Neurodiversity in the workplace refers to the recognition of neurological differences as a form of diversity that can bring unique perspectives and strengths to a team, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, among other conditions.
It is estimated that there are around 332,600 people of working age in the UK with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that approximately 22% of autistic people are in employment. As such, it is highly likely that your organisation will employ someone with autism at some point, or you probably already have!
Employers have an important responsibility to accommodate all employees, which includes employees with neurodiverse traits, such as those with autism. This means providing equal opportunities for employment and advancement, fostering an inclusive culture and raising awareness for autism in the workplace. In this way, you can help support employees with autism to overcome the unique challenges they face in the professional world, one of which is autistic burnout.
It’s not uncommon to experience fatigue and burnout in your everyday lives and careers, however, people with autism are more likely to be affected by these conditions and it can have a severe impact on their wellbeing and work performance.
Let’s explore how you as an employer can identify the signs of autistic burnout, understand how this can affect your employees at work, and what you can do to support your staff dealing with autistic burnout.
What’s in this article?
- What is autistic burnout?
- What are the main causes of autistic burnout?
- What is the difference between autistic burnout and regular burnout?
- What are the main symptoms of autistic burnout?
- How can autistic burnout affect employees at work?
- What can employers do to support their staff dealing with autistic burnout?
- Final thoughts
What is autistic burnout?
Autistic fatigue is a condition that affects many people with autism. It is characterised by extreme mental, physical and sensory exhaustion, leading to autistic burnout in many cases.
Autistic burnout is a syndrome or condition that is typically a result of chronic life stress. The symptoms of autistic burnout often occur after experiencing stress over time, but can also be triggered in response to a single, stressful event.
Those who are affected by autistic burnout experience a state of mental and physical fatigue that comes from being under constant stress, overstimulation and the strain of living up to the demands of life that do not accommodate the specific needs of people with autism.
What are the main causes of autistic burnout and fatigue?
The main causes of autistic burnout and fatigue include:
- Sensory overload
- Suppressing stimming
- High-intensity interactions
- Demanding social situations
- Changes in routine
- A sense of not belonging
- Not meeting the expectations of society or ‘fitting in’
- Taking on more than you can handle
What are the differences between autistic burnout and regular burnout?
Autistic burnout is triggered by the unique challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals as they navigate a world that is not designed to meet their needs, including social and sensory stressors. In contrast, regular burnout typically stems from the chronic stress of everyday life, such as work or personal obligations.
What are the main symptoms of autistic burnout?
Individuals suffering from autistic burnout can experience a wide range of symptoms that make everyday tasks more challenging, and take a toll on their mental and physical health. As an employer, it can be difficult to spot the signs in your staff, however, the main symptoms of autistic burnout to look out for include the following:
- Individuals can experience physical symptoms of feeling unwell, exhaustion and finding it difficult to get out of bed. These can be tricky to spot as an employer. However, you may notice employees are late to work, underperforming at regular tasks, or taking more sick days than usual.
- Cognitive symptoms of mental exhaustion are characterised by the inability to think clearly, process information or solve problems. It also includes struggling to concentrate, remembering skills or even loss of memory. You may be able to identify these symptoms if employees are showing signs of low productivity or the inability to focus on the tasks at hand.
- Individuals experiencing autistic burnout report finding it hard to keep organised and plan ahead. So, you may notice employees showing signs of bad time management or missing deadlines.
- Social interactions can be a challenge for people with autism, and this can become even more pronounced during periods of autistic burnout. As a result, they may avoid texts, calls, emails, and events or take longer to respond than others.
- Emotionally, autistic burnout can be difficult to manage and can make you feel out of control with how you’re feeling. This can lead to autistic shutdown or an increase in meltdowns. Shutdowns can be more difficult to spot, as individuals quietly withdraw themselves from everyone. Whereas, meltdowns will be more obvious and can involve verbally and physically lashing out (shouting, crying, kicking etc.).
- Someone experiencing autistic burnout may become hypersensitive to more stimuli, such as new sounds or smells. This can lead to more stimming than usual or taking part in more routine activities to find comfort, such as eating a certain food. Examples of stimming include arm flapping, rocking or jumping.
- There can also be more serious implications of autistic burnout and, in some cases, it can lead to outbursts of anger, feelings of anxiety, depression or even suicidal behaviours. Although difficult to spot, if you notice any of these, we recommend seeking professional help for those affected by it.
How can autistic burnout affect employees at work?
Burnout tends to impact those who have especially strong cognitive and language abilities, particularly in an academic setting or work environment. As such, burnout is prevalent in the workplace and can have detrimental effects on employee health, wellbeing, productivity and much more.
Feeling physically unwell can lead to employees having to take sick days off work, resulting in missed deadlines or the inability to keep up with workloads. This can be challenging for the individual, but can have a negative impact on the morale of the wider team as well.
Moreover, cognitive exhaustion from burnout can lead to a loss of memory or skills, which can make it difficult for employees to complete their daily tasks at work. This will lead to reduced productivity and impact the quality of work. Those experiencing autistic burnout can also be more prone to procrastination due to a lack of planning and the fear of changing tasks, or shifting between activities. Again, this can significantly impact productivity and efficiency.
