Hello All, I am a female civil engineering technician from the East Midlands with over 16 years experience of highways, rail, drainage etc. and I have recently been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) aged 39.
My journey began when I was signed off work with anxiety and depression in the summer. Things hadn’t been going well with the job. There had been a number of fall-outs with others, misunderstandings and so on. In fact, I have struggled to keep a job all my working life.
While I was off, one of the associate directors where I work suggested that I use the time to reflect on what triggers my stress/anxiety. Instantaneously, I said ‘noise’ in reply and mentioned that my desk neighbour’s constant, vibrating, push notifications were reverberating through my arms and driving me to despair.
Anyway, I began to research online and as one of the many things that I have been criticised about by my managers is being overly sensitive, eventually I came across some research by Elaine N. Aron concerning the use of fMRI scans to measure empathy and her theories concerning “highly sensitive persons” “affected by sensory processing sensitivity that makes them more emotional” in the Daily Mail.
I completed the questionnaire on her website and scored very highly and then when reading the FAQ section afterwards, I came across this question: How does sensitivity differ from Autistic spectrum disorders (Asperger’s Syndrome, etc.)?
In the meantime, my employer wasn’t satisfied with the two occupational health professional’s reports they had previously commissioned so they arranged for me to see a neuropsychiatrist who eventually diagnosed me after an appointment that I made privately as my employers didn’t want to pursue it any further once told after their initial probe that ASD was more than probable.
Once ASD had been alluded to, my employer attempted reductionism by means of soliciting the advice of an ergonomist, someone who would normally deal with display screen assessments and seated posture, interestingly, also behavioural safety in relation to the design of nuclear plant control panels and software interfaces - just not autism.
I am grateful to my employer in that I now know why I am a serial leg bouncer and chair rocker. In fact, my earliest memory is looking down on a pair of socks pulled right up to my knees and the obligatory pair of 1970’s t-bar shoes and having my legs smacked by a well-meaning aunt who insisted that I must behave and keep still!
However, I have encountered an awful lot of ignorance and prejudice at work having been accused of trying to use my disability to my advantage in order to see the psychiatrists reasonable adjustments concerning a quiet working environment implemented.
I have engaged with ACAS to try and get my employer to compromise over my environment but they say that letting me work out of one of their 4 x quiet rooms which are empty 99% of the time would be too disruptive to the business.
Also, I made a business case for flexible working from home by means of a statutory request following the Stevenson and Farmer review of mental health at work on the basis that I wouldn’t need time off with anxiety and depression if I were allowed to work in an environment conducive to my needs but to no avail.
I am currently signed off by my GP researching employment law precedents and waiting for the employer to conclude its deliberations and inform me of their decision in writing.
From what you've said it does sound like your current employer has been following their own processes / the law so that they don't get sued. They will be attempting to demonstrate (to a hypothetical future court case) that they have done in good faith "what could be reasonably expected of them" in order to support your return to work, whilst trying to balance their outlay against their perceived value of your performance.
[Note that I said "attempting to demonstrate". I didn't say that they were sincerely doing what could be reasonably be expected, although for all I know they might earnestly believe that to be the case.]
You've said yourself that things hadn't been going well with the job, so your employer could well be looking to cut their losses. At the end of the day, businesses really do worry about setting precedents that can then be exploited by individuals who are far less honest than yourself. Facilities staff are often told to simply cram staff in somehow, because office space is expensive, instead of being given a goal of attempting to maximise staff productivity whilst minimising costs to the business. As a result, you get a local optimisation for the facilities people, because of the yardstick that is being used to measure their effectiveness.
It could well be too late now to change tack with your current employer because the cat is out of the bag, but have you ever read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peopleware:_Productive_Projects_and_Teams ?
That book contains a section on the importance of "flow". If you just can't wait, try http://hotcashew.com/2014/02/lessons-peopleware/ to get a flavour.
What I am suggesting is that you reframe the discussion to be less about what you need personally, and more about what your employer should be doing if they want to raise productivity across the entire office. You need to persuade them that the changes you need are actually in their own self-interest (higher productivity, lower staff turnover, better quality...).
Maybe you need to find a company that prioritises a quiet work environment as part of its culture.
I once worked in an open plan office where some new staff had a thoughtless habit of leaving their mobile phones on their desks whilst they wandered off somewhere. If the phone started ringing and vibrating, one of the managers in a neighbouring group would hunt the phone down, and pointedly consign it to the depths of the owner's desk pedestal drawers, to murmured cheers from staff that had been repeatedly disturbed. I even saw him do this when the offender wasn't in his own department!
You're in civil engineering, so what could you do to "hack" your work environment to make it more conducive? I suppose I'm thinking about using erasers from the stationery cupboard, jammed between/under desks to limit the transmission of vibration from your neighbour's phone, or wearing headphones to play music you know inside-out, to drown out a noisy office environment?
What could work for you?
I tried wearing bose noise-cancelling headphones and also wore earplugs underneath when working in an open plan office. It didn't work for me as it simply minimised the noise where I needed no noise but it could be something to try.
Noise cancelling earphones (other brands are available, find a shop to try out https://www.richersounds.com/goldring-on-ear-closed-back-noise-cancelling-headphones.html, for example), are very good at what they were designed to do - block out a largely constant level of background noise, such as the ear-bashing you get on an aeroplane on a long-haul flight in economy.
If you use them in the office, they'll cancel the constant background hum of (say) the air conditioning, making it easier for your ears to pick out the less predictable clackety-clack of keyboards, your colleagues chatting, the person at the desk next to you drumming their fingers on the desk... i.e. noise cancelling phones are likely to MAGNIFY your perception of these distracting sounds.
What I think you are desperate for is to simply not hear anything from the wider office.
Try using headphones with a closed back. They'll muffle all sounds anyway for starters. Now play whatever music you like to listen to. It needs to be something you know so well that your brain won't get distracted, so pick the kind of thing that you learnt all the words to ages ago.
Don't turn it up so loud that you damage your hearing from protracted use. And try not to sing out loud in the office.
Thanks for the advice, I bought some ear defenders off Amazon and wore them for five weeks when I returned to work for 5 weeks but they amplified my tinnitus and so I said that I didn't think they were the long-term solution for me. HR got really mad at me and said I just kept adding to things and that they couldn't work out what was just personal preference or because of my autism. The HR woman is a bully which doesn't help things very much.