Offices Can Be Hell for People Whose Brains Work Differently

Work spaces today come with strong smells, harsh light, lots of chatter, and constant messages on email or Slack. For neurodivergent people, this can be a big ask.

by Shayla Love; illustrated by Hunter French
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May 6 2019, 2:50pm

Illustration: Hunter French

Around two or three times a week, in a small open-plan office in London, Lilith* worked with a computer in her lap, crouching underneath her desk—a rectangular table that six people shared, with short dividers between each station.

“I get easily overwhelmed with noise or an excessive amount of people around,” she said. “People working with me mostly found it funny, if not a little odd, but they were polite about it.”

Lilith has major depressive disorder, panic disorder, and OCD, and though she regularly goes to therapy and takes medication, her symptoms sometimes flare up. When she was working as a staff writer at a digital media company in 2017, simply being at work could be a challenge.

Picture the typical office: more than 70 percent of the time, it’s now a big room filled with shared tables. Maybe there’s a partition between you and your neighbor, often there’s not. Some offices have places to go for focused, quiet work, but many don’t. Is there a separate lunchroom to eat or breakout spaces to have a change of scenery? Only if you're lucky. There are smells, noises, light, chatter, and the complex social navigation required to be part of a team, available 24/7 on email and Slack, participate in meetings, and collaborate with co-workers.

For neurodivergent people, this can be a big ask. Neurodivergence describes the variations in the ways our brains function, and encompasses people on the autism spectrum and people with ADHD or dyslexia. The term has been expanding to include those with anxiety, depression, OCD, and PTSD—anything that makes a person think a bit differently.

Advocates for neurodiversity at work argue that rather than expecting neurodivergent people to conform to a traditional office setup, workplaces should strive to make offices more accommodating. When allowed to work on their own schedules and in amenable environments, neurodivergent people can thrive. But even while tech companies like Microsoft, HP, and SAP are expanding their hiring and work practices to be more inclusive, for many neurodivergent people, finding and keeping work is a struggle. Around 50 to 75 percent of autistic people with higher education are unemployed. The unemployment rate for people receiving public mental health services is approximately 80 percent.

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Illustration: Hunter French

Lilith, now 25, said she’s had a few bosses who granted her accommodations. When she had panic attacks at the office, she was allowed to sit outside and breathe. When leaving home felt impossible, she was able to work remotely. Some days, she would work between 2 AM and 4 AM, and then come into the office later in the day.

But today, Lilith has left that job and is back to working freelance. “I don't respond well to inflexible routines and tend to only handle it at six to eight months at a time before starting to grow frantic and seeing my mental health go downhill,” she said. “So I kind of fear picking up a new job, just to start having multiple panic attacks again and feel disappointed in myself for not being better and doing better.”

Two weeks into her first full-time job after graduate school, as an editorial assistant at a medical journal, Sara Luterman, 29, said she was fired for being a “bad cultural fit.” “I don’t know what that means,” she said. “I probably did something socially inappropriate, but nobody told me what it was.”

Luterman is autistic, and despite having a top-notch resume, she said she’s struggled to get and keep a job. “I tend to tank interviews and a lot of that probably has to do with interpersonal skills, nonverbal cues, body language,” she said. She’s been told that the way she speaks is rude or condescending.

“A lot of autistic people have an unusual tone of voice or cadence,” she said. “I have been called into HR before and I had to talk to my coworkers about it, and it was really uncomfortable. I mean, I'm happy they talked to me about it, instead of just firing me.”

“I probably did something socially inappropriate, but nobody told me what it was.”

These social interactions have also affected Sonny Hallett, 32, who is autistic, and works as an illustrator and artist in Edinburgh. Hallett said they have not been able to stay in any job longer than about nine months. “I find going daily to an open plan office sensorily very challenging—the noise, lighting, and constantly being around other humans builds up over time, until I'm just exhausted all the time, and very on edge.”

Hallett said that when they work, they will hyperfocus on a project, so taking a break to talk to someone—which happens a lot at an office—can be stressful and jarring. When they are able to remain focused, they’ll stay on a task until it's done. That means they often finish their work early, which has annoyed their managers when they see them sitting around, seemingly not doing anything.

Carly*, 27, who has anxiety, depression, and PTSD, and works as an art director at a creative agency, said that her coping behaviors haven’t always been met with approval either. There are a lot of anxious thoughts in her mind, and she can find it helpful to fidget with a stress toy during meetings or while brainstorming.

“The feedback my managers gave me is that I should take more initiative and appear more interested but that's something that's really hard for me with my anxiety,” she said. “I might be really interested in something but I'm often overwhelmed and distracted but that doesn't mean that I don't care.”

It’s true that every neurodivergent person is different, but there are common threads to what many people want and need. Rob Austin, a business school professor at Ivey Business School in Canada who has documented the progress of neurodiversity programs, said environmental changes can be a great first step: softer colors, more natural lighting, putting in plants, and creating spaces that are quiet, or that provide non-distracting ambient noise. In some cases, Austin said, employers will give people their own offices or private spaces.

David Ballard, the head of the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, said that neurodivergent people appreciate more time working from home, adjusting their start time and end time. Allowing for this flexibility in scheduling and letting people do what they need to do to cope with noise or environment—without judgement—is key.

