Traditional Attendance Rules Ignore Tech [And Harm Neurodivergent Workers]

This post is part one of a two-part discussion. Check out our post on Friday to learn how you can advocate for flexible scheduling and telework options for yourself and others.

Management and leadership expert Bridgette Hyacinth shared a poignant anecdote in which a new employee requests the opportunity to telework. Hyacinth explains that as long as the work gets done and clients are satisfied, her employees can work whenever and wherever they like. “I do not pay for seat warmers,” she writes.

If only this attitude were the norm! At so many jobs, I have explained to employers that I am feeling unwell and would not perform at my best in the office, only to be told to come in and “take it easy” to avoid running afoul of antiquated leave policies. 

What was I on these days if not a “seat warmer”– and a miserable one at that? The message was clear, my presence was valued more than my health or my productivity. While I always got the impression that my direct supervisors wanted to be more flexible, the larger organization was immovable on this subject.

This inflexibility creates a loss in the long term for both employers and employees. Employees like myself and other individuals with chronic health conditions are given the choice between pushing ourselves past our mental and physical limits or facing reprimands. Employers and coworkers lose team members who offer valuable skills and often make up for attendance issues through performance.

Attendance doesn’t have to be a binary choice. With modern technology, many employees have the ability to work and communicate with their team without being physically present in the office. Knowing our value and advocating for these options can provide neurodivergent and disabled individuals a path to more sustainable and health-friendly employment options.

Why Do Companies Enforce Attendance Policies?

To fight attendance policies, it’s important to understand why they exist. In some cases, the need for these policies is obvious and unavoidable. A retail cashier, for instance, must be physically present to perform his job. It requires face-to-face interaction with customers; frequent absences would create hardships for coworkers. The same is true for employees whose jobs are dependent on on-site equipment and tasks. These types of jobs are probably not the best fit for someone who struggles to make it to work each day.

However, for most office positions, customer interaction is not a job duty. In my experience, most intraoffice communication takes place over the phone or email even when both parties are in the same building. Still, many offices are resistant to telework or flexible scheduling. 

Why? The answer seems to be a fear of rampant absenteeism.

Absenteeism is the unscheduled absence of employees without a valid excuse. It’s costly to employers in dollars and morale.  Attendance policies are designed to keep accountable those employees who would otherwise abuse the system.

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, folks with chronic conditions get caught in the crosshairs of these policies. Measures that are supposed to protect us, like bringing in a doctor’s note to verify excused absences, create the illusion of fairness while leaving barriers to employment firmly in place.

I have ADHD, provisional tic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive anxiety. Before disclosing my diagnosis, my employer was willing to let me work a flexible schedule as long as I kept all of my appointments. After disclosing and explaining that I may have difficulty reaching 40 hours each week due to experimenting with medication, I was informed that to keep things fair to other employees, I would have to submit a doctor’s note each time my schedule deviated from 8 AM to 5 PM. 

My typical workday had been 7:30 to 4:30, so this was truly bizarre, but even if we ignore that fact, the request is completely infeasible for someone dealing with chronic pain and medication side effects. I’m lucky if I can speak to a doctor once a month, let alone multiple times in a week. Also, a visit to evaluate my ability to work on any given day would (while insured) cost $30. By the time I’ve finished my workday, especially if I’ve had to adjust it due to health struggles, I do not have the energy to fill out paperwork or make phone calls. (If I did, I would be at work.) On top of all that, because my treatment was provided by a specialist, I would have to drive an hour and a half to see my doctor.

These are the realities that are not factored into attendance policies, yet these policies are often implemented over alternatives that would allow us to complete our work, communicate with the team, and maintain our sanity.

How Tech Can Solve Attendance Issues

Office work in the twenty-first century revolves around screens. While there were many tasks that needed to be done in person in my office positions, with smart scheduling, I (and many other workers) could easily have worked from home for more than half of the workweek.

One of the biggest time-consumers for the modern employee is responding to email. I answer it on my phone, on my laptop, my desktop– anywhere there is an internet connection. I answered email while waiting for community programs to begin or in between meetings, but I wasn’t allowed to answer emails outside of scheduled work functions and get paid for that time.

Do you know where much of my sick leave was spent? Waiting rooms. My phone allows me to easily use that time to be productive. Instead, my employer had to pay me not to work, plus I used sick leave that would have been more valuable at a later date.

The same goes for data entry, progress reports, PowerPoint presentations, and more. With wand scanners and tablets, I can even sign and send documents from the comfort of my bed. 

Teamwork, too, can be achieved remotely. Slack channels, video chats, group texts, and conference calls all allow us to contact our officemates quickly and efficiently, maybe even more so than in the building. With everyone operating on different schedules, it’s often a challenge to catch a supervisor or coworker in their office at any given time. Through virtual means, I can get my questions answered in a timely manner without clumsily interrupting.

How Telework and Flexible Schedules Benefit a Neurodiverse Workforce

Using these tools to create more flexible scheduling opportunities can be game-changing for neurodivergent employees, many of whom struggle with office environments and chronic pain.

People with chronic conditions, whether mental or physical, have a limited amount of energy to use throughout the day. Often, this energy is all but consumed by the time we reach the office. Getting dressed, taking a shower, brushing our hair, applying makeup, eating breakfast– all of these tasks that are taken for granted use up some of that limited energy pool. When these chores are no longer mandatory, we can put more of that energy into our work product.

Furthermore, if I find I’m out of energy at three in the afternoon, a flexible schedule gives me the option to recharge for a few hours and pick up my work outside of standard office hours. This flexibility means my work gets done and I’m not too burnt out to function for the rest of the week

Working from home allows us to control our environments as well. It’s no secret to the neurodivergent community that most workspaces were not designed with us in mind. From fluorescent lighting, to open office plans, to frequent interruptions, the modern office can easily overwhelm a neurodivergent brain.  When teleworking, we can create a space that is conducive to our sensory needs. We spend less time trying to cope and more time completing our projects.

What takes up the most energy in the office, though, is the effort I expend trying to mask my differences to make my coworkers more comfortable or to appear more professional. I believe the physical pain and mental exertion of trying to suppress my tics in the office led to my resignation at my most recent job. I also feel I can’t stim at work, which builds my anxiety and distractedness. And then there’s the crying, whether from pain or frustration, which I’ve been conditioned to believe is extremely unprofessional. The effort of fighting my very nature for eight or more hours requires my full attention, attention that could go toward doing my job. 

To tic, stim, and cry freely creates an entirely different work experience, but it’s not an experience I can currently have in a shared space. On my more challenging days, I need to produce my best work in my own space on my own terms.

Some employers, especially those in tech and academia, are starting to recognize the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce as well as the flexibility it takes to recruit and retain them. I sincerely hope others follow suit and that “seat warmers” become a thing of the past.

How would the flexible scheduling and telework options affect your career? Share in the comments!

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