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HOW BEING NEURODIVERGENT IN HOSPITALITY CAN BE YOUR BIGGEST STRENGTH, IF YOU ARE SUPPORTED.

I can remember sitting there in the office, paperwork everywhere. The shelves were groaning

with files. The floor was littered with staples, and paperclips. The office was behind the kitchen, no windows or light and not fresh air coming in. It was like a little cave with fluorescent lights overhead glaring down. There were sheets and sheets of paper with the same things written on them repeatedly, as if the person who wrote them had forgotten they had already done that task. I was hot and tired. I was the first one to get in that morning. I loved being in the restaurant before the team. Not only was it a great labour save to have me setting up, but I got this real buzz from knowing every table was perfectly set up, mirror images of each other. I would joke internally “god I wish we did not have to open the doors to customers who are going to ruin my perfectly set restaurant!” ...The words of my Op’s Manager in my ears “The moment you stop caring that the salt and pepper are in the exact correct place is the moment you need to hand in your eyes as you have stopped caring.” I had pride in my site. I had wanted to be a GM for years, and while this was not my first time, it was the biggest place I had managed and certainly the one with the highest turnover. We were fast paced, nonstop during service time. We barely had time to breath, never mind take consistent breaks, or eat/drink water. We would speak to each other in the most efficient way, which could be sternly and harsh ... But that was ok right? “What happens in service, stays in service.” We were a ‘family’ in the truest hospitality definition of that word – We laughed, cried, screamed, fought, teased, and loved each other fiercely. At the time, this environment and these relationships I actually prided myself on.


Sitting at the desk with paper everywhere, the computer buzzing I could hear the faint muffled voices of the team, and of customers piling in. That’s where I wanted to be. I did not want to be stuck in this messy, dirty, hot office. I had so much to do – Stock take input, drink orders, rota, check email’s, reservations. This is pretty standard for a GM, especially when yet again you had no AGM and it was all on your shoulders. The problem was though every time I sat down to crack on for an hour or so, I just couldn’t. I froze. I felt physically uncomfortable, nauseous, even in pain. I would look at the screen or at a printed stock take and everything would start swimming in front of me. It was like waking up with blurred vision, like walking through mud; it was hard and it felt like I was not getting anywhere. Every time one task was done, 3 replaced it. I sat screwing my eyes, trying so hard to just make sense of the system everyone else seemed to be able to use with ease. There were 7 other GM’s in the group at other sites ... I could call someone? But then they would know I was struggling. What if they tell my ops manager? No – I had to keep pushing. More and more discomfort, feeling my throat tighten and my head pound. My whole body rushing with cortisol, eyes filling with tears because yet again I was failing.


Suddenly a commotion from outside – My window to get out of this office! I rush out to the floor. A table of 10 has come in; they have said they had booked but we have no record. They are not happy; veins are popping in the forehead of the main party member. Suddenly my body tingles, and I am standing up straighter. It’s like the world has gone very quiet and all my senses have heightened. My mushy brain clears, pieces all slotting together. Like a scene from the matrix, but inside my head, I am moving tables and bookings, changing sections, figuring out where to move people too. This all happens in the space of a second. Outwardly I smile, “No problem at all, we will sort you out straight away. Please grab a bar stool and a drink on us and we will get your table ready for you within 5 minutes.” SLAM DUNK! Smashed it, the crowd cheers ... Again, just in my mind. I have averted a crisis; the team are happy as are the guests. I love this! I am excellent at my job! This is why I am a GM – right here!


“Shell, have you done the rota yet?” says a team member. And like that I am like a deflated balloon, head down and back into the office where I sit and stare at the pages of numbers and words that dance in front of me, mocking my stupidity. I would struggle on, finally getting stuff done (or adding to tomorrow’s groaning to do list) and I would be done for the day. Wow, only worked 2.5 hours longer than my rota. That feels like a win! Time for a drink, need to unwind. I have so much on at home as well, but for now I just want to forget for a while. Forget that I am tired, and failing, and I don’t know how to change. Forget that I am stupid, and no good at my job and everyone hates me. I am probably going to fired anyway. Why can’t I just be like the others?