That worked for Tyler*, a 32-year-old former marine who did two tours in Iraq and is now a sustainability professional. He’s worked on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, disaster response in Haiti, and developing waste facilities in Sierra Leone. He has PTSD and sleep issues due to his time in service. “Normally I can be productive and make it into work after not sleeping for a night, but when it hits three to four nights, I'm paralyzed,” he said. At that point in a week, he’s usually already worked around 30 hours. So when he has to back off, manage his sleep schedule, and be near his service dog, he needs his bosses to trust that he’s getting his work done, on his own time.

Daniel Gritzer, 40, has misophonia, also called select sound sensitivity syndrome, or sound-rage. Like the name suggests, people with misophonia cannot tolerate certain noises. The noises that bother Gritzer are mouth noises, like chewing, and also loud typing. For someone who can’t tolerate the sound of chewing— even watching someone’s jaw moving while they’re chewing gum on the subway can be severely disruptive—he chose a counterintuitive line of work: he’s the culinary director of the food website Serious Eats. [Editor’s note: Gritzer is the husband of a VICE editor.]

When Gritzer is in the test kitchen cooking, or shooting or filming video, there’s enough ambient noise to block out offensive noises. The rest of the time he wears headphones and listens to music to fill his ears with noises that don’t trigger him. One simple accommodation—wearing headphones a majority of the time—allows him to get through the day. Gritzer’s career path reveals something else: just because a neurodivergent person is disrupted by something, doesn’t mean they won’t thrive at that specific job.

“I definitely had jobs in the past where I felt a little self conscious about that,” he said. “People probably think that I'm being either anti-social or that I can't possibly be getting my work done if I constantly have headphones on—they’re wondering What's he listening to?

Just because a neurodivergent person is disrupted by something, doesn’t mean they won’t thrive at that specific job.

At Luterman’s last office job, she had a cubicle, and people would frequently stop by her desk and try and talk to her. To accommodate she put a sign on the outside wall that was either red, yellow, or green. If it was red, it meant she was focusing and didn’t want to be interrupted, yellow meant she was working but you could stop and say something, and green indicated she was free. Once she wasn’t interrupted, she was able to get her work done.

“I think autism makes me a really good editor because I have very good pattern recognition and I am very good at following rules and I notice discrepancies and I also don't mind doing really boring, repetitive work,” she said.

Rather than serving a few individuals, Austin said his research has found that everyone at a workplace ends up benefitting from such accommodations: better physical workspaces, more flexibility, and communication about one’s needs. But some bosses may still not feel this way, Ballard said, and be hesitant to flexibility. “Sometimes employers think that if you're making these kinds of adjustments and if you're putting accommodations in place, that equates with letting people do less, or lowering your standards,” he said.

Companies like IBM and Yahoo once tried to turn their workforce into remote ones—IBM bragged that “40 percent of IBM’s some 386,000 employees in 173 countries have no office at all,” The Atlantic reported. That is, until the company’s productivity and profits started plummeting and they reversed their decision, bringing their employees back to work.

Ballard feels like such stories create misconceptions about flexible work schedules and accommodations for neurodivergent people. Making accommodations to create a better working environment is different from taking the office away altogether. A 2017 Gallup report on the “State of the American Workplace” polled over 7,000 people about their jobs, and found that the people who were most “engaged” at work were those who spent three to four days working remotely—not the ones who spent all their time at home, or the ones who spent all their time at the office.

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Open office setups. Image: Wikimedia Commons

“I think there's a misunderstanding that when you do this, that you're giving in, and letting people get away with doing less, or the quality will suffer, and that's totally wrong,” Ballard said. “When that happened at Yahoo and IBM, I don't think that these were issues with flexible work. I think it was a management problem. If performance was suffering, it wasn't because people were telecommuting or working remotely, it was because managers weren't equipped or didn't know how to manage a remote workforce.”

But he admits that there is a balance to be struck. For people with mental health issues, it’s important not perpetuate dysfunctional behavior. If someone has social anxiety, for example, it could be helpful to not put them in positions where they’re overwhelmed. “But if you create an environment that allows someone to completely isolate, and not have any social interaction, that's actually pushing them towards the more negative coping strategies that aren't going to help them in the long run,” Ballard said.

The solution would probably exist somewhere in the middle: a workflow that retains some in-person, or smaller group interaction, while forgoing other unnecessary social interaction. That’s why it’s important to have managers that are trained to work with all kinds of neurodivergence, Ballard said, so they can notice when people are struggling. And these conversations, like environmental changes, end up having a positive impact on managers, said Austin.

“A big ‘a ha!’ that's come out of the research that we're doing is that it's quite common that when people make accommodations for people who are in neurodiversity employment programs, a good chunk of the accommodations they make are helpful to other employees as well,” he said.

There’s an analogy that SAP Tech uses, of thinking of employees at the office as a puzzle, Austin said. Everybody is like a puzzle piece, irregularly shaped in a different way. “What we've done historically when companies competed on efficiency and productivity is we've asked people to kind of cut off or leave at home their irregular shapes,” he said. “Because we want everybody to conform.”

But when it comes to thinking of new ideas, Austin said companies are realizing that it is those irregular parts that are the most likely to catalyze originality and innovation: “It leads to, in my mind, a more enlightened approach to management where we see accommodations not as a burden but as something we do to access sort of new opportunities to create new things.”

* First name only, or pseudonym, has been used to protect this person's identity.

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