Problems with Mental Health Initiatives

Thankfully there is more focus on mental health in organisations, with mental health champions and increased pastoral care. These are great and long overdue, but speaking as someone who is autistic I see a major issues with the approaches to this I have encountered - most support happens once a person is already struggling; there is very little premptive action taken to prevent people suffering in the first place.

Autism Example

To illustrate this, I will draw from my own experience. I am Autistic and have battled my way through organisations for 30 years. Don’t get me wrong, organisations are generally much better than they were; just the fact that I can say that I am autistic and talk openly about it at work, are big steps forward in my view. While I think most autistic people expend a huge amount of energy masking their natural traits to fit in to a neuro-typical world, not having to hid yourself is a big plus.

That said, organisations have a way to go, and for me the big two are:

  • Environment
  • Career path


Physical Environment

Autistic people can be very sensitive to the physical world, getting quickly overwhelmed by stimulation which can be distressing and tiring. Most offices have moved over to open plan, and some have Googlefied’ their physical space with phone boxes, bean bags and meeting rooms made from old buses and ski-lift gondolas. This is all very boogie, but has some issues for Autistic people:

  • Light : Bright direct light can be very tiring on the eyes and over-stimulating. It feels like being in a spotlight all day.
  • Sound : In spaces with a level of background noise it can be difficult to filter it out and focus on conversations. If the noise is too loud it can become overwhelming, making both make concentration and thinking difficult.
  • Textiles : Certain textiles can be irritating to the touch and uncomfortable to wear, in my case wool and wool mixes. This can affect what people can wear so strict dress codes and uniforms can be problematic, as could chair coverings or unusual items such as pin boards with a fabric covering.
  • Food : Autistics can also be sensitive to the texture and temperature of food. Gloopy food such as porridge and rice pudding seem to be particularly problematic, while some people cannot drink cold drinks or eat cold food which is also eaten hot such as chicken or soup.
  • Colour : Very colourful environments can also over-stimulate, make an environment visually very noisy and difficult to focus in.
  • Texture : Dimples or roughness can cause unsettling feelings or even nausea.

Technical Environment

The equipment being used can also cause some issues. From my experience in IT and consultancy these include:

  • Fixed equipment : This is an issue that is reducing over time as the provision of mobile working increases, but if people work with fixed technology, such as a desktop PC, it is not possible to escape noise and light. It is not possible to work somewhere else less stimulating for a while.
  • Tooling : There are some software tools that can be useful, such as voice recorders and transcription applications which can be difficult to get permission to install and use. Some common software tools such as Microsoft Word are quite distracting and I find much simpler authoring tools, such as a minimalist Markdown editor, much more productive to use.
  • Tailoring : Many organisations lock down the configuration of computers. Aspects such as computer backgrounds, lock screens and the configurations of individual applications can’t be changed. As noted before, if these items are bright or flickering they can cause problems. Dark mode has become more popular in recent years which has been useful to reduce the number of bright white screens, but is not yet universal. Applying coloured filters and changing the default sounds could also be beneficial.

Career Path

This is where I think the problems really are. Companies are determinedly recruiting diverse work forces, mainly at the lower ranks as that is where the largest levels of recruitment take place. The new employees now start their way up the corporate ladder, however the ladder has been designed for neuro-typicals. Progress starts based on technical skills, but then starts relying on networking, management, and sales. In most companies, the number of roles available reduces the higher up an employee goes, therefore the diversity of skills needed reduces, and tend towards ones that are not well represented among autistics. For all the noise and announcements about diversity, career paths tend not to be diverse and mean that the number of options diminishes.

What is the point of expending all the effort in diverse recruiting and pastoral care, just to see people leave when they get to a certain level and realise their skills are not valued?

Obviously I am biased, but in a business world where companies are continually looking to differentiate themselves from their competition, having people who literally think differently can be a huge advantage.

Some of well known people who are suspected of being autistic are:

  • Hans Christian Andersen — Children’s Author
  • Lewis Carroll — Author of Alice in Wonderland”
  • Henry Cavendish — Scientist
  • Charles Darwin — Naturalist, Geologist, and Biologist
  • Emily Dickinson — Poet
  • Paul Dirac — Physicist
  • Albert Einstein — Scientist & Mathematician
  • Bobby Fischer — Chess Grandmaster
  • Bill Gates — Co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation
  • Temple Grandin — Animal Scientist
  • Daryl Hannah — Actress & Environmental Activist
  • Thomas Jefferson — Early American Politician
  • Steve Jobs — Former CEO of Apple
  • James Joyce — Author of Ulysses”
  • Stanley Kubrick — Film Director
  • Michelangelo — Sculptor, Painter, Architect, Poet
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — Classical Composer
  • Sir Isaac Newton — Mathematician, Astronomer, & Physicist
  • Satoshi Tajiri — Creator of Nintendo’s Pokémon
  • Nikola Tesla — Inventor
  • Andy Warhol — Artist
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein — Philosopher
  • William Butler Yeats — Poet

That’s not bad company! While there may be social awkwardness, there is also a lot of creativity and new ideas. One theory is that autistics store and retrieve information differently from neuro-typicals, while this can lead to absent mindedness, it can also lead to the collision of ideas and concepts in new ways.

To tap into this mine of ideas, organisations need to provide alternate routes of progression that recognise and cater for those traits.


Whether you have a mental health initiative and are trying to become more diverse as an business or not, people within your organisation will be struggling. It is estimated about 1 in 60 people are autistic, and that is just one form of neuro-diversity, there are many others.

Setting up a one fits all’ organisation environment and career structure may be cost effective, but could be organisationally fatal. Companies need this diversity of thought, especially in uncertain times, and we don’t get more uncertain than now.

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