When lockdowns were announced worldwide in 2020 and the primary domain of work transferred overnight from the office to the home, an aspect of office life that was keenly missed by many was the Christmas parties and after-work drinks. At these social events organised either by the employer or by co-workers independently, you could come together with your colleagues in a more casual context and get the opportunity to get to know the people you work with a little better.
These events are a great bonding opportunity and can help foster a sense of identity and belonging in your organisation.
When you’re neurodivergent, however, navigating the nuances of social situations can be difficult even at the best of times and this fact can often be overlooked when it comes to expectations around participation at after-work events.
As an Autistic person, I know firsthand how tricky these situations can be to navigate when they occur in environments which are fundamentally at odds with your sensory needs.
When I moved to Dublin for an internship at the start of my career, it was quite common for the other interns and I to arrange to meet up socially after work on a weekly basis. As nice a sentiment as that was as we were all getting to know each other, these meetups happened pretty much exclusively in pubs and clubs – in other words, notoriously noisy environments that could potentially be very triggering to someone with sensory differences (not to mention how difficult it is to have a substantial conversation with someone where you really get to know them when you can’t hear what anyone around you is saying!).
The sticky floors, the loudness, the blurred lines of personal space as people are packed like sardines into busy rooms – this is nothing short of a nightmare to someone like me, who is so hyperaware of my sensory surroundings.
I found myself evaluating whether I was willing to routinely sacrifice my sensory safety for the sake of being seen to be a “team player” who was “making an effort” to connect with my colleagues. I eventually decided that I wasn’t and began to withdraw – not from lack of wanting to socialise, but because I simply couldn’t continue to do so in spaces that are so overwhelming and inaccessible to me on a sensory level.
I continued not to take part in very many social events at subsequent jobs and felt eternally guilty about it.
It reminds me somewhat of that episode ofFriendswhere Rachel takes up smoking (something that makes her vastly uncomfortable) in order to have a common interest with coworkers and so she doesn’t miss out on “shop talk” during cigarette breaks. In my case, I could see budding friendships and in-jokes from events I wasn’t at emerging all around me, and started to feel sad over the rapport and camaraderie I was missing out on.
While attendance at after-work events is technically optional and not part of your job description, it can sometimes feel like a confusing unspoken rule and failing to fulfil these extracurricular “requirements” can almost feel like a mark against you in your role as you’re not seen to be a “good sport” or a “team player”. All of these considerations can be a minefield for Autistic people to navigate, especially within corporate culture.
Looking back, I think I would have handled this kind of situation quite differently.
Instead of not participating in events that happen in settings that will cause overwhelm and sensory overload for me, I would have voiced my issues with my coworkers and asked that we introduce more variety in the venues we choose for events. For example, we could still absolutely have after-work drinks and all the usual events, but we could also switch things up every now and then and choose activities and venues with less crowds and sensory stimuli, such as a picnic at the park, going for a walk together during the long summer evenings, bowling (still loud, but not as full-on!), the cinema, museums and art galleries (many of which will have evenings where they stay open in the evenings), going out for a meal or hanging out at a café.
I also would have explained how demanding sensory environments such as pubs drain my social battery so that my colleagues understand that if I leave an event early, it isn’t out of rudeness or boredom, but quite simply because I have reached my full sensory capacity and have recognised it is time for me to go home before it spills over into sensory overload.
Ensuring a wide variety of activities not only makes after-work social events more neuroinclusive, but also is more inclusive towards other demographics who may not feel comfortable in the typically alcohol-oriented setting these get-togethers tend to take place in – people who are sober or in recovery; people who don’t drink for religious or cultural reasons; introverts who find the idea of committing to a whole “night out” intimidating or unappealing; and people who just don’t enjoy being in these environments and of given the choice, would prefer to do something lowkey.
My advice to you, whether you are an employer considering venues for your Christmas party or a colleague organising an after-work get-together with your team or workmates, is: even if you’re not aware of there being any neurodivergent people in your organisation, leaning towards variety is always a good rule of thumb.
When booking venues for Christmas parties or other work events, consider the sensory makeup of the environment – you can reasonably expect venues like hotels etc to be loud, but is there a quiet area someone could retreat to for a little while to decompress before rejoining the group? Could you consider having music playing only for a certain period during the event or turning the volume down slightly? Are the lighting fixtures in the room very bright or fluorescent and will there be any floodlights, laser lights or any kind of flashing light that could trigger seizures for someone with epilepsy? All of these are useful questions to put to any venues you deal with when organising work events and putting sensory considerations front and centre in your event planning not only is good best practice from an accessibility perspective, but may well stand to benefit countless others as well!