Neurodiversity and Mental Health in the Workplace: A Conversation with Robyn Clarke

curved-strip-right bottom-curved-strip-white bottom-curved-strip-white-mobile

Robyn Clarke is a mental health and neurodiversity advocate who has created a LinkedIn community of over 18,000 people. She aims to end to stigma around mental health and neurodiversity in the workplace – once and for all.

We sat down and spoke with Robyn about her experiences with neurodivergence and mental health in the workplace – from struggles to successes – to better understand how HR can support and empower employees in these areas.

Do you have any tips on how hiring managers can interview in a way that is inclusive to neurodiverse people?

I think that interviews are very neurotypical led, from recruitment all the way through to getting the job.

Asking one question at a time can be really helpful, worded clearly to avoid any confusion or miscommunication. For me personally, I forget what was said straight away. So, a really great thing that I’d never heard of until I had an interview recently, is that on Zoom you can create a visual aid by putting the interview questions in a box for the candidate to view, which I found really helpful.

It’s important to ask the individual candidate if they need any reasonable adjustments because neurodiversity is unique to the individual, so you can’t really predict what they’ll need. Having an open conversation, is the best way to go forward.

Another tip is to send out clear information about the process (timeframes, location, what to prepare, how many stages there are, etc) in advance.

Some people can find it difficult to approach the topic if they’re not neurodivergent themselves. What would you say to someone who would potentially be concerned about offending the person they’re interviewing? 

I think you’ve got to approach it like they’re any other person. Approach them in a friendly and relaxed way and say, “I’m aware that you are neurodivergent, is that something you’re open to talking about? If it is, could we put any reasonable adjustments in place for you? If you’d rather that we don’t address it, we can continue as we are. However, if you change your mind, we can always have an open conversation.”

Give them the option and don’t put too much pressure on it.

Do you think it’s applicable and reasonable for organisations to ask about neurodiversity, or do you think that’s something that should be forthcoming from the individual?

That’s a great question, I think it’s a bit of both. The person’s neurodivergence is going impact the way that they work – but they could be fearful of how the organisation [they are interviewing with] is going to take it. I think it’s important for organisations to pop a disclaimer in the job advertisement – something along the lines of ‘we support neurodivergent people applying for this role’. If the organisation is going to ask if an applicant is neurodivergent, it is important to stress that it won’t impact the results around an employment offer.

What do you think are some of the unique strengths neurodivergent people could bring to the workplace?

I think that this is a good question as well, because often when you talk about neurodiversity, people go straight to the challenges, but there is a whole array of strengths that [neurodiverse] people can bring.

Firstly, strong attention to detail – they might be highly focused on tasks or spot things that others might miss. Then there’s hyper-fixation – if I’m passionate about something, it is all I think about. If somebody [neurodiverse] feels that about project, they are going to put their whole heart into it.

Then there’s creative and innovative thinking – having a neurodiverse brain means you see the world from a distinct perspective. This can be used to create innovative solutions and out-of-the-box ideas.

Strong work ethic – this comes into the hyper-fixation a little bit. Many neurodivergent individuals often go above and beyond to achieve their goals and are dedicated to their work.

Attention to patterns – some neurodivergent individuals have pattern recognition, which can be especially useful for jobs such as data analyst and market researcher, as they are able to pick up patterns that others might miss. I have pattern recognition and I have found it can be useful in my work with social media.

What could employers do to support the day-to-day mental well-being of neurodiverse individuals?

It is important to have an open, inclusive culture which allows you to talk about mental health. Providing accommodations that can help neurodiverse employees do their job more effectively like quiet areas, flexible schedules, or assistive technologies (screen readers or speech-to-text software) can also be immensely helpful.

I’ve always been really open about my mental health when I’m in the workplace, but I know that a lot of my colleagues haven’t felt the same and don’t know how to approach their manager – so it really starts at the top level.

