Experts in autistic studies have confirmed that employees who have autism are far more likely to be at risk of experiencing burnout if their needs have not been considered.

This article will explore the heightened risk of burnout for autistic employees and what the employer can do to mitigate this.

Why are autistic individuals at risk of experiencing burnout?

Autistic individuals’ commonly use “masking”.

Masking is the term applied to when an autistic person portrays behaviours to appear neurotypical (not autistic).

This frequently involves forcing unnatural behaviours whilst suppressing intrinsic ones.

Autistic individuals’ can become exhausted by subconsciously masking for long periods of time.

Autistic individuals often also find themselves burdened with anxiety that their efforts to mask are ineffective and are constantly working harder to make sense of the communication around them.

A combination of the above can make autistic employees at a far higher chance of experiencing the feeling of being overwhelmed and emotionally drained, often referred to as burnout.

Challenges in detecting and managing autistic employees

The autistic population makes up such a small percent of full-time employment that autism often goes unnoticed by employers.

Employers and colleagues often struggle to know how to handle and support autistic employees.

Generally this is due to such a lack of neurological diversity within the workplace and lack of mainstream knowledge of such disorders.

Duties of an Employer

A person with autism will likely be considered disabled in Employment Law if they meet the definition of the Equality Act 2010 of;

  • Having a physical or mental impairment; and,
  • That impairment has a substantial and long term (12 months or longer) effect on your ability to carry out normal day to day activities.

Autism is life-long mental impairment; therefore the element of substantial effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities will be the qualifying factor to be deemed a disability.

In the event that an employee is deemed to be disabled, an employer is obliged to make reasonable adjustments.

What is deemed reasonable will likely depend on the circumstances of the employer.

What adjustments can assist autistic employees?

Employers have a responsibility to support autistic employees and make suitable reasonable adjustments to enable them to carry out work as comfortably as possible.      

There are some examples of adjustments below that employers and colleagues can do to make an autistic employee feel more comfortable.

However, preferences will differ between individuals so it is important to consult to create the most effective adjustments per individual.

Communication adjustments

Communication can be a challenge for autistic individuals.

Employers should look for alternative ways to communicate as a reasonable adjustment.

Some individuals may prefer visual or written forms of communication rather than verbal, particularly where verbal communication is in person.

In the event that face to face spoken word cannot be avoided, speech should remain slow and calm, ensuring that frequent pauses are present to allow the person to process the conversation.

Spoken word can also be supported with visual clarification, for example, a follow-up confirmation email of the discussed matter.

Working Adjustments

Employers should encourage employees to feel comfortable.

This may involve inviting and normalising employees to exercise their tendencies such as frequently standing and moving around their workspace, or the use of a fidget spinner to maintain their focus.

Homeworking may accommodate some autistic employees by removing stresses involved with travelling to and from work, or by placing them in a controlled environment not burdened with noise or busyness.

However, another autistic person may prefer the structure of working from the office, preferring to have some interaction and support from their colleagues.

What should Employers do?

An employer should maintain an open dialogue with individuals regarding neurological impairments and the fear of burnout.

Employers must understand that autism can manifest in different ways meaning that each individual should be dealt with on a case by case approach.

In the event that issues are raised, the employer should invite the individual to a meeting to further understand their concerns.

An employer may potentially seek an Occupational Health Report to assess and make suggested adjustments on the individual.

Reasonable adjustments, if any, should then be implemented as per the individuals’ needs.

Employers could also promote training to develop an understanding of autism in the workplace to proactively support autistic employees.

A lack of knowledge and understanding of autism may cause an autistic employee from feeling unsupported and becoming overwhelmed in their day to day work, leading to burnout.

In addition, some employees may be struggling with challenges and a heightened risk of burnout due to undiagnosed autism that they themselves do not understand.

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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