The importance of recognising emotional labour in the line management of neurodiversity – James Richards


This post summarises a research article set to be published in Personnel Review late 2019 (see details below). The article is based on the lived experience of line managing neurodiverse employees. What is meant by neurodiversity includes conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, ADD/ADHD and Asperger syndrome/autism. The study is set in the UK rail industry, an industry renowned over many years for attracting neurodiverse employees, yet in more recent times struggling to manage such employees under austerity and changed ways of working. A key focus of the article is the emotional labour skills required in such situations. A quick summary of the findings is that to be skilled in emotional labour represents an effective means to line manage neurodiversity, but by the same token, a lack of emotional labour skills can lead to line managers becoming frustrated, angry and exhausted, leading in itself to the disabling of neurodiverse employees. 

“Charter Train / Train à affréter (France)” by Train Chartering & Private Rail Cars is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Study details

The study is based on 28 lived experience interviews with a range of line managers working across the UK rail industry. We interviewed line managers with responsibilities for, for example, project management, surveying, risk and value, and managing a train station. We wanted to hear what it is like to balance a demanding role, high-levels of responsibility and the task of supporting a neurodiverse employee – characteristics we believe are shared by contemporary line managers across all industries.

We were primarily interested in where and how line managers got information on neurodiversity and what sort of wider organisational support they received when experiencing an emergent and specialised area of diversity management. Our participants reported mixed levels of success in line managing neurodiversity and we were keen to understand what underpins good line management of neurodiversity. Through the analysis of our dataset, it became apparent how emotional labour skills appeared to be critical in terms of how participants coped with the extra demands of making principally minor and low or no cost ongoing adjustments to the working patterns of neurodiverse employees, minor adjustments such as encouraging neurodiverse employees to use certain communication technologies and at the same time manage a team initially confused and frustrated by unexplained changes of routine or perceptions of “special” treatment. Emotional labour was also required when dealing with HR or occupational health, functions that often left line managers isolated, provided generic and often unhelpful information and often worked at cross-purposes with each other.

Study findings

What we found out about the emotional labour of line managers is as follows. Emotional labour was required not just to smooth the employee-line manager relationship, it was also required to smooth employee-team and employee-customer relationships. Second, despite no formal training, many line managers performed complex and advanced forms of emotional labour, far from that required of many modern frontline jobs. As a consequence, many participants reported being exhausted by the hidden processes required of line managing neurodiversity, with a minority believing such processes caused serious damage to their own health.

Conclusions and recommendations for practice

Overall, we found the most successful cases of line managing neurodiversity were associated with line managers who had long and extensive experience of managing complex people management issues. To manage such situations effectively, in some instances, line managers reported drawing on lessons learnt from coping with non-work relationships, such as bringing up an autistic son or daughter, or living with a dyslexic partner. Such findings led us to believe how employers need to do a lot more to support line managers who in turn support neurodiverse employees. If employers can do one thing when employing neurodiverse employees, it is to carefully select and train line managers allocated the task of managing such employees.

It is estimated that 10 per cent of the workforce is neurodiverse. Neurodiverse conditions are increasingly being recognised by employers and wider society. Labour shortages and upholding the Equality Act 2010 further raises the importance of considering how employers can better manage neurodiversity. This article draws attention to the importance of line managers in such situations and how an employer that fully understands what is required to line manage neurodiversity is an employer that stands to make the most from a historically disadvantaged, yet equally valuable part of the nation’s workforce.

Ref: Richards, J., Sang, K., Marks, A., and Gill, S. (2019/online early), “’I’ve found it extremely draining: Emotional labour and the lived experience of line managing neurodiversity”, Personnel Review.

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