How Your Noisy Work Environment Impacts on Diversity in the Workplace
The sensory environment at work impacts not only neurodiverse people. You’ll be surprised by the number of people who aren’t autistic or dyslexic for example, who are also affected by the amount of noise and movement in the office.
I’ll explain a few a common areas that create challenges when it comes to the sensory environment and work, along with a few simple strategies you can employ. The upside is, the cost of doing so doesn’t need to be high, and the benefit of having done so will be felt by many of your staff.
The impacts of over stimulation
Sensory Processing Disorder, Austim, Dyslexia, ADHD and other neurological differences can result in people having a variety of challenges processing external information.
For some, the inputs they receive from the environment are in way, magnified in terms of the way their brains understand that information.
So for someone who is sensitive to noise, in so far as they are ‘hyper’ sensitive (ie they are receiving too much information), can become mentally overloaded. In practical terms this can manifest as headaches, migraines, poor or a lack of concentration and difficulty hearing conversations.
To get an understanding of sensory over stimulation, the UK’s National Autistic Society have a video that tries to provide an idea of what sensor overload might feel like.
Please note, this video contains flashing lights, bright colours and loud, sudden noises.
Only autistic people are affected by sensory stimulation
Whilst it might be convenient to say that sensory overload is limited to autistic people, we know this to not be the case.
For many neurodiverse people, whether they are autistic or not, sensory sensitivities can be a common and intrinsic part of who they are.
Additionally, there are many people who may not meet the pathological criteria to be diagnosed as neurodiverse who may also share similar levels of sensory sensitivity.
Of course sensory sensitivities can be experienced across all senses and are not limited to sound or auditory sensitivity. Sight or light, smell and touch are also areas that people may experience some level of either hyper or hypo sensitivity. People who have a hypo sensitivity will often seek out additional sensory input rather than looking to avoid or minimise those inputs.
Open plan offices affect sensory inputs - for everyone
I’m not about to suggest that you need to change your office layout and go back to the banks of cubicles and rabbit warren of small offices of the 1980s and ‘90s. I’m a little more realistic than that!
But, it should be noted that with an open plan office, the ability of sound to traverse a wider space is increased.
Harvard Business Review (Staying Focused in a Noisy Open Office) looked into this issue on a much broader scale, no mention of neurodiverse employees at all. Noise levels in open plan office spaces are a consideration for any organisation. The effects on productivity and mental health are an area of ongoing investigation, but there is clear evidence already that it’s a challenge faced by all staff members.
The real question to be asking around this is, “how many people have left due to an inability to effectively cope with your sensory environment?”. Whether it was a result of performance issues that were inadequately understood and addressed or a voluntary exit (ie resignation), you’ve quite likely lost someone.
The opportunity cost of this sort of involuntary turnover is avoidable. The level of diversity in your workforce could be being directly impacted by it. If neurodiverse staff (or anyone else) are not able to manage their sensory overload at work, and adequate adjustments or supports are not in place, then there is a whole cohort of potential talent that you will miss out on hiring or retaining.
Keep in mind, for many people they will get an idea of the sensory environment when they come for an interview. If it’s off putting, if they can’t imagine themselves working with you as a result of that, then despite what you may hope they won’t progress in your recruitment process.
Managing the sensory environment at work
But the future doesn’t need to be all doom and gloom. My early days at work were spent in a combination of almost individual fishbowl offices (without the same amount of glass) and cubicles you could hide in (even when standing!).
That’s not a world any of us want to go back to, at least the majority of us. But being able to mix a little of the old with the new, with some additional individually tailored approaches could provide us the best of both worlds.
Strategies such using noise cancelling headphones, to being mindful of where particular individuals sit (ie away from kitchen spaces, copiers/printers or other equipment) can be simple adjustments that require little to no investment.
Having some basic team rules around managing group volume when people are on the phone or trying to get some focus work done. Setting these agreements as a group can be an effective way for the team to support one another, but to also put their collective concerns on the table so as to be better understood.
Many offices will have quiet spaces or focus rooms that can be utilised for when people need to get some work done without too many distractions. These can be great spaces for neurodiverse staff with sensory sensitivities to retreat to if necessary. What can you do to provide priority access or dedicated use if required?
At times even just being able to get out of the office and walk, to change the sensory environment may be enough for some people to lower their anxiety or stress levels and to regain some control.
Again though, so many of these strategies can be utilised by any staff member, and are not limited to those that are neurodiverse.
A loss of focus and attention due to too much noise in the workplace is a common challenge for many people. The impacts on neurodiverse people may well be heightened, and their tolerance levels may well be lower. But the problem is certainly not isolated to them.
Being able to offer a range of options and strategies to better manage the noise levels and an individual’s expose to noise in the office can certainly improve the situation for everyone. Your neurodiverse staff will definitely appreciate your efforts.
Understanding that loosing staff due to sensory challenges could begin before you’ve even hired them. The experience of candidates as part of the reruitment process could result in them self selecting out or their performance suffered during selection and they were excluded.
Either way, building a diverse workforce that can truly drive innovation, creativity and business performance will be harder as a result.
Need more tips on how to interview neurodiverse candidates? Download our free Neurodiverse Interview Guide.