Similar to regular burnout, emotional exhaustion from autistic burnout can lead to employees running on empty, which can make them irritable. Unfortunately, this can significantly affect workplace relationships and lead to conflicts. It can also cause employees to disengage from work, reducing job satisfaction and contributing to higher turnover rates.
Employers who fail to support their employees experiencing this, risk creating a hostile environment that heightens the individual’s stress and exhaustion levels. Also, as you can see, the organisation can suffer as a result.
What can employers do to support their staff dealing with autistic burnout?
There are a number of steps you can take as an employer to support your staff dealing with autistic burnout, including the following:
1. Be mindful of your employees’ workloads
Employers can promote an ‘energy counting’ mentality for work tasks. Energy counting activities can be a useful way to help your employees understand what aspects of their job are energy consuming, and what replenishes their energy. This can help you gain a better picture of how much work your employees can handle, so that you do not overload your staff with too many tasks at once.
You should also consider setting up a time management system for employees who struggle with feelings of overwhelm. This could include time blocking or providing them with time management tools.
It can also be helpful to provide transition planning to help employees adapt to new projects or changes in routine. As a result, this can reduce feelings of anxiety brought on by the idea of change.
2. Encourage time off for rest and recovery
According to the NHS, taking breaks at work gives you the opportunity to refocus, boost your creativity, prevent physical discomfort, such as eye strain and headaches, and reduce stress. Therefore, you should make it a priority to encourage your employees to take more breaks.
To help employees with autism get the most out of their breaks, you can provide private or quiet spaces for them to take a step back and replenish their energy. This will enable individuals to take a break from masking their autistic traits, such as stimming. However, quiet zones for breaks can benefit all employees, so you should aim to make these spaces available to all.
3. Create an Employee Resource Group (ERG) for autistic employees
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) create a safe space for employees with shared characteristics to confide in one another, seek advice and support each other. Creating an ERG for neurodivergent employees can offer a space for individuals to be themselves and let off some steam around people they may feel more comfortable talking to.
Sharing problems in an inclusive environment can help reduce stress and take some of the weight off your employees’ shoulders, so that any issues they have are less likely to escalate or lead to more serious problems.
4. Do not make social interactions compulsory outside of work
Work social events can be fun and offer employees a chance to unwind with colleagues and get to know team members on a personal level. This can be great for improving collaboration, working relationships, and team morale. However, it’s important to remember that social events are not enjoyable experiences for all.
Everyone will be different, but many individuals with autism experience feelings of fatigue from social interactions. Social interactions are compulsory in almost every job to some extent, but extending this beyond work hours can be a step too far for some. As such, social events after hours can be a bit much to handle and contribute to autistic burnout.
We’re not saying to cancel social events altogether, but make sure to make these an optional part of work and do not exclude those who choose not to attend!
5. Foster an inclusive and positive work environment
There are countless benefits of fostering an inclusive and positive work environment for your employees. By creating a healthy work environment, you minimise expectations on your staff and reduce feelings of overwhelm and competitiveness among employees as a result. Reducing these expectations will minimise pressure and actually make your teams more productive.
Pressure does not make teams more productive, instead, it can have a detrimental effect on an employee’s mental wellbeing and stress levels. In fact, the financial cost of poor mental health in the UK is £117.9bn, which equates to 5% of the UK's total GDP. Within this, 72% is attributed to the loss in productivity.
It’s in every organisation’s best interest to create a space where employees feel comfortable talking to their managers about their needs, and communicate which situations they would rather avoid and what they enjoy most at work. This way, managers can assign tasks that work to their employees’ strengths.
6. Raise awareness and provide training for managers
Raising awareness about autism in the workplace will help create a more understanding and tolerant workforce, and reduce any existing stigma associated with autism. This can help individuals with autism feel more included in the workplace and remove the pressures brought on by the desire to ‘fit in’. It can also be useful to ask your employees how they would like to be treated at work, and communicate this to the wider company.
Training for managers should also be on your agenda, so that they can best support individuals with autism within their teams. The National Autistic Society offers an online training course designed to help employees boost their confidence when supporting colleagues with autism.
7. Point employees to the resources they need to seek professional help
In many instances, employers may be unable to properly address autistic burnout and fatigue and should help point employees in the right direction to seek professional help.
The NHS recommends SHOUT and Samaritans (Call 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org) for those looking for mental health support. You should ensure your employees are aware of these helplines and have easy access to them if required.
Autistic employees make valuable team members and can bring new ideas and perspectives to the workplace. As such, all neurodivergent candidates should be met with equal opportunities - as should anyone else. It is imperative that employers take the time to understand the various needs of their teams and implement the right initiatives to support neurodivergent employees.
At FDM, we are committed to transforming the technology industry for the better, aiming to improve diversity and inclusion, while providing a solution to the ever-growing digital skills gap. We hire candidates based on their strengths, regardless of race, religion, gender, or disability. Successful candidates are then given expert training and placed on client sites in a role best suited to their skills and potential.
We also provide a range of resources and support for professional development and employee wellbeing, such as employee networks and mentoring programmes, helping you build strong, diverse teams that have the resources they need to thrive in their role.
Are you looking to build diverse teams and foster an inclusive workplace? Check out FDM’s consultant services to find out how we can help, or get in touch for more information.