How Neurodivergent Masking Is Driving Employee Burnout

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Belonging Burnout DEIB Employee Well-being

New data suggests that burnout is again on the rise. Ignoring the needs of neurodivergent employees offers a compelling explanation.

Burnout is on the rise again in 2024, and managers are missing the signs.

A new survey from The Harris Poll and The Grossman Group found that while 89% of managers say their employees are thriving, only 24% of workers said the same.

“We have lost awareness of this issue at the manager level,” says David Grossman, CEO of The Grossman Group, a leadership and communications consultancy. “Senior leadership is so focused on other priorities that this has fallen off the radar.”

Having a leader who is tuned into employee well-being makes a huge difference.

A study from UKG found that managers impact employees’ mental health more than doctors or therapists, and 81% of employees worldwide prioritize good mental health over a high-paying job.

During and immediately after the pandemic, managers learned the importance of one-on-one check-ins with employees, what Grossman calls an “emotional check-in.” A short conversation about what is going on with employees both at work and in their lives can build trust and engagement.

“We’ve forgotten how successful these conversations were,” Grossman says.

Neurodivergent masking

One explanation for burnout in the workplace is a lack of inclusion for neurodivergent employees.

Researchers believe that there might be as many as 1.2 billion neurodivergent people worldwide, which suggests that every company has at least one neurodivergent employee.

However, most companies don’t know much about these employees. Only one in 10 employees within a disability category disclose their status to an employer, and nearly half (45%) of neurodivergent professionals would not feel comfortable asking for support or adjustments at work.

When neurodivergent professionals don’t disclose their status — called “masking” — these employees are spending extra energy to fit in and avoid detection. This extra effort can take a toll over time, says Ed Thompson, CEO of Uptimize, a platform for awareness and education around neurodiversity in the workplace. At Accenture, No. 7 on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® List in 2024, over 16,000 employees have used the platform.

“In the neurodivergent community, people talk about burnout all the time,” Thompson says. When employees don’t feel like they can disclose their status, they don’t have a psychologically safe environment. In short, they don’t trust their organization.

Great Place To Work® research has shown that when employees decline to share parts of their identity with their employer, workplace trust suffers. For every 10% of employees who chose not to respond to survey questions about their identity, there was a six-point decrease in overall levels of trust at a given company.

A threat for retention

Burnout isn’t just a threat to engagement. Employees are more likely to leave a job rather than try to get help for a mental health issue, according to Ramona Schindelheim, editor-in-chief at WorkingNation, a nonprofit focused on helping employees thrive in the modern workplace.

“Employees are leaving their jobs because of not feeling comfortable talking about their mental health issues,” Schindelheim says. “Instead of having to seek an accommodation or try to talk out an issue with a boss, they just leave their job instead.”

As companies face a talent shortage, particularly for highly skilled workers, any barrier to acquiring talent is a problem. “When you see that there is a need for talent, doing anything to take that talent off the table has an impact on the bottom line,” Schindelheim says.

A better workplace for everyone

Why should leaders focus on neurodiversity when tackling burnout and mental well-being?

Solving workplace issues for neurodivergent employees has the potential to improve well-being outcomes all employees. At the For All Summit™ in New Orleans, Dr. Daniel Wendler, a researcher and expert on neurodiversity in the workplace, spoke about the power of universal design.

“When you design with everyone in mind, it makes it better for everybody,” Wendler says.

One simple step: Make sure to publicize your commitment to diversity and inclusion for all disabilities.

“If you can say that you are open to all disabilities, and include in that public statement that you recognize this includes mental health, neurodiversity, and physical disabilities, you can make sure that a current or a prospective employee understands this is a welcoming environment that recognizes talent exists in everyone,” says Schindelheim. 

Companies can do a lot of good just by raising awareness, Thompson says. “I know it’s not sexy, but what we hear from people is that they would trade a free yoga class for people having basic appreciation of people thinking differently,” he says.

Tips for inclusion

Here are some ways companies can break down barriers and help neurodivergent employees find a sense of belonging:

1. Update the “golden rule”

“Treat others the way you want to be treated” is good advice, but can be problematic if leaders assume that everyone’s experience matches their own. Instead, great leaders should create room for a variety of experiences.

“Everyone will want to contribute, but not in the same way,” Thompson says. Make sure you extend the flexibility and space to others that you would want for yourself.

2. Share your inclusive message with current and prospective employees.

New hires are looking for signals that your workplace is welcoming and inclusive, but it’s an important message for your current workforce as well.

It’s not always an employee’s boss who can make them uncomfortable when disclosing a disability or specific status, says Schindelheim. “Sometimes it’s their co-workers.”

An inclusive environment is the responsibility of every employee, not just management. 

3. Track the positive/negative cycle

When one employee has a positive experience sharing their story or status with their employer, that can create a positive cycle, says Thompson. When an employee has a negative experience, that also reverberates throughout the organization.

4. Survey your workforce

If you don’t know how neurodivergent employees are experiencing the workplace, go get that data. “Give your people an opportunity to tell you,” Thompson says.

When looking to gather data, it’s crucial to empower employees to share their stories in a way that makes them comfortable. These employees are not looking for amateur diagnosticians to label them, Thompson warns.

“It’s not about identifying who is who,” he says. Instead, companies should ask: “What can we do to allow everybody to contribute their best?”

Benchmark your culture

Discover what employees value about working at your company, and how you can boost retention rates and increase productivity and performance with Great Place To Work Certification™.

Ted Kitterman