Whether it’s unsupportive bosses showing “microaggressions” to being labelled ‘lazy’ or dishonest, neurodivergent creatives have opened up about the issues they’ve faced working across marketing, digital and journalism in the North.
It is estimated that 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent, with differences such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette’s syndrome and more.
Following two petitions urging more support for those with autism and ADHD who are facing lengthy waits for NHS assessments, Parliament recently debated the issue.
But for many, being able to get a diagnosis or medication is just half the battle. Finding a supportive employer can be a struggle too.
“I had to leave my last workplace because they weren’t accommodating at all. I suspected I had ADHD while I was working there and I posed that to my then employer. Reasonable accommodations were just really, really tough for me to campaign and get,” Amy Elliott, Head of Copy at Manchester-based marketing agency Lightbulb Media, told Prolific North.
Told by her former boss he wanted a “very collaborative environment” where staff could chatter away across desks, Amy just craved reasonable work-arounds to avoid the hustle and bustle of the office, such as noise-cancelling headphones or flexible working hours.
“I would have to do work during the evening because I physically couldn’t do it when I was surrounded by people and noise. When I didn’t have my headphones, everyday was a struggle,” she explained. “It came to a head when they realised I was doing work late in the evening. Rather than posing it as being concerned for my welfare, they accused me of lying to them about the time that I was spending in the office. They were very accusatory rather than supportive.”
Stuck on an NHS waiting list, she said she is “really blessed” as Ellie Middleton, founder of the (un)masked community for neurodivergents and a connection she made on LinkedIn, offered her a private assessment last year through the same company she received her diagnosis from.
For Ellen Cole, founder of York-based agency Little Seed Group, she was initially diagnosed with dyslexia and visual perceptual processing disorder Irlen Syndrome in 2009, and received further diagnoses of autism and ADHD last year.
Now a digital accessibility trainer who works for herself, she is keen to shout about the importance of inclusion following her own difficult experiences working in marketing.
“In 2009, people would have no hesitation shouting at you in your face, telling you that you don’t belong there because of your disabilities. Now, it’s done in quite a subtle way that you don’t know if it’s happening, or if you’re imagining it. It really can be challenging.”
“It took me a while to get into marketing”
Since the Equality Act came into force in 2010, which legally protects people from discrimination at work and in society, she believes there hasn’t been much of a shift in attitudes.
“It took me a while to get into marketing because very few people wanted to take on someone with dyslexia and Irlen Syndrome,” she explained. “I was finding really weird feedback. It would either be ‘Ellen wouldn’t be a good culture fit’ or that I didn’t have enough experience.”
When she eventually secured roles in marketing, unsupportive bosses and stressful work environments soon took its toll. “I found there was a lot of microaggression. I didn’t feel very empowered, I felt like a hindrance. Even though I enjoyed my work, office politics caused no end of issues and having to mask and try and keep that smile on everyday was really challenging.”
When the opportunity came for voluntary redundancy at her former workplace, she jumped at the chance and embraced life as a full-time freelancer instead.
“I became quite unhappy. I wasn’t gelling with the team, the team was unkind to me. It became unbearable. Any tiny error I made I would be pulled up on it.”
Interviewing can often be a daunting experience for most but for some neurodivergents, she believes there is a lack of accessibility and inclusion. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) only 21.7 per cent of those with autism are employed in the UK.
During an interview process for a role at a Disability Confident employer, a government scheme aimed at encouraging workplaces to recruit and retain disabled people, Ellen was asked to do a test. She asked if they could provide the documents in Word format so she could use a screen reader, but they gave her an inaccessible PDF instead.
“My screen reader couldn’t read it… I didn’t get the job. They said to me: ‘You did really well at the interview, but we were so disappointed in the actual tests that you did’. I said: ‘But I explained to you that I couldn’t do it to the best of my ability because I needed this?’ I feel there’s a sense of superficiality when it comes to inclusion and diversity in the workplace.”
Accessibility is not the only issue, there is still a stigma around neurodiverse conditions: “There seems to be a huge stigma towards autism. When I meet with clients today, I will tell them all my disabilities, and that they will all nod and smile but when I say autism, their faces will drop.”
For Jenni Hill, a finance copywriter and content marketer from Manchester, at first it was easy to find a job in marketing. After completing a master’s degree in journalism, she landed a job as a content writer for an online pet retailer before deciding to venture into the agency world.
She soon found herself struggling with interviews and ultimately, securing a job.
“I would find it really difficult to concentrate in interviews. They’d ask me a question and my brain would go off in a completely different direction and start talking about something that wasn’t relevant,” she explained. “I found it quite hard to get jobs. I’d go to so many job interviews before I was accepted. But from there, I jumped from one marketing agency to another.”
Before her ADHD diagnosis, which she only received last year after having to go private, she had been left believing she was “just a bit daft or stupid”.
When she finally started working at a marketing agency, a revolving door of projects dipping into contrasting topics such as forklift trucks, mortgages or fashion, it felt like a “form of torture”. Exhausted, she would let the work pile up until deadline day.
“The last week of each month, I would be drowning and so stressed out. It can make it really hard to progress your career when you have ADHD, especially if it’s undiagnosed or if you’ve been diagnosed but your employer isn’t supportive.”
“They’re lazy or have no motivation”
Reflecting on her previous roles in marketing, if she had her diagnosis and previous employers were aware of her needs, “there were a lot of things that they could have done”.