Finally, after a couple of ‘team bonding’ drinks I would leave for home. Getting back, the house is dark and quiet. My house mates are out or asleep; not sure which as I don’t really speak to them or see them much due to my work hours. My untidy, disorganised room feels like a sanctuary from the day, and I shrug off ‘show girl’ Shell and remove the ‘mask’ that I wore to pretend I was functioning, happy and excellent in all ways. That’s when my brain starts firing and the day’s events start replaying.

‘God I still have to do the rota’ ... take a drink.

‘When x see’s the Wet GP this week I am going to be in trouble’ ... take a drink.

‘Why am I so stupid? Why can’t I get it right’ ... take a drink.

‘I bet I am going to get fired ... I am such a failure’ ... take a drink.

Gripping my phone in my hand I slip into restless sleep, tinged by alcohol, and scattered with racing thoughts I dream that I am at work and no one else has shown up. I must do everything and there are customers yelling at me. The faces of all my old bosses swarm together into one and loom over me demanding I be better, work harder, stop messing up! HUSTLE, PUSH, WORK.


Then I wake up, exhausted, hung over. Shower and we go again.


Fast forward 8 years, 4 break downs, 3 suicide attempts and a diagnosis of chronic pain

condition fibromyalgia I get my first neurodivergent diagnosis: ADHD. By this time, I was in

recovery from drug and alcohol addiction for over a year. Being given this diagnosis felt like I

had finally been given the instruction manual to my life. Suddenly all the times I had sat in

offices crying over my failures, all the times I had drank to oblivion to silence the voices telling me I was stupid and crap, all those moments when I had worked and worked and worked until collapsing not realising I had been so focused on the shift I had not eaten in over 24 hours ... it all made sense. In recent months I have also been diagnosed with dyslexia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Each time I get another diagnosis, another piece of the puzzle falls into place. And each time I share about it I get another outpouring of messages from people in the industry who have had the same experience.


There is no regular survey which benchmarks UK neurodiversity practice at work currently.

However, it is estimated that 15-20% of the UK population are neurodivergent in some way. Our industry has many features that attract people with neurodiversity. And while exact statistics as there are so many people being diagnosed currently, it’s estimated as many as 1 in 2 people in hospitality have a neurodiverse condition. With this knowledge in hand, our industry has the ability to become one that where people actually thrive if given the right support. If we work towards making our workplaces not just inclusive but in fact a place that nurtures and upskills we can catapult our team members into successes even they did not think possible.


So how do we help? My personal story highlights a couple of key traits people with ND have, and I have a few suggestions of how to support.


PRIORITISING TASKS AND OVERWHELM

It is very challenging to prioritise tasks at the best of times. We all like to do the thing that we

enjoy first. Phrases like ‘eat the frog’ are always a good motivator for a lot of people. However, with ND you can sometimes not even know what the frog is! Being able to listen to what a team member has on their to do list and help them prioritise is key. If you have a ND manager, ask them to send over their to do list each shift with what they think are their priorities, and give them open and actionable feedback in an encouraging and positive way. Help them break tasks into smaller jobs. ND people, in particular those with ADHD, are very good at taking a small task and making it huge and creating to do lists with everything and the kitchen sink on it! It’s like we want to set ourselves up to fail. But we don’t. We just receive every task as number one priority so we sometimes we need help with this. When you ask someone who is ND to do something, you must be very clear - what do you want, what format, what is the timeline, how will then achieve this. Make it very plain and actionable. And check in with them in a way that they know you are being encouraging and not pressuring them.


