workplace with two desks and people sitting on chairs

Reducing Workplace Stress: Working Together on Self-Care by Barb Cook, M.Aut., Dip.HSc.

How often do we hear ourselves saying “I just need to finish this job and then I can take a break”, or “If I can get this project finished, I can then take a couple of days off”?

When we tell ourselves this over and over again, without taking action to ‘look after ourselves’, the cracks inevitably will begin to appear. The internal motivation of “I’ll get this job done, then I can…”, becomes the ultimate words of dread, with the “then I can…” seeming to never come, and the list of ‘things to do’ becomes increasingly bigger. The more we push and tell ourselves to get this job done, then I can…. becomes empty promises that eventually erode our health and mental wellbeing.

We are essentially brainwashed from a young age that if we work hard, we can reap the worldly benefits, have those perceived luxuries and glamorous holidays. The thing is, they forget to tell you that with all that hard work, we need some serious self-care to ensure we can work towards our goals and visions while still keeping all our wellbeing intact!

When we are young adults, ready to take on the world, prepared to work hard, do that extra overtime, take work home or stay back and work late in our own unpaid time, just to ensure that the next day when we come back to the office we can start on the next insurmountable task, we are essentially wearing ourselves down and setting ourselves up for burnout, anxiety and depression, physical and mental health problems and potentially early onset of chronic disease. If we don’t look after ourselves, our bodies have a way of making you stop, often in some very unpleasant ways. And by then, it is often too late to fully recover. We become permanently scarred from the excessive amount of work we have put in for years, without putting in the same amount of effort into taking care of ourselves.

We need to stop.

We need to come first and we need to say no. Sounds pretty simple doesn’t it. But it one of the hardest things to do, especially if you are neurodivergent like me. I experienced first-hand the consequences of not taking the time of implementing good self-care into my daily life. I am inherently a workaholic and find it incredibly hard to say no. In my mind I mentally juggle all the jobs I have ahead of me and think, “yep, I can squeeze that in here. I have a spare two hours on a Saturday afternoon…”. Those two hours should have been spent on doing something for me, not taking on another job.

Neurodivergent people are also driven by fear of not keeping their job due to previous negative experiences in the workplace, the struggles they have experienced in getting a job and the fear that we view ourselves as never working hard enough, that we are not as good as the fellow work colleague and we are constantly trying to please other people. We forget about ourselves and our needs, and when we do think about them, they are often relegated to the bottom of the list of things to do. “When I finish this task, I can go do….” rarely happens.

Stop. “It’s not that simple”, I would tell myself and everyone else around me. It would cause enormous stress on anyone around me. I would get angry and frustrated with people who would not understand that I needed to keep working, to get that next job done. I can’t fail again. And, it broke me.

At 37 years I had, had enough.

Unfortunately, I had quite a bad accident that made me stop working. It was an awful experience with a serious wake up call. To me it was terrible, the world had ended in my mind as I couldn’t continue working due to my injuries, but to my body it was the much-needed break it was screaming out for, and, it took years for me to recover from this. By the time of the accident I was incredibly unhealthy, alcohol had become my crutch to keep me going and to suppress the insufferable anxiety that would cripple me each day.

I hadn’t realised that from the years of trying to work myself into the ground, to please everyone, but still often failing in keeping a job long-term, struggling with negotiating the workplace dynamics and social skills, the anxiety, the recurrent depression and the shear dread of having to face each day, now swallowed me in an enormous depression as I stared out of lounge room window, physically and mentally broken. I failed to realise that in the years coming up to my accident I was suffering burnout and was a contributing factor to my accident.

Fortunately, due to this accident. it forced me to stop.

It forced me to take a damn good look at my life and eventually learn about why I was this way. A couple of years later I had the diagnosis of autism, ADHD and dyslexia. I finally could stop trying so damn hard when it felt like it was never enough. I could stop being so hard on myself and trying to fit into a mould that I was never designed for. I was good enough; I just didn’t know I needed to do things differently and to do them with my wellbeing put first.

But we have to… put ourselves first because we are literally killing ourselves trying to be, and doing something that is not serving us. Learning about my neurology helped me understand that I needed supports in the workplace to assist me in working effectively. I learned that I had sensory issues that would contribute to my mental fatigue and feeling overwhelmed by the end of the working day. I learnt that I needed significantly more downtime and alone time than my colleagues and that I needed to create me time during breaks, rather than try to mask and join into gatherings that were adding to my mental overwhelm.

Realising I needed tasks broken down into smaller parts assisted me in getting my job done more effectively and reduce the mental fatigue of not knowing where to start. But most importantly I learnt I needed to speak up and self-advocate, and ask for feedback on my performance regularly, to not be afraid to ask for help and to learn how to delegate tasks to other work colleagues that would help reduce my workload, and, in essence to know I didn’t have to struggle alone.

Changing the internal negative-self talk, the catastrophising of situations and the internalised doom and gloom predictions I would analyse over and over again in my mind had to change. My perception of many situations was often blown so far out of proportion that it became difficult for me to accept that if I asked for help, I wouldn’t lose my job. Asking for help is viewed as a critical skill to have in supporting yourself and management are often open to creating mutual communication channels to help the employee and to reduce stress.

Often, we have lived in fear of asking for help due to previous work, educational or life experiences where the environment did not support or understand how to support us. Because we are self-critical, we take on board these negative experiences and our perception becomes that of, we are the problem. We are not.

Self-care is far more than exercising and eating well.

Don’t get me wrong, these are incredibly important and should be factored into our lives as they help to support our mental and physical wellbeing.

Self-care starts with asking for support, believing in our worth and value and demanding change in how employers and workplaces support neurodivergent people.

We need compassionate and understanding management and leaders within the workplace to effectively reduce the unnecessary suffering in silence neurodivergent people experience, due to fear of asking for help. Workplaces need to make it clear to every employee that they are willing to listen and act upon requests of support, to embrace alternative thinking and working practices that brings out the best in every employee. When employers and business work towards creating a safe, supportive and actively listening environments, they are inadvertently contributing the wellbeing of the employee, encouraging self-care and positively shifting the moral of the workplace.

Together with genuinely inclusive and supportive workplaces, we can change the narrative, and reassure neurodivergent people feel supported and valued.

When neurodivergent people are supported, a change in self-perception occurs. When neurodivergent people feel valued, they value themselves. This is the catalyst for change and that we, as neurodivergent people, deserve self-care.

We’ve done it too hard for too long. It’s time to speak up.

About Barb Cook

Barb is Director of NeuroEmploy, Autism and Neurodiversity Employment Consultant and a registered Developmental Educator (DE) who is passionate in supporting, consulting and mentoring on employment issues for neurodiverse adults and employers. Barb has a Master of Autism (education) with focus on employment from the University of Wollongong, where she is also a tutor in this program and a research assistant in the area of self-determination and self-advocacy for adults on the autism spectrum.

Barb was formally identified on the autism spectrum along with ADHD and phonological dyslexia at age 40, and is editor and co-author of the internationally acclaimed book Spectrum Women: Walking to the Beat of Autism, and editor in chief of Spectrum Women Magazine.

As a Developmental Educator, Barb focuses on developing individualised learning strategies, tools and supports with positive outcomes for individuals across the lifespan. Barb embraces a collaborative approach by working with health and educational professionals, support staff, employers, employees, families and caregivers to develop their skills, knowledge and understanding of a person-centred approach in fostering positive support and enhancement of life outcomes. Barb has extensive experience in working with people on the autism spectrum, ADHD and dyslexia, especially with adults in creating pathways in attaining life goals in the areas of education, employment, health and interpersonal relationships.