“It makes me sad to think that there’s probably a lot of people out there who are undiagnosed, they’re struggling in their jobs, they’ve probably come to the conclusion that they’re lazy or have no motivation. That’s not the case at all.”
“Sometimes it might be seen as a barrier, sometimes it could be seen as a positive because without my ADHD, I don’t think I would have ever made it into management and I don’t think I’d have ever started my own business. You have an insatiable drive to just create and do something bigger. Once you’re channelling it in the right direction, you can feel a bit unstoppable,” she explained.
It’s something Jenni agrees with: “It does have its perks. We’re often creative, passionate, conscientious and want to do a good job. We struggle to achieve our potential but with the right help, it’s definitely possible for us to do great things.”
Although Lucy has had a successful career to date, it was her mental health that suffered before she received a diagnosis.
“I was diagnosed at 34. I thought it was maybe a mood disorder, bipolar or schizophrenia, I really couldn’t understand what was going on with me. Career wise, I don’t think it would have changed much because I’ve always been really motivated.
“My quality of life would have been a hell of a lot better. I probably wouldn’t have smoked about 10,000 cigarettes… so better for my health as well! I think it’s a bit of an outrage at the moment seeing what the waiting times are like for ADHD.”
Long NHS waiting times began to negatively impact her work-life balance. After a doctor said she could be waiting up to two years to see a psychiatrist on the NHS, she went down the private route and received an appointment within two weeks instead.
Nearly 70 per cent of neurodivergent employees experience mental health issues, according to a study by Willis Towers Watson (WTW), leading to calls for better employer support.
“I worked myself into the ground until I had four breakdowns in three years because I couldn’t understand what was going on with me mentally,” said Lucy.
“At this point I had to quit my job. I was in a really bad place mentally, I wasn’t leaving the house and thought: ‘I can’t wait two years just to sort this out’. There were suicidal thoughts. I really think it’s a death sentence if you can’t afford to go private and you have to wait two years.”
Now that she has her diagnosis and has opened up about her mental health struggles, she’s found support from across the sector.
“We’re at a point now where people celebrate their differences. I’ve had a lot of people in Manchester get in touch from the business scene who aren’t open about it. They’re like: ‘Look, this is a superpower. Once you’ve figured it out, how to rein it in and how to focus it, it’s going to be the making of you because it’s actually an amazing thing to have’. It’s not all negative, you can lead a happy life and have a good career.”
How can employers do better?
Whether it’s a lack of training or funding, there’s a big disparity across the North in how employers approach inclusion with a neurodiverse workforce.
“In Manchester and London, because there are a lot of digital agencies there’s more employees and a greater call to pursue neurodiversity training. Whereas in the likes of Teesside, which is where my old job was, it’s lagging behind because there are fewer people that they have to consider. There’s less money going into training people, there’s less money in the economy in general,” explained Amy.
Currently digital nomading around Europe, she’s now in a much happier place since being diagnosed alongside having a supportive employer on board.
“It’s so easy to stick a plaster on ADHD and think these accommodations will work for everyone. It’s not the case. I’m working collaboratively with my employer to figure out how I function best, but my talent and my integrity is respected, rather than writing me off as lazy or dishonest because I struggled to do things in the timeframe that people thought I could manage. It’s just worked out so much better for me.”
Catherine Warrilow, managing Director at Altrincham-headquartered ticketing and events platform daysout.com, has a 14-year-old son with autism and said around 30% of her team are neurodiverse. With a small team, she’s worked to ensure there is open dialogue about the needs and wants of each employee.
“The crux of the challenge with neurodiversity in the workplace is we don’t have to figure out how to accommodate people, we have to figure out how to redefine what work actually is. That’s what makes me really excited,” she explained.
“If Google can supply breakfast, ping pong tables, sleep hubs, cycle to work and living accommodation on site, then corporations as big as that can put in ways and means that support different personality traits.“
There needs to be a lot more education around neurodiversity, explained Lucy. “A lot of people aren’t very well educated about ADHD, and I wasn’t either. Sitting down doing a nine to five is impossible for someone with ADHD, you need to be up, you need to be moving around, sometimes you need a bit of a longer break. You need to be a lot more flexible, you don’t fit into that mould.
“For people who are maybe suffering, try and remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I would always advocate for being very open and honest with the people around you, especially if things are getting worse, because it can take you into some quite dark places.”
A word of advice from Amy to employers? “You’ve got to consider when you have ADHD that not everyone is going to fit into the same box,” she explained. “We all bring completely different strengths and weaknesses to our roles and we need management differently. I think one of the most important things that anybody in management can do is get training, especially if there’s a neurodiversity element included.”
Jenni agrees. As a neurodivergent, being able to have open conversations with employers on specific needs is key but only if they are educated.
“If your employer was more accommodating, it would be beneficial for everyone. Obviously, not all employers will be understanding. Some will think that ADHD is just made up, which is obviously unhelpful.”
As well as advocating for more employers to seek out training and education on neurodiversity, Ellen believes it’s all about “cultivating an environment where everyone thrives”.
“Going on training, going on webinars with people who have lived experiences, conferences, and bringing people in to help you to make those changes. Ultimately, it is about having that really good relationship with people within your team.”
“I now say, this is how I am. Take it or lump it,” she laughed.