Michael Queenan used to retreat to his bed for the weekend at least once a month. “I was just physically and emotionally exhausted all of the time,” says the chief executive and co-founder of Nephos Technologies, a UK-based data services company. “It just got worse and worse and worse.”
The cycles of fatigue, which made him “much more direct, much more blunt”, proved a medical mystery until last October, when he received a formal diagnosis of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The burnout was due to sensory overload, including in social situations, and the effort involved in masking autistic traits.
The diagnosis helped him untangle the impact on his working life of neurodiversity — an umbrella term that includes autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dyslexia and dysgraphia. He told employees that to curb his tendency to micromanage they should only inform him of a work matter if they wanted him “to do something about it”. He split responsibilities in the business and started to better manage his diary to reduce back-to-back meetings and carve out time to take breaks, read, meditate, or put on noise-cancelling headphones he knew would “calm my nervous system down again”.
A sharp rise in diagnoses of neurodiversity among adults means many more workers, including senior leaders, will need to consider the potential impact on their jobs — and their bosses may have to adapt.
Charlotte Valeur, former chair of the UK’s Institute of Directors and founder of the Institute of Neurodiversity charity, who is autistic and has ADHD, says: “I’m part of two secret groups [of neurodivergent people] where we have senior executives. We operate at all levels. We are social workers, we are hairdressers, we are bankers, we are accountants, we’re lawyers, you know, we are politicians. We’re literally everywhere.”
Jeremy Davey, programme architect at Microsoft, who is autistic, adds: “I meet people all the time in work, and I go, ‘Yeah, they’re on the spectrum.’ That’s not in any way pejorative. It’s just an observation.” He insists that senior leadership with “neurodiverse conditions are just as common as they are in the population”.
The National Autistic Society estimates at least 1 per cent of people in the UK are autistic and notes the true figure could be higher as many adults, particularly women, have not been tested. A 2021 study by Newcastle University found about one in 57 children in the UK was on the autistic spectrum.
Within those figures is a broad spectrum, from people who cannot live independently, or work, to those who reach the highest ranks of organisations, such as the former Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Nick Hine. The retired naval officer announced two years ago that he was autistic, which he discovered after going to doctors in 2009 with suspected post-traumatic stress disorder.
A report last year by Deloitte argued that neurodiversity can add “valuable ways of thinking and problem-solving”.
However, data from the Office for National Statistics shows that in the year to June 2021 only 29 per cent of UK adults with autism were employed.
Disclosing a diagnosis is a sensitive issue. “You don’t get to senior levels without having ambition,” Davey says. “The higher you go, the more political you get. You don’t want to give others ammunition. There are huge numbers of people who don’t want to disclose in order to protect themselves.”
Dan Harris, chief executive of Neurodiversity in Business (NiB), a charity made up of neurodivergent employees advocating best practices for employers, says for many the “anxiety is that [telling their employer] will damage my career prospects”. Davey puts it more bluntly: “People are just scared.”
For others, the benefits have outweighed the potential costs.
Kurt Iobst, a Pennsylvania-based manager at Salesforce, says anxiety about disclosing his diagnosis at work proved unfounded. “I was concerned that I would not be viewed as an equal, capable of being a leader and a high performer.” In fact, he was encouraged to present to 1,000 people at the company and to start an employee resources group. “To say my message was embraced is an understatement.”
Emily Saunderson, a technology consultant, says she told her employer she was autistic “because hiding who I am and masking is more exhausting than being authentic and dealing with ableist and outdated perspectives and discrimination”.
Queenan told his business partner and senior management team after receiving his diagnosis, and informed employees when appropriate. Educating people is part of the process, he believes. “I don’t think if you’re a CEO [you can] just say, ‘I have autism’, and expect the people you work with to understand what that means.”
Among the myths are that autistic people lack empathy. It was something Valeur had to confront in herself when she was diagnosed at 52, seven years ago. Today, she turns it on its head, questioning whether the neurotypical children who bullied her as a child, or adults who later made her feel awkward, were able to put themselves in her shoes.
For Valeur, disclosure meant she was able to explain her communication style. While autism presents in different ways, she observes commonalities: “We say things in a direct way, sugar coating is not used much; we tend to not engage in lies, even white ones [and] often find indirectness confusing, so if someone wants to tell us something it is best to just say it as it is.”
She has spoken to board and team members about different ways to communicate and asked them to tell her if she has unintentionally upset them. “That also teaches me, as the team leader, about the sensitivities of the individual team members.” She has learnt not to jump in and talk over people. “When it does happen I will apologise and explain why it happens and that I didn’t mean to be rude or inconsiderate.”
Diagnosis can help people understand friction in the workplace. One energy sector worker described being lauded for his professional acumen but routinely called to meetings with human resources eager to “fix” him.
Queenan reflects that the difficulties of office politicking may have spurred him to create his own company. “I struggle to do things that I don’t find logical, which makes working in an environment difficult when you’re working for other people.”
Mark Peterson, a retired programme manager, was diagnosed in 2020, and says that during his career, the “great managers focused on what you delivered . . . Poor managers tend to focus on the inputs, such as when you are in the office apparently working. They tend to recruit and promote those most like themselves. [They] focus on what looks good rather than what is right, and when you do come across obstacles you can rely on them to make them worse.”
How to improve the workplace for neurodiverse employees
Message from the top: Senior leaders speaking — or writing — on the topic sends a strong message about the organisation’s values.
Hiring: Examine recruitment screening for biases, and consider preparing candidates for the interview and giving them tasks or questions that match the job rather than more abstract questions.
Training: Helps employees feel confident about disclosing their diagnosis, encourages understanding of different behaviour and traits.
Mentoring: Helps workers navigate career progression and office politics.
Workplace adjustments: These can include allowing noise-cancelling headphones, or reducing the brightness of office lighting.
NiB recommends other changes that can improve outcomes for neurodivergent employees and also benefit neurotypical workers, such as tailoring jobs to individuals’ skills and interests, mentoring programmes and meetings that allow different methods of communicating. Employers could allow reasonable adjustments to the workplace — such as staff being able to use noise-cancelling headphones and assistive software — and aim to eliminate bias when it comes to hiring by, for example, outlining the structure and expectations of interviews.
Other small changes can also help employees. Avoiding travel that included changeovers in crowded airports was key for Davey. “The sensory overload absolutely destroys me. The idea that you might save $20 by changing planes in Chicago was absolute hell for me.”
Awareness also helped improve Davey’s work life. Raising his autism meant that “once we have that understanding that my brain is wired differently and people were . . . able to think around it . . . That made a huge difference to working relationships and also the effectiveness of a team,” he says.