There’s an app called Loopin which you can download on Slack which asks employees how they are feeling every day, and then sends the results off to their managers. This can reduce the stress and the pressure of [employees having to actively] start a conversation about it, as well as allowing employers to predict burnout.

How can employers support employees currently in the process of being diagnosed as neurodiverse, or with a mental health issue? What would you recommend for organisations and managers to support those individuals?

I love this question, because I waited over a year and a half for my diagnosis, and in my job at the time I was not open about the fact that I was going through this. Later, I started a new job and I decided to tell them because they openly supported their neurodivergent colleagues.

The ADHD assessment is done in two parts that take an hour each at least, and then if you decide to go on ADHD medication, you have follow-up appointments every single month. Employers need to be accommodating and allow the individual to have that time off work, because they will have waited so long for that appointment, and it cannot really be rearranged [due to such long waiting lists].

To support the individual, managers should be considerate that it can be an emotional journey. Some days your employee might feel fine and then other days it might really hit them and that can impact their mood, mental well-being, or even their work capacity.

When I was getting diagnosed, I was getting trained on how to do client calls, and I found it difficult to take on board the feedback. I let my employer know, and they put a plan in place. This included a document which had all my feedback in it. It had a scale of 1 to 5 on how well I met each target, plus what exactly what I needed to do to improve, and every time we did a mock call, they’d update the document.

This is a good example of focusing on exactly what a neurodiverse individual is struggling with and creating a process around that to alleviate stress and help them grow at work.

As an individual, how do you take care of your mental wellbeing as a neurodiverse professional?

It can be quite tough to take care of your well-being, and I do not have all the answers. The first step is to recognize when your mental health is dropping – I [used to] ignore all the signs and just get worse and worse – but you need to be aware of things like negative self-talk, self-doubt, irritability, and longer down periods.

I’m open about the fact that I take antidepressants. I don’t think that anybody should feel shame if they must go to the doctors or get any extra help.

The most important thing that I’ve learned from my mental health is you’ve got to forgive yourself if you’re having a bad day or a bad week. It’s easy to think about how I haven’t achieved what I wanted to, but at the end of the day, tomorrow is a new day, and you can try again.

Working from home vs working in office can make a substantial difference to the mental well-being and productivity of neurodiverse employees. What can an employer do to make both working models easier for them?

I’m a huge fan of WFH. It offers so many benefits for neurodiverse employees, like less anxiety from commuting, as well as allowing them to work unmasked (as their true selves). However, it can also be difficult for some neurodiverse individuals who struggle with a lack of time management, isolation, and blurred work/life balance. 

To make in office work easier I would suggest allowing for regular breaks to stretch their legs, as neurodivergent individuals can have a difficult time sitting down for extended periods of time or may experience discomfort from staring at the screen. I think it’s also important to follow up any verbal instructions with a written follow up, so they have it to reference back to.

The WFH model can be made easier by having regular check-in points and make use of video calls (if the neurodiverse individual is comfortable with that). Use project management apps to help them stay on track and visualise what needs to be done for the day.

Encourage regular breaks. If the neurodivergent individual is hyper-focused on something, they might need a reminder to stop working at the end of the day to help with their work/life balance.

With any working model, it’s important to provide neurodiverse employees with clear expectations to reduce anxiety and uncertainty. Set clear goals, provide detailed instructions, and do not expect [them] to read between the lines.

Give regular feedback and guidance if they require it and offer flexibility – like allowing for additional time or support to complete a task or project where possible.

Has there been any situations where people in your career have been especially supportive and willing to embrace your neurodiversity? How did they support you, and how did that impact you?

Ellie Middleton is a huge neurodiversity advocate on LinkedIn. I used to work with her at Great Influence, and she helped me so much.

She spoke to me about my assessments before I had them, and about medication because at the time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted it – she really was that helping hand for me.

Also, managers at a previous job were supportive. If I ever wanted to chat, or if I needed anything when I was struggling, they would pull me to the side and reassure me.

Being supported is such a huge thing in the journey of being neurodiverse.