing. Botting continues:

People won’t necessarily be aware they’re starting to experience burnout until they are, so it’s important to learn your triggers, symptoms and touchpoints and what they look like for you. Have regular contact with your manager and, if something is going on, touch base on what went well and what didn’t. Talking to someone you trust at either home or work is also a good idea, and peer and community support is very important too.

The same is true of self-care in whatever form that looks like to you, whether it’s engaging in your interest or having a sensory detox. And as difficult as it is, unmask when you can. Many people aren’t consciously aware of when they are masking, which is difficult, but the cumulative impact can result in burnout.

If things go wrong and autistic burnout does take hold though, there are things that employers can do to support their employees. One is putting a welfare plan together, which includes signposting affected individuals to relevant psychological support. 

This plan should be based on clear objectives agreed with the person concerned around expectations going forward, perhaps following input about their needs from a family member. A trusted individual should likewise check in with them regularly and, as Maybank puts it, “ensure they feel reassured rather than rushed”.

My take

I agree wholeheartedly with Queenan when he says:

As an employer, you have a social responsibility to support the people that work for you as you’ve invited them into your company and paid them to work for that company. So it’s your responsibility to support their mental wellbeing. It’s a delicate situation but you need to have open conversations so you know how best to help people in each context.

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