What is ‘masking’ and how does it affect mental health at work?

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A psychotherapist explains how masking, or suppressing one’s true self, negatively impacts neurodivergent people’s mental health, and how workplaces can be neurodivergent-affirmative



In psychology, the term masking refers to suppressing or hiding one’s true self in social settings, and is a pattern of behaviour often adopted by neurodivergent people whose brain processes information differently than the norm. While everyone uses social masking in certain situations at the workplace, such as feigning interest in small talk or faking confidence at meetings, masking for neurodivergent people is not a situational adaptation but a survival strategy in an ableist world.

Defined as a spectrum, neurodivergence includes autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), among others. Neurodivergent people often mask their true selves to fit in a world that’s not designed for them. “Masking is when people hide their way of being to conform to societal norms. It is exhausting but it’s done to not be different and to feel safe,” Rinkle Jain, a psychotherapist based in Mumbai tells Lounge.

Masking can be different for different people on the neurodivergent spectrum. For some, small talk might feel exhausting and lead to social anxiety, others have to consciously ensure their need for constant movement is kept in check. 

In recent years, particularly since the pandemic, mental health and inclusion have made it to workplace handbooks and emails, but neurodivergence-affirmation is still unheard of. There is a huge difference between workplaces using the term ‘friendly’ and ‘affirmative,’ Jain points out. The former gives the impression that the place tolerates people who are neurodivergent whereas ‘affirmative’ means the workplace actively recognizes and takes action to make them feel inclusive and supported.

While more people are talking about neurodivergence, visibility in workplaces is still an issue. A June 2023 study of 1,000 workers by Instantprint indicated that 39%, almost 2 in every 5, of diagnosed respondents felt a lack of comfort when discussing their neurodivergent condition with colleagues or their employer. “There is shame and stigma attached to neurodivergence that is not easy to shake off. For many, they have grown up feeling different and wanting to belong so they end up suppressing it. This is one of the things that makes neurodivergence invisible,” explains Jain.

In work settings driven by hustle culture, there are also established ideas about what makes a good employee: small talk, agreeableness, and sociability. In fact, according to a study published in Collective Intelligence and reported by CNBC in July, people are endorsing agreeableness in the workplace much more since the pandemic. This puts the extra burden of networking and small talk on neurodivergent people who can find it draining to engage in conversations that are not functional or don’t serve a purpose. 

“There is also sensory overload. Loud noises, constant talk, or certain lights can make neurodivergent people feel overwhelmed. When they keep quiet about it or mask it to fit in, it can lead to burnout, make them anxious, and significantly impact their mental health,” says Jain.

Masking is not putting on a social mask only in certain situations. When you are doing it for long, you internalize it, say experts. In the long run, neurodivergent people might struggle to understand what their bodies and minds are really feeling because they have been masking for too long. In a society where work dominates people’s lives, accommodations to make an environment feel inclusive are necessary.

“Along with accommodations, a strength-based approach is needed. Neurodivergent people’s unique perspectives and skills are often undervalued. For instance, many people with ADHD are great during crises. They remain calm and are able to function well to find a solution, which can benefit workplaces,” Jain points out. Recognising these strengths is one way to make them feel seen and supported.

Creating a culture that offers and supports flexibility, broadens acceptance, and frames organisations’ policies that support neurodivergence can make workplaces safer and more inclusive for everyone.

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