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Individualized Routines: A Path to Preventing Burnout for Autistic Individuals and Beyond

I recently joined a workforce wellbeing learning collaborative and after attending the first session, I couldn't help but notice the humility of the executive leaders in the group. It made me wish that my own organization's leaders were learning this information, as it wasn't new to me. I hope that my presence and suggestions can assist those who have the power to implement changes in their organizations. However, I'm still uncertain about how to initiate collective changes when my organization has historically disregarded and has not invested in this area.

During our conversation, the topic of staff burnout was extensively discussed. I found it intriguing because as an autistic person, I feel we are adept at managing the homeostasis/allostasis conundrum, and these tools have been part of our daily lives for years. I believe that autistic individuals can offer valuable insights into the practices, policies, and structures that can help prevent burnout in the workplace. We have a unique and developed perspective on this matter, based on our lived experiences.

In the early stages of my recovery, I began to notice a pattern of burning myself out. I would keep pushing myself relentlessly without taking the necessary time to reflect and recharge, which would eventually lead to hitting a figurative "brick wall" of exhaustion or a meltdown. In these instances, I would sleep for extended periods of time, sometimes up to fourteen hours or more. I would often become extremely irritable, and even minor events could trigger a meltdown. Eventually, I discovered how to manage my schedule to avoid reaching this point, although it wasn't until experiencing a COVID-related layoff paired with financial security through unemployment that I was able to fully reset and rebuild my routine from scratch.

Autistic individuals require a customized routine to effectively combat burnout. This personalized routine provides a sense of structure and certainty that is essential for planning one's day based on their unique physiology and neurobiology. A uniform, one-size-fits-all approach to work environments can be a catalyst for burnout, as it fails to account for the diverse needs of individuals. The absence of a tailored routine can leave autistic individuals feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable to burnout. Therefore, prioritizing individualized routines can be a profound step towards nurturing the well-being and productivity of autistic individuals in the workplace.

The concept of being able to work in a way that suits our preferences and needs is undeniably appealing, not just for autistic individuals, but for everyone. This approach to work, which emphasizes autonomy and flexibility, is a path towards preventing burnout, regardless of neurodivergence. The idea of individualized routines, which can help to prevent burnout for autistic individuals, can be applied to everyone, as each person has their own unique physiological and psychological makeup. This approach allows individuals to manage their energy and time effectively, ensuring that they are not overwhelmed by work-related stressors. Ultimately, adopting this approach can lead to a more sustainable and fulfilling work life for individuals from all walks of life.

The notion of individualized routines is not always well-received by those in positions of power. This is because traditional management practices, which are rooted in a dominant social hierarchy, often discourage the autonomy and flexibility that is essential for individualized routines. Instead, standardized and one-size-fits-all policies are created, which may benefit some but hinder productivity, well-being, and growth for most. The people in leadership positions are typically not autistic, and their work habits do not reflect the principles of individualized routines. They tend to work according to traditional schedules, communicate verbally rather than in writing, and rarely prioritize workplace well-being beyond rhetoric. This highlights the gap between the ideal of individualized routines and the reality of traditional management practices, which need to evolve to better support the well-being and productivity of all individuals in the workplace.

When it comes to preventing burnout, aiding the most vulnerable individual in a workplace, such as a transgender male or a non-white autistic person, can have a positive impact on all individuals. Neuroinclusion is not about implementing random and elusive one-off policies for individual employees. Instead, it's about cultivating an environment that's not one-size-fits-all. It's more like a "choose your own adventure" or "pick what works best for you" approach. By adopting such an approach, each individual is empowered to tailor their work habits to their specific needs and preferences, which in turn fosters a more inclusive and supportive workplace for everyone.

Allow me to provide a couple of examples. Let's consider Jill, a single mother of two school-aged children who works from home. Jill requests to work from 7-3 and through her lunch break so that she can pick up her kids from school at 3:30 each day and save money on daycare. Jill is a focused employee who thrives working in long stretches of time and is a research analyst, which does not require her to collaborate in person with the team except for the weekly team meeting. However, Jill's supervisor may be hesitant to accommodate her needs for two reasons: first, the team meeting is scheduled at 4 on Wednesdays, and second, the supervisor may be concerned that someone may need to contact Jill between the hours of 3:30 and 5 which are the dominant cultures “business hours”.

