Burnout is a feeling that’s familiar to all of us, neurodivergent or otherwise. Many of us will have felt like we have too much on our plate from time to time and work demands can often be the trigger for this feeling that there is more going on than you feel you can handle. When you are neurodivergent, however, this can be an especially intense experience as on top of all the sources of prolonged stress that may lead a neurotypical person towards burnout, we neurodivergent people are in what often feels like a permanent state of exhaustion from existing in a world that wasn’t made with our way of thinking in mind.
Unfortunately, many autistic people feel like they must “mask” or suppress their autistic traits at work, either due to stigma or negative past experiences. Essentially, you’re bringing someone that isn’t really “you”, but a version of you that you believe to be most acceptable or least “burdensome” to your colleagues, into work with you each day and putting on an Oscar-winning performance as someone who only bears the vaguest of resemblances to your authentic self. I’ve been lucky enough to have always worked for employers whom I generally felt comfortable disclosing my autistic identity to, and yet even with this acceptance amongst my colleagues, I still struggle not to mask as it’s something I learned to do by default over the years and even though it’s unbelievably, excruciatingly exhausting, it’s not something that can be unlearned overnight. For someone who doesn’t have the level of support or positive reception I received in both past and current roles, you can imagine how even that in itself could lead to a state of all-encompassing autistic burnout. Now add an overwhelming workload, the daily navigation of complex social dynamics at work that autistic people like myself can often find challenging, and all the demands of our lives outside of work, and a certain brand of chaos ensues at the centre of which you stand in a state of bewildered paralysis. Anyone who has been through autistic burnout will know this feeling all too well.
Speaking from my own experience, I can tell when I am on the path towards burnout when I start to feel “stuck” on a daily basis – that is, feeling so overwhelmed at the sheer volume of both small and larger tasks on my desk that I’m frozen into place, unable to fathom where to even begin through the foggy veil of sheer exhaustion. I struggle with executive dysfunction (difficulties planning, staying organised and switching between tasks) even at the best of times, but when I’m headed towards burnout it becomes all-encompassing to the point where even stringing a coherent thought or a sentence together feels like an uphill battle, never mind actioning the many demands and conflicting priorities sitting with me. The more I have to do, the less I get done as my mind struggles to prioritise which task should receive what miniscule sliver of energy remains left to me. My sensory triggers – loud noises, bright lights, the smells of people’s lunches – become more potent to me and make me more irritable. Essentially, everything – work, the world around me, everything – becomes “too much” and more intense than I can bear for very long.
I’ve often felt quite guilty about feeling autistic burnout as people around me seem to be coping just fine with a much larger workload than mine and sometimes I feel like I come across as lazy, incompetent or disorganised by burning out so “easily”. But trust me, those people are probably feeling burnout too and it doesn’t matter what your workload is like by comparison: you don’t need to justify your burnout to anyone.
With that said, I’ve become much better at recognising when I’m in a state of autistic burnout over the years and have accumulated some strategies to both prevent and manage autistic burnout. Hopefully some of these may be helpful for you too!
Know your triggers – what causes you to feel burnout? Have you just had a meeting-heavy week? Have you had to give a lot of presentations recently (an aspect of work I personally find particularly exhausting)? Has there been a lot of demands or tight deadlines recently? If you work in an office, are there sensory triggers? Knowing what brings on autistic burnout for you can help you be one step ahead of it and put strategies in place to prevent you getting to that stage.
Block off “focus time” on your calendar to allow you the time you need to complete tasks and meet your deadlines without meetings taking up this space – if you use Outlook, there is an option to do this automatically, but you can also do this on a customised basis from week to week depending on your workload!
Manage your energy levels – be sure to be cognizant of when you need to step away from your keyboard and try to take small movement breaks every hour or two, even if it’s just walking over to the water cooler or the bathroom.
Taking decompression breaks after meetings is also something that’s very important to me to clear my head before the next meeting. You can add 5-10 minute slots to your calendar after each of your meetings or if you have multiple meetings back-to-back, you can ask if 30-minute meetings could be shortened to 25 minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable asking this, you can ask to leave 5 minutes early.
Discuss with your manager if you can have a maximum meeting per day limit, e.g. more than 4 meetings a day leaves me with insufficient time to complete my tasks and puts me on the road to autistic burnout, so if someone tries to put a 5thmeeting in my calendar, I either move around one of my other meetings that day or ask to have it on a day where I’m less busy.
Prioritise your workload – perhaps other team members who are less busy can take some tasks off your hands.
Be sure to tell your manager as sooner rather than later if you feel like your workload is starting to feel like more than you can manage.
Don’t be afraid to say “I’m at full capacity” if you’re asked to take on new work but already have as much as you can handle.
If you have it to spare, take a day’s annual leave and do nothing, just get some rest! I always try to ensure that
By using some of the above strategies, hopefully this autistic burnout will become a far less frequent occurrence. Please do get in touch with us on LinkedIn or via email at email@example.com if you have any tips of your own you’d like to share!