Time to listen

Accepting neurodivergent people in the workplace

How can we make the workplace more welcoming for neurodivergent people? We asked Karina Heikkila, who has complex post-traumatic stress disorder, for a personal view. Here, Karina speaks directly about her experiences of working at Capgemini, and how we can make the workplace a more inclusive, understanding environment.

The first thing to say is that I don’t think of myself as having a disability. I see myself as living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (c-PTSD). It is a characteristic of the way my brain and body function.

On a practical level, it means that feeling safe is very important to me. Safety is not something I seek consciously, but my body will react to situations where I don’t feel safe. So, you can say I’m super sensitive to external stimuli. This means that in my working environment at Capgemini – where I spend a third of my time – safety, of all kinds, is very important.

A place of safety

I came to Capgemini two years ago after pursuing a short legal career. Before that, I spent 25 years in various IT roles. I’m now an associate director in Melbourne, Australia, and work as a proposal architect. Outside of this, I’m chair of our neurodiversity community here in Australia and New Zealand.

When I arrived at Capgemini, I found the environment to be generally very welcoming and understanding. For example, my manager is aware of my c-PTSD and helps me to avoid taking on too much work – which is something I know I’m liable to do in order to feel safe.

Creating an environment where neurodivergent employees feel included and safe is key to maximizing the value of a diverse workplace.

Difficult impacts

Sometimes, my c-PTSD can cause an immediate onset of extreme anxiety and brain fog, and can temporarily undermine my confidence. C-PTSD has been a characteristic of my beingness since I was a child, although I was only diagnosed in my 30s.

Although I’ve sought help with my condition and am proactive in its management, I can’t “cure” myself with techniques and medications. With c-PTSD, my reactions were “written” in my brain and body as I developed into adulthood. So, it is truly a part of “me.”

Proud to be diverse

In fact, my living with c-PTSD is something I’ve grown to appreciate and be proud of. For example, I’m highly attuned to how others interact with each other – something I have in common with many of my wonderful neurodivergent colleagues at Capgemini.

This includes people who identify with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, and Asperger’s syndrome, among other cohorts. Many of us, even if we are not neurodivergent, have similar sensitivities that may trigger different responses.

Given the right resources, people who identify as neurodivergent often find rewarding careers and thrive in the tech industry.

I firmly believe that neurodivergent people truly add value to organizations. Fundamentally, if our experiences help to create a culture in which it’s safe to speak out – and if our ways-of-working needs are met – it will benefit everyone in the organization from a mental health perspective.

This is critical because, at any given time, 20% of the population is suffering from some form of mental health issue. In fact, 12% of us will suffer from some form of PTSD in our lifetimes, and the condition does not switch itself off just because we are at work.

Care and attention

What conclusions are we to draw from these numbers? For me, they highlight the importance of being mindful 

Leadership is about understanding all aspects of what it means to be in a diverse workplace and recognising the value it provides.

towards our colleagues. If we are to thrive as individuals, teams, and as an organization, we should make embracing and accommodating of differences a shared responsibility.

We must really live our values of respect – of being sensitive to different ways of being. This takes time, learning, patience, and practice. Organizations require strong, truly diverse leadership that embraces different and more empathetic ways of interacting.

Improving the workplace

Employers who want to improve workplaces for people like me should ensure that everyone in the organization continues to learn about different characteristics and disabilities – those that are in plain sight and those that are not.

In practical terms, we should reconsider how we assign tasks and job roles, and how we can sensitively recruit different types of people with different needs. Only then can we become truly diverse as an organization and benefit from all the power that brings.

Reaping the benefits

No matter what cohort we belong to, we must all feel safe in expressing what we need in order to flourish. At Capgemini, we must continue the great work we do in our diversity and inclusion communities – we need to invest in learning – and above all, we must really listen.

Neurodiversity must remain on the HR agenda if organisations are to provide equal opportunities and attract new talent.

Read other stories from our colleagues where they share how we can make the workplace a more inclusive, understanding environment.

A vision for speech

Helping those living with a neurodisability practice their speech and language therapy