Managers At Risk of Emotional Burnout When Managing Neurodivergent Employees

Carly Godden  |  04/07/2020

Workplaces need to provide adequate training and support to avoid a drop in employee productivity.

Managers can experience emotional burnout if they are not equipped with the right support to manage their neurodivergent employees, UK researchers have warned. 

Consequently, neurodivergent employees will face a drop in productivity, say the researchers, who were mostly from Heriot Watt University and the University of Sterling. 

The findings come from interviews of 28 line managers in the UK transport industry, who were asked about their personal experiencing managing neurodivergent employees. In particular, the interviews focused on the emotional labour of managers and their neurodivergent employees, as well as the broader team, customers and formal support services. 

According to the researchers, managers in the UK transport sector are primarily responsible for making reasonable, practical adjustments to the environment and workplace tasks for their neurodivergent employees. 

However, the study found that managers lacked formal training and support, leading to a sense of isolation. Encouraging orderly work habits was reportedly time-consuming and emotionally draining. 

One manager said: “I had to plan anything that came out of the blue, as he found it hard to cope with, and his delivery was quite slow, so it was a case of planning everything upfront with him and having a lot of dialogue. Spoke to him probably more than my other staff because we couldn’t articulate through email that well, like instructions … It takes more time to manage … it definitely has an impact.”

Other managers reported expending emotional energy on creating work-arounds to communication and task-related issues. Often, they had to make these accommodations while preserving the privacy of their employee's diagnosis. 

Some managers noted that it was easier when the wider team was aware of the employee’s neurodivergent condition and were actively onboarded on understanding how to work with their condition. 

As one participant reported, “I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had the relationship with the [team] involved to be able to say: you trust me on this one […] In the case of the guy with dyslexia, he went on to be quite open about it [to the team] and people understand when you’re open.” 

However, managers often reported feelings of frustration and stress in coping with the emotional outlay, as well as difficulties in accessing formal organisation support. They also had to balance medical advice on accommodations with workplace expectations. 

“From a business point of view it’s hard to do and you’ve got to get a balance that’s right for the business, being a team leader and a manager but also helping and supporting that person and it is quite difficult,” said one manager. 

The researchers advise that line managers are provided with autonomy, information, resources and relevant skills to navigate their exchanges with their neurodivergent colleagues and to minimise team conflict.

They conclude that providing ample time for line managers to build long term and trusting relationships with neurodivergent employees will minimise strain on the line manager, and in turn provide a better basis for neurodivergent to flourish in the workplace.