REJECTION SENSITIVITY

This is a tough one. It means that when someone is harsh / aggressive / felt to personally

attack you, regardless of if it is accurate, people who are ND can internalise it and replay in over and over and over. A chef might say something as small as ‘hey, don’t take that plate I have not said Service!’ And a person with ND will not just hear that instruction they also hear ‘why are you so stupid!?! Don’t take the plate?!? Are you an idiot?!?’ ... and let’s be honest my example was a rather tame one. We all know how aggressive language and tones can get when under pressure. So how do we help? Well, having an awareness and being intentional with how we communicate in the moment is brilliant. Less of that ‘what happens in service stays in service’ dialogue. Let’s talk to each other with kindness and respect; However not always possible. What we can do though is decompress as a team after shift. This does not have to take time. Come together for 5 minutes, no alcohol, and just go around the room and share how you feel after that service. If someone has upset you, then talk about it. If a team member with ND is very upset, then give them that space and time to process. Remind them to look for the evidence in their thoughts, tell them they are not the things they believe, but be firm if there are ways that in the future, they can perform which is preferable if that is appropriate. Make sure your whole team knows that when a mistake is made, it’s not the individuals burden alone, and as a team you will learn to be better.


MAKE IT A GAME

This was something I did not realise I was doing until after my diagnosis and it suddenly made sense!!! I used to hate inputting invoices (I mean, I still do ...) and I would avoid it like the plague. They would pile up; I would be getting aggressive reminders asking for them by the directors and the bigger the pile got the more I found myself frozen in panic. Living in constant fight/flight/freeze states is a common is a common trait within ADHD, where you are so overwhelmed by what you need to do, you do nothing. Then I bought my self a stamp that said ‘Entered.’ I am not sure why I bought it ... but suddenly doing the inputting on invoices became fun. Unbeknownst to me, each time I was stamping a completed input invoice my body was producing a much-needed dopamine hit. I had turned it into a game. I enjoyed doing the invoices – And my ADHD ability to hyper focus on a task meant that not only were the invoices always up to date but I LOVED doing them! Even reminiscing about it I can feel my body getting excited! There are some fantastic apps and tools that can help you turn tasks into smaller chunks with automatic rewards, and even things like ensuring that the stationary is the right colours, that your pens feel good in your hand, and that your office/work area has the right lighting are all important things that you can influence, and can therefore have a positive effect for the team member who needs that environment to flourish.


BURN OUT

This is a big challenge for everyone in our industry, regardless of being ND. The challenge with people who are ND, in particular ASD and ADHD, is that we do not recognise the cue’s that tell us we need to slow down, that we need to have a drink or eat, that we are exhausted. I struggle to know if I am hungry until I suddenly feel lightheaded. If I am hyper focusing on a task, I can go all day without having a drink. In an industry that celebrates the person who can ‘hustle hard’ and ‘push through’, for people who do not realise they are at breaking point until too late, ensuring that break times are not only scheduled but are enforced is important. Make sure there is a proper area that the team member can decompress, that is away from the restaurant or kitchen. Encourage walks. Make friends with neighbouring restaurants and coffee shops so maybe team members can get a coffee with a small discount and spend their break there. Get out of the building! Most importantly – Lead by example and do not reward people who do not take those breaks. Make the message clear – Your rest is important; you are important. There are many, many more ways we can support our teams, and there are new technologies as well as excellent training resources now available including my own with Radical Hospitality.


However, before we do any of these things, the number one most important thing you can do as a manager and leader ... Be a soft place to fall for your team members. Let them come to you with concerns about their performance. Offer them solutions based on realistic outcomes. Follow through on the things you say you will do. Be accountable. Be better. The emergence of ND diagnosis in your teams is not going to stop. This is the time to start ensuring that you are creating spaces when all individuals have the same equal opportunities to excel. If you would like to know more about how to create workplaces that allow all team members to succeed, get in touch! hello@werecoverloudly.com.



Author

Michelle Righini


Source: Martin McKay, CEO & Founder of Texthelp, and Jill Houghton, President & CEO of Disability:IN.

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