After a few months, Jill's work productivity declines and she starts taking a sick day every two weeks. During her review, her supervisor expresses disappointment in her declining work performance and notes her frequent absences as a concern. The supervisor warns Jill that she needs to improve immediately, or there will be further discussions about her performance. When Jill explains that her financial obligations have increased due to expensive daycare costs and she has been struggling to pay rent, her supervisor suggests that she work harder to earn a raise at her next review. Jill brings up again the possibility of adjusting her work schedule in order to improve her performance. However, her supervisor dismisses her request, stating that it would be unfair to the other employees.

Later that month, Jill was absent from the staff meeting, which raised concerns among her colleagues about her well-being. They tried to contact her, but her cell phone was shut off. Eventually, they managed to get in touch with her emergency contact, her mother, who lived in another state. Her mother informed them that Jill was in the hospital due to a mental health crisis brought on by an eviction notice. Jill's unmet need for a flexible work schedule and support from her supervisor led her to experience severe burnout, which ultimately resulted in a hospital admission and potentially homelessness.

Fred, an autistic man, is facing a similar situation. He works as a data analyst and is capable of focusing for long stretches of time, sometimes completing a week's worth of work in two 12-hour sessions. However, Fred needs significant downtime between these intense work sessions. When he asked his supervisor to adjust his schedule accordingly, the request was denied.

Upon reaching out to the HR department, Fred shares his concerns about being required to be available even when there is no work for him to do. In response, the HR director suggests that Fred should either distribute his workload more evenly throughout the week or become a more cooperative team player by helping his colleagues with their tasks. The director seems to disregard Fred's unique neurodivergent traits and instead pushes him to conform to the norms of the workplace, which is not conducive to his productivity or well-being.

Fred faces a new challenge as he tries to navigate the workplace's lack of understanding and support for his needs. After seeking advice from his community, he learns that he could request an ADA accommodation to address his situation. However, due to past experiences with discrimination, Fred has not disclosed his autism to his employer. Despite the lack of work, Fred continues to be available, but he brings a book to pass the time. Unfortunately, his supervisor misunderstands the situation and assumes that he needs more work, leading to an increase in his workload without any breaks or downtime.

Fred struggles to keep up with the increased workload for a few weeks, but eventually reaches a breaking point one Friday afternoon. Exhausted and overwhelmed, he lashes out at his supervisor when she asks about a task he hasn't had time to complete. He tells her directly that she's given him the workload of three people and that he feels taken advantage of. His supervisor responds defensively, telling him to calm down and accusing him of overreacting. Frustrated by her lack of understanding and irritable and exhausted from burnout, Fred slams his keyboard down, which his supervisor interprets as workplace violence. She terminates him on the spot, claiming that such behavior won't be tolerated.

These two stories serve as poignant examples of burnout, as experienced by my friends. It is disheartening to see that many workplaces prioritize maintaining the status quo, even at the cost of causing harm to talented and hardworking individuals who could otherwise be invaluable to the company. It is clear that these situations could have been avoided if a culture of openness and understanding had been fostered within these workplaces, allowing for the reasonable accommodation of individual needs. We must strive for more inclusive workplaces that recognize and value the unique needs and strengths of every individual, rather than perpetuating a one-size-fits-all approach that ultimately leads to burnout and loss of valuable talent.

As an individual, I strongly identify with my friends in these real-life situations. I excel in the research, analysis, and project development aspects of my job, thanks to my quick and focused approach. However, like my friend Fred, I also require ample time to reflect, process, and contemplate. Unfortunately, the work environment I am in is filled with norms such as endless back-to-back meetings, after-hours work expectations, unsustainably heavy workloads, and a general lack of psychological safety when it comes to voicing needs and accommodations.

To address this issue, I am in the process of getting a diagnosis so that I can work towards bringing about change. I firmly believe that by advocating for accommodations, I can demonstrate that working differently is not a negative thing and can, in fact, enhance employee well-being and productivity. In addition, I am committed to being transparent about my journey in the hope that others will be inspired to speak up for their needs as well.

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