Autistic Burnout Guide | Part 3 | 3/12/2021
UNDERSTANDING THE "WHY" AND "HOW" OF AUTISTIC BURNOUT
We investigate the "why" behind autistic burnout in the workplace and practical strategies on "how" to tackle autistic burnout.
This section addresses accommodations employers can make to help autistic employees avoid autistic burnout.
WHY AND HOW: ACCOMMODATIONS
Workplace accommodations can transform the working experiences of autistic employees.
Here are some examples of accommodations to help autistic employees thrive at work and avoid autistic burnout.
Acceptance and social support
Individual and peer support
Access to coaches and mentors
Permission for autistic people to unmask
Encouragement to request formal accommodations
Enabling autistic people to be themselves
play to strengths and talents
focus on areas of passion and special interest
Reducing overall load to nullify emotional burnout
time off/workload reduction to recharge
withdrawing from social activities
asking for help
building healthy habits
recognising early signs of burnout
understanding patterns and making strategic decisions
Environmental accommodations concern how an employee can undertake their work. These fundamentally may take shape in two forms - physical environment and flexibility.
The common thread between these is the offer of opportunities to work-from-home (WFH), which lends itself to several benefits in autistic burnout management, chief among which is a reduction in incidences of masking. However, benefits to environmental accommodations are not limited to this.
Weekly Structure Flexibility in which days of a week autistic employees can work from home or on-site, if need be, allowing for both them and their employer to manage burnout with agility, whenever it may arise.
Daily Structure - Breaks Break time flexibility accounts for spacing, frequency and duration of breaks across each workday. Provided they remain able to work their required weekly hours, this enables autistic employees to take more, shorter, breaks if they must, as opposed to the traditional longer, but singular break, as a preventative measure for burnout.
Daily Structure - Hours For some autistic employees, providing the opportunity for them to extend their workday ‘window’ beyond the kinds of hours that would typically be considered standard - e.g. 9am-5pm. This serves autistic employees in two ways. It better accommodates flexibility in daily breaks previously mentioned above, while also enabling them to maximise their potential output at work and simultaneously minimise the likelihood of burnout.
Managing energy is a key strategy for employees subject to autistic burnout. Where structural flexibility in work arrangements is concerned, this could extend to meetings, where ‘walking meetings’ can take place as an alternative to sitting in meeting rooms. Further to this, if/where meetings involve ‘remote’ participation, permission for the employee to ‘walk and talk’ via phone can improve their energy management while they work.
PHYSICAL ACCOMMODATIONS (STIMULUS MANAGEMENT)
When an autistic employee needs to work on location to perform their work, sensory overload can propel burnout, due to excess exposure to stimulus.
The following accommodations are suitable where this is likely:
Devices Sensory accommodations may be requested by an autistic employee, in order for them to be able to perform work. Making provisions for these can prevent the employee from succumbing to an overload of sensory stimulus. Such accommodations typically include such noise-cancelling headphones, along with more workplace-specific measures like comfortable lighting (i.e., non-fluorescent) and avoidance of strong scents/fragrances.
Quiet workspace A quiet room (or space - for example, a permanent/fixed desk space as opposed to a hot-desk) may be requested by autistic employees, especially for activities such as taking phone or video calls. Making such an allocation serves to reduce stress on autistic employees who may otherwise become quickly overwhelmed.
Along with quiet spaces, provisions for ‘quiet’ breaks (for example, a ‘walk break’) during a period of unforeseen excess noise also reduces autistic burnout potential for an autistic employee.
WORKFLOW MANAGEMENT ACOMMODATIONS
Clarity in communication Communicating key organisational goals (e,g., daily, weekly, monthly) and timelines to autistic employees is a valuable preventative measure regarding autistic burnout. This helps the employee better plan and manage their workload to optimise finite personal resources and avoid exhaustion.
A constructive approach is likely to involve:
Where preferred by an employee, visual communication (e.g, through a flowchart) should be made an option
Specific, clearly and concisely presented instructions, with well-segmented information and examples for context where applicable
Two-way communication, with space for additional questions that entrench clarity. Regular check-ins that help avoid potential panic and a sense the autistic employee must internalise concerns that can become overwhelming.
Deadline management Where an autistic employee is negotiating the challenge of a difficult deadline, accommodations to manage this demand may be necessary due to autistic burnout.
Opportunity to work uninterrupted for a period of time (i.e., free of other administrative/incidental work)
An increase in flexibility of hours, including the opportunity to complete work at home
Offers of extended deadlines if required, especially where changes are made to tasks / projects that require the employee to pivot
Minimisation of competing deadlines
A culture that embraces and encourages transparency is essential for both maximising the potential of autistic employees, and retaining them. They need to know they can feel comfortable flagging any potential for (and instances of) autistic burnout with managers, and ensuing delays due to stressors they face.
Providing autistic employees with multiple options for participation in team meetings is essential to maximising their capacity to meaningfully contribute, while significantly reducing the potential for autistic burnout.
Meeting Format While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a shift towards more remote-based discussions, the following opportunities should be made available:
Contributions via video tools, though with the option to have the screen turned off, enabling the employee to contribute via audio without expending additional energy ‘facing’ others.
If essential, provide an autistic employee the opportunity to strictly contribute via a chat function, particularly where they strongly gravitate to written communication and/or find verbal interaction a challenge.
Space is made for clarifying (i.e., paraphrasing) questions posed and/or solutions suggested, as well as emphasising key points raised, to minimise possibility of confusion when attempting subsequent tasks.
Allocation of meeting breaks, providing autistic employees an opportunity to destress where they have been overwhelmed from engaging in a discussion.
Strengths-focus Another measure an organisation can take regarding collaboration involving autistic team members is to adopt a strengths-focus. Critically, this enables the employee to be true to themselves as much as possible, thus vastly reducing incidence of autistic burnout
Have rules in place for both team meetings and the pursuit of objectives, that strengths of team members across the board are optimised.
For team-based initiatives, seek to establish routines that are relatively consistent - as much as possible - so that autistic employees don’t find work processes too jarring to such an extent they lose capacity to perform or function.
Where this exists, capitalise on an autistic employee’s strong, particular interest. The strategic advantage and organisational benefit is two-fold - it enables the employee to thrive in their element, reducing the probability of autistic burnout, while also increasing the likelihood of employee retention.
Higgins et al, ‘Defining autistic burnout through experts by lived experience: Grounded Delphi method investigating’ #AutBurnout (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/13623613211019858)
Raymaker et al, 'Having All of Your Internal Resources Exhausted Beyond Measure and Being Left with No Clean-Up Crew”: Defining Autistic Burnout' (https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/aut.2019.0079#:~:text=“Autistic%20burnout”%20is%20often%20used,in%20every%20area%20of%20life.&text=Informally%2C%20autistic%20adults%20describe%20how,pushed%20them%20to%20suicidal%20behavior)