Many workplaces encourage their employees to bring their “full selves” to work—corporate speak for being the person you are with your family and friends around the office, too. The goal is to help forge better bonds with your coworkers and make it possible to be open about your challenges. But what happens when your authentic self doesn’t align with what’s expected of you on the job? If you’re neurodivergent, you might find yourself “masking” at work, or altering how you approach your tasks and present yourself to match your neurotypical peers—which can negatively impact your mental health.
On this week’s episode of The Well+Good Podcast, Well+Good’s director of podcasts Taylor Camille facilitates a discussion between two experts in the neurodiversity space who are helping others understand how their brains work: Ellie Middleton, founder of We Are Unmasked and author of Unmasked: The Ultimate Guide to ADHD, Autism, and Neurodivergence, and Sasha Hamdani, MD, a psychiatrist with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and founder of Focus Genie. The wide-ranging conversation touched on the ways neurodiverse people can thrive at work, and what accommodations can be made to help them get there.
Listen to the full episode here:
What is masking and why does it happen?
Masking is “covering up your neurodivergent traits to appear more typical,” says Middleton, who is autistic and has ADHD. How it looks varies. You might find yourself holding eye contact when it feels uncomfortable or unnatural, for example, or mimicking someone else’s workflow or speech patterns.
Dr. Hamdani says that some level of masking is normal and might be necessary as you move through the day, like learning the ropes of a new job or creating a separation between your work and home life. People often also mask, whether intentionally or not, as a means of survival and safety; to hide their differences in order to pass in an environment that might not be supportive to their needs.
But the effort it takes to mask can be debilitating. While nearly everyone hides parts of who they are at work, “I think the difference with neurodivergent folks is the extent to what you’re covering up and the drain that it’s having on you [because] it’s literally forcing yourself to be and work in ways that are the opposite of the right way for your brain,” says Middleton.
Operating like this for long stretches of time can chip away at your sense of self and fuel burnout, depression, and anxiety, adds Dr. Hamdani. For her part, she says masking constantly made her feel like she “didn’t know who she was at her base.”
“[Masking] is forcing yourself to be and work in ways that are the opposite of the right way for your brain.”—Ellie Middleton, author and activist
Indeed, Middleton has lived this experience. In a previous job, she felt like she had to act in order to survive at work. “I would be Ellie the customer service advisor and it was almost a character that I was playing because I was like, ‘That’s just what I need to do to survive here’ and not realizing that when I went home I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m so tired and I need to lie in a dark room and I can’t even speak anymore,'” she says. “[I didn’t realize] that everybody else wasn’t so drained when they went home from work.” Even if she seemed fine on the outside, she was suffering.
How to advocate for yourself if you find that you’re masking at work
Depending on your workplace, you may not have the option to resist masking entirely. Try to take note of how you feel at work and whether masking is particularly damaging and draining to you. Middleton and Dr. Hamadani say it can be helpful to figure out what you need to bring your authentic self to work and thrive, and then come up with a proactive way to get it without sharing your diagnosis if you don’t want to.
For example, if you’re not able to focus in a bustling open office plan and would prefer to go somewhere quieter, Dr. Hamdani recommends saying something proactive to your manager like: “I’ve noticed I work best in a more quiet environment, and it’d [be great] if I could use some headphones to mute some of the noise because I’ll know I’ll be able to focus more on the task at hand.”
When the possible shifts are made, it can make work a much more manageable and pleasant experience. Middleton says that she’s not able to sit at a desk all day, but that she can be work “like a Ferrari” in two hour chunks. What does that entail? Rather than trying to power through the whole day, she portions her work into manageable blocks that includes walks and gym visits in between to focus and calm her.
Looking for more intel about how to navigate being neurodivergent in the workplace? Listen to the full episode of The Well+Good Podcast here.
Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.