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Nancy Doyle

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Stress-busting support strategies for the neurologically diverse remote worker


As HR professionals with a duty of care to all employees, we understand the importance of factoring in the neurological differences of our colleagues when working towards an inclusive and supportive culture.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented number of people – including the neurominorities – are rapidly adjusting to working remotely at a time of deep uncertainty and worry. How can we nurture that inclusivity at a (social) distance?

Remote working can work for some

Working from home is not necessarily problematic. Some neurominorities find they can focus on their work better and become more productive, free from the distraction of day-to-day office life. Others find the lack of structure, the new communication channels and navigating new software without colleagues on hand to point them in the right direction cognitively draining and/or anxiety inducing. 

Not everyone adjusts easily to change

The sudden change in the working environment will have a psychological impact on the entire working population. Without regular informal communication our teamwork could suffer, and relationships may strain.

To support our neurominority and hidden disability colleagues, a provision of adjustments ought to be put in place to cope during the COVID-19 crisis. For those who will be required to work remotely, for example, there are psychological factors to consider. Employers who adopt a one-size-fits-all remote working strategy may exacerbate stress and productivity difficulties. These are testing times for everyone. But there are ways we can help.

Some of our colleagues will be getting most of their daily human contact from these work interactions. Allow everyone some ‘emotional check-in’ time.

Things we can do as employers

1. Make sure you acknowledge the difficulties of the new situation 

Employees could be anxious that they are going to have to take direction remotely. Explain that you don’t expect the same level of engagement on a Zoom call as you might in the office. Reassuring colleagues it’s okay to find this hard and that they are allowed to talk about it will go a long way, particularly with those prone to missing social signals.

Texts, emails, Whatsapp groups, Slack channels, phone calls etc. can be stressful for the cognitively diverse. Let everyone know that your priority is good relationships and clear communication.

2. Video conferencing may be an easier cognitive load on the brain than phone calls 

If it needs to be a phone call, even some basic visuals like bullet points in a Word document can help to anchor attention and quell anxiety. Keep conference calls short. If you can, break into sets of two-way phone calls for detailed work and then come back to the whole group to de-brief.

Keep in mind, though, that everyone is different. Whilst for some video conferencing might provide less cognitive load, for others audio-only options might be easier. Dialling into a call itself can be more draining than meeting in person.  

3. If you have people with sight or hearing loss in your team, reach out directly and find out what they need

There are some great tech enhancements for these employees out there these days, and now is the time to use them.

4. Keep disability support in place

We want all our employees to fulfill their potential and for that we should maintain their support packages. Coaching support that has been in progress might be the critical factor to maintaining confidence and performance in this testing period.

People who are receiving coaching, or preparing for accommodation/adjustment assessment, still need to be progressed. Though the support may not be as extensive, research has shown that remote services can still accommodate at least 50% of what is needed

5. Use part of your meeting time to check how everyone’s doing

This is a stressful time. Some of our colleagues will be getting most of their daily human contact from these work interactions. Allow everyone some ‘emotional check-in’ time. You can also spend some time clarifying your meeting goals and purpose – it might seem mundane but while everyone’s adjusting to the new work environment it can prove surprisingly useful.

You can also schedule social webinars. A daily check in, or a 15 min virtual coffee break with everyone who is working remotely will help hold the isolation at bay and provide a space for the informal office interactions that we would otherwise be having.

6. Incorporate wellness into your HR strategy 

With experts estimating that the pandemic will take months to abate, we’re all going to need to attend to self-care. If your organisation is involved in front-line work – healthcare, tech, food-chain work for example – offering facilitated wellbeing workshops could be a real help.

A workplace wellbeing psychologist, for example, can host a webinar of small group meetings or one-to-ones where people have an opportunity to connect and decompress, with a positive focus on exercising the control we do have over our situation. Getting ahead of this before people become fatigued or overwhelmed will be key. 

‘Apply your oxygen mask to yourself before helping others’ is a phrase we may not be hearing for a while – but it’s worth bearing in mind as the weeks and months roll on. 

Remote working advice for the neurologically diverse in your team

1. Planning is everything

  • Organise your days so that time doesn’t slip away from you

  • Scheduling your work helps to keep focus, prevents working beyond your designated hours and helps you make the most of working spurts

  • Start and end at designated times

  • Take breaks

  • Use the alarm on your phone to remind you when it’s time to start/stop

  • Make sure you schedule time to talk to someone via webcam or phone, so you don’t let the day go by without human contact

2. Create a designated work area

  • Treat your working space as separate from the rest of your home 

  • Keep it as distraction-free as possible

  • If you can, it’s better to use separate computers and phones for work and not personal use. This will help to avoid the distractions/temptations of TV, Facebook, YouTube etc. and will also help your family to know when it’s not OK for them to interrupt you.

3. It’s not ideal – and that’s OK

Working from home means we are asking you to share your personal space with us – and sometimes that’s going to mean that others in your circle – kids, parents, dogs etc. will inevitably intrude on work calls. Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world, just let us know in advance if there are likely to be potential noises/interruptions.   

4. Take care of yourself

You may be tempted to spend all your waking hours working – please don’t. Make sure you take breaks – meal breaks, screen breaks and, if you are able, fresh air breaks. 

Eat healthily as much as you can. 

Without our regular routines, exercise is going to be really important too. There are lots of fun exercise videos online – from strength training to dancercise. 

5. Set up a support group

Do you have two colleagues that you trust as your anchor points? They don’t have to be your line-manager or in your team, it could be someone in your organisation you are friendly with or who has been helpful to you in the past. Make sure you are connected and check in regularly. 

Taking care of our people

All of us in the HR sector are laser-focused right now on how best to help all our colleagues navigate through this difficult time. We’re hosting webinars to share information about the cognitive issues at play and what we know from the latest research on working from home and the ‘always on’ culture.

Things, including the nature of work itself, will be changed forever by the seismic events taking place over the coming weeks and months. We need to look out for each other. And we too need to practise self-care. ‘Apply your oxygen mask to yourself before helping others’ is a phrase we may not be hearing for a while – but it’s worth bearing in mind as the weeks and months roll on. 

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