Background noise tormented Hannah Pratt during her past few in-person office jobs. At one job, she had a vent near her desk that she says sounded like a rocket ship bearing down on her. Another office had paper-thin walls. Foot traffic and impromptu meetings constantly threw off her concentration.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, Ms. Pratt, a 35-year-old marketing and communications consultant, was living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. People with the condition can find focus and stillness elusive, but also experience a host of other symptoms, including sensitivity to noise – especially when trying to concentrate.
“I found it more and more stifling,” she says. “And I felt myself becoming less productive. Quite frankly, I’d go home at lunch to do more work, or I’d be working on the weekends.”
Her experience of the modern open office isn’t unusual for neurodivergent people – a catch-all term that can include those with ADHD, autism, dyslexia and dyscalculia, Tourette syndrome, intellectual disabilities and mental-health conditions such as bipolar disorder.
In Ms. Pratt’s past jobs, requesting to work from home could be seen as a sign of laziness, or perhaps an unwillingness to be managed. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that.
All of a sudden, office workers across Canada were forced to work outside of the office. This work arrangement is ideal for many neurodivergent people, including Ms. Pratt, who has worked full-time from home for nearly a year. Instead of fending off distractions, these employees are able to tailor their offices to suit them.
“There aren’t people coming to my door to have chats and disrupt me,” she says. “I don’t have to stop what I’m doing and have a conversation. I can control those interactions.”
Yet neurodivergent employees and experts say accommodating neurodiversity in the workplace isn’t necessarily improving despite the pandemic shift toward remote work. “It’s unfortunately going backwards,” says Kelly Bron Johnson, an autistic and hard-of-hearing self-advocate and the founder of Completely Inclusive, a consultancy focused on inclusion and accessibility in the workplace.
neurodivergent people, even those with the same diagnosis, can experience a wide range of symptoms. Some people with ADHD, for example, are constantly restless and unable to relax, while others seem dreamy and lost in their own worlds. But one common thread running through neurodivergence is a heightened sensitivity to background stimuli. That includes everything from the buzz of fluorescent lighting (irritating to some autistics) to strong smells.
According to the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada, as many as 6 per cent of all adults have the condition. The Canadian Medical Association Journal estimates that roughly 1 to 2 per cent of the Canadian population, of all ages, is on the autism spectrum. But many of these employees struggle to hang on to or gain employment.
Roughly 60 per cent of people with ADHD in the United States have been fired from a job, according to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, an international peer support group. In Canada, the employment rate for autistic adults is just 14.3 per cent, according to the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.
One reason for this is the difficulty many neurodivergent employees have in finding work environments they feel comfortable in. Mx. Johnson says for many in the autistic community, financial instability forces them to take whatever job they can find.
“If a workplace has to be in-person, we’re going to take that job because we need the money,” Mx. Johnson says. “It’s not a choice.”
And advocating for oneself in the office, they add, isn’t always a choice either. Disclosing a diagnosis of ADHD, autism or dyslexia can draw unwelcome – and discriminatory – scrutiny from employers.
In spite of the pandemic’s lessons about the efficacy of remote workers, many companies, including some of Canada’s biggest banks, are requiring at least some in-office participation by their employees. Megan Pilatzke, a 33-year-old autistic program engagement co-facilitator at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, estimates around half of organizations are moving forward with remote options, while the other half are happy to go back to the way things were before the pandemic.
“I’m seeing this transition to an all or nothing approach, and it’s very disheartening,” Ms. Pilatzke says.
Not everyone wants to work remotely, Ms. Pilatzke says, but plenty of employees who do can be accommodated – the pandemic proved it. She points to the need for workplaces to uphold human-rights standards around disability. Many conditions, including autism and ADHD, can be considered disabilities under Canadian law. Allowing an employee to work remotely, provided they can still perform their job, could be an appropriate accommodation.
Rachel Wade, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion, and employee experience at Alberta Investment Management Corp., says accommodations can go beyond just providing robust benefits plans for employees. In an e-mail, she says the use of tools such as noise-cancelling headphones to reduce distractions and the acceptance of behaviours that neurodivergent people may find difficult to suppress, such as sitting still during meetings, can also help.
Ms. Wade says allowing for flexible work hours and locations, a policy AIMCo implemented last year, can also be ideal for neurodivergent people. “For many people, flexible work environments are becoming an expectation rather than a perk because it’s easier to integrate fulfilling work into their lives while accommodating a diverse range of needs,” she says.
But the conversation around accommodating neurodiversity in the workplace goes far beyond control. Lia Grimanis, the founder and chief executive officer of Up With Women, a charity that helps recently homeless and at-risk women and gender-diverse people out of poverty, is autistic and has ADHD. The 51-year-old says that even a home office can be filled with distractions or triggers for neurodivergent people.
However, she says a home environment can provide more distance from misunderstandings or a lack of accommodation in the workplace. “The absolute guarantee is that you will be less exposed to discrimination, less exposed to ignorance and you’ll be less tired – hopefully – from the constant requirement to always negotiate those environments,” she says.
As for Ms. Pratt, her working situation today is far better for her ADHD. She wears many hats, one of which is working with entrepreneurs – many of whom have ADHD – to launch digital courses and products. Her remote position has eliminated many of her distractions, and she is able to control her schedule to prioritize mornings for focused work.
“Managing my day has become something I’m completely responsible for,” Ms. Pratt says. “And I’m more productive, I’m more successful, and far less stressed out about my career.”
One of Ms. Pratt’s other hats is working as a spin instructor. That may seem like the worst option for someone who finds themselves easily distracted, but she is able to work in that environment on her own terms. “In that room, I’m controlling the noise,” she says. “I’m controlling everything.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly used the term neurodiverse to refer to neurodivergent people.