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Supporting a mentally healthy neurodiverse team

I have been diagnosed as both dyslexic and dyspraxic. I struggled terribly with mental health problems from the age of 7 into my early twenties. I was incredibly lucky to have access to good mental health care at an early age and I’m very fortunate to be able to say that I’ve been in good mental health for the best part of 20 years.

Let’s be clear. Neurodivergence is not a precursor to mental health problems. Certainly not all neurodiverse people suffer with their mental health. However, if you compare the instances of mental health problems in neurodiverse people with the the general population, figures are quite staggering:

According to the British Medical Association the prevalence of common mental disorders in adults is around 19%. Now compare that to the figures in neurodivergent people and a pattern emerges.

  • Another study shows that 73% - 81% of adults with autism spectrum disorder have a co-occuring mental health condition. 

The question is why are these two issues so closely linked? There are genetic factors, but in general the consensus is that mental health issues are caused by the challenges neurodivergent people have in relating to the world around them. The best way we can mitigate this is by understanding that these differences exist, and adapting how we respond to people affected.

There’s a whole other piece to be written about the advantages of employing a neurodiverse team. I could write a very long list, but to nod to a few of the better-know advantages, including some autistic people’s increased propensity for mathematical and pattern recognition, some ADHD people’s ability to lead to hyperfocus, or some dyslexic people’s capacity for lateral thinking - all of these can be harnessed as superpowers to propel businesses forward.

Creating a supportive working environment for those who are neurodivergent not only means you can take advantage of these superpowers, but means you can empower the individual and support good mental health.

Here are some top tips based on my experience of working with neurodivergent people:

  • Be a Nurodivergent Leader - If you are a neurodivergent leader, talk about it! Lead from the front. Help your wider team understand the challenges, whilst demonstrating that it’s not a barrier to success. This also creates an open environment, improving understanding across the team and empowering your neurodivergent team members.

  • Don’t Create An Unnecessarily Structured Environment - Doing this can put barriers in place for people and hinder people performing at their best. Instead let people work in a way that suits them and instead measure their success on output. Just be careful that this doesn’t mean you ignore unhealthy working practices which may be detrimental to mental health. It can be a fine balance, but by fostering flexibility you create an open and supportive dialogue. 

  • Have an Open Dialogue - If your team knows they can be open about neurodiversity they will discuss the challenges and you can help them create structure around their work, which helps them deliver whilst maintaining good mental health. 

Mental health in the workplace is a challenge for everybody, but don't underestimate how that is magnified by neurodivergent people. It’s worth putting extra thought into how you approach team members whose brains work a little differently than most. However I feel the same principle applies to getting the most out of any team - just approach people with kindness and compassion. That doesn’t mean you can’t draw boundaries and expectations. It just means reframing how you present them. 

When you are working with people whose mental health issues centre around how they relate to the world, by creating a safe space at work, not only can you take advantage of incredible talent - but you can really make a difference to people's lives. 

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