Feeling SAFE to be Different

Feeling SAFE to be different

Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM) is coming to a close. Last year I questioned if our clients should “dare to declare.” The pandemic may have forever shifted the stigma of a hidden disability as mental health is on the rise and workplaces are now focusing attention on creating psychologically safe work environments. There is a growing need for all employees to feel SAFE in their work environments. Physical safety is a new area of concern to most people as we slowly emerge from a global pandemic. For many, this also includes concerns around mental safety. Our neurodiverse clients, however, have faced these challenges throughout their careers. Most hide who they truly are in an attempt to “fit in.” So, how do we help them feel SAFE about being different?

What if I just work really hard at being “normal” so I can fit in?

One of the risks of hiding “differences” in abilities is that individuals fear being exposed, resulting in living a life of constant fight or flight. In her article, How to Face Your Fear, Marydee Sklar tells us that “Living in fear, with excessive cortisol in your brain, means that you are constantly getting this message: I am NOT capable.” This actually sets up your brain to question your ability to survive, much less thrive. The stress of “little fears” add up, tipping a brain into an unhealthy state of chronic stress. All that cortisol damages the neuron connections in the brain, which makes a person even less capable of learning and using their executive skills to manage time and life.”

Serena Kappes tells us, “The term executive function refers to a group of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We all use these skills in our everyday lives to help us navigate the world. Having executive functioning issues can be especially difficult in the workplace,” and yet, “executive functioning issues are extremely common” and closely connected to ADHD and other types of hidden disabilities. “Struggling with executive function is a cognitive process and not a reflection of someone’s desire to do good work or be a productive employee.”

Clients who do not feel supported “being different” in the workplace will continue to experience chronic levels of stress. This affects their executive function, which then means they are no longer able to fully demonstrate their strengths and abilities. As a result, all of us are missing out on the unique qualities that diversity can offer to our workplaces.

Should I ask for accommodation?

We can coach our neurodivergent clients on key points to pay attention to when targeting a potential employer.

  • Does this employer provide a structure that supports executive functioning?
  • Does this employer offer a hybrid work model between home and office that could work for me?
  • Is there flexibility in adapting traditional processes to obtain results?
  • How comfortable do I feel communicating with the individual(s) I will be working with?

If asking for accommodation, we can help our clients to identify how subtle changes in their environment impact their focus and productivity and how to best communicate how this shows up for them. One of things I have learned about accommodation is how important it is for both clients and employers to recognize that it is fluid and needs to be reviewed on a regular basis.

What if I could just focus on results instead of process?

Clients may be quite capable of performing the essential duties of a role but often fail to get the job because their processes may differ from those of neurotypicals. We can support our clients in acknowledging both process and outcome and how to best communicate their work approach to a potential employer.

One of the best articles I have read about “understanding and supporting neurodiversity in the workplace” uses the metaphor of “being on a different operating system, like running Linux in a Windows world.” “I will never be a Windows computer, but I’m expected to interface because I’m outnumbered and so I’m forced to try to speak Windows in order to function in a world that sees me as a broken version of normal instead of simply operating differently.” Many individuals with hidden disabilities grew up in a world of “ableism” where their idea of healthy, “normal” behaviour became distorted because they were different and often mistreated. They often have “a high tolerance for abuse” and high levels of stress. And, they commonly overcompensate out of fear that “sharing their issues in the workplace would have a negative effect.”

Carolyne Moore states that “as the workplace revolution accelerates, we are witnessing an overhaul in what it means for companies to be flexible.” She has some great suggestions for managers about shifting away from the overall process and creating results-focused workplaces, while encouraging open and empathetic communication.

You mean I can assume responsibility for my own success?

Carter Hammet wrote for CareerWise that “while supporting employees struggling on the job,” employment professionals should consider the possibility of executive function (EF) as being a possible variable in a client’s poor work performance, especially if the worker has been previously diagnosed with a learning disability or another cognitive disorder.

He offers suggestions to help employees start to identify accommodations for themselves as well as to help them identify and integrate various strategies. He suggests a strengths-based approach that can help clients to build upon their pre-existing skills. Further, he states that employment counsellors “can make a substantial contribution to their clients’ self-awareness and growth by helping them understand that the deficits they perceive in themselves are in fact gifts and unique ways of contributing to a world that’s slowly but surely embracing neurodiversity.”

How do I get to a feeling of SAFE? (Sensory Awareness of Feelings of Equanimity)

Workplaces historically have often tried to fit square pegs into round holes, but the door is now open for both square and round pegs to work together. COVID has taught us that we all have different approaches and needs.

Tools such as meditation are becoming increasingly accepted and practiced in the workplace. A meditation practice can help us to experience equanimity which is described as “the ability to allow sensory experience to come and go without push and pull.”  It is a state of mental calmness and acceptance.

The practice of mindfulness also teaches us the concept of impermanence. We have often heard the saying that change is the only constant in life but never has it hit home more than these last 2 years. Permanence feels like security but when we learn to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings we recognize that, like everything else, our emotions and our views change and evolve as we grow.

Positivepsychology.com reports that “accepting impermanence helps cultivate positive well-being.” The lesson is that genuine happiness comes from within. We learn to no longer crave positive experiences nor fear or avoid negative experiences as they are merely different aspects of life’s experience.

For myself, feeling SAFE being different involves acceptance of who I am, today. My hope is that my perception of being different evolves to a point where I won’t feel different being “different.” FEAR will no longer hold me back when I see it as “false experience appearing real” and feeling SAFE takes over, giving me a “sensory awareness of a feeling of equanimity.” I am grateful for today!

Carol Brochu combines a 30+ year career in HR, operations, and client service with a unique personal and spiritual development journey that has included studies in Mental Health First Aidenergy work, and self-care disciplines. She is a certified yoga and martial arts instructor, mindfulness facilitator, Me First practitioner, CPC member, and Certified Work-Life Strategist.

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superb article!! and so apropos and timely

In my discusssions with employers over the last year, I have been constantly bringing up mental health, normalycy and rather what it is and the concept of acheivenents and results/successes; processes and attaining objectives; bit most of all what employers need to know and understand about getting to the end result.

Thanks Anca…I was always taught the emphasis was on the result and spent quite a few years in process improvement which today has taken on a new meaning of process flexibility and adaptability to both the people involved and situation. Organizations that are open to dialogue and diversity go a long way in the support of workplace wellbeing.

Excellent article, Carol! What stood out most for me (not a careerpro) was when you pointed out that people who are neurotypical expect those who are neurodiverse to conform to their expectations. I’ve probably done this but didn’t think of it in those terms. Going forward I will try to be more attentive to my own attitude and more accommodating.

My biggest takeaway was our fear of impermanence. We don’t like change so we cling to what we know as “truth.” Once we are aware of this, we can be more open to differences. I love that!