Claire Munn MSc MCIEEM
The unknown is understandably often a scary thing, particularly for employers when it comes to hiring and continuing to employ people who don't fit the ‘neurotypical' mould or who disclose that they have a disability and/or chronic illness. Most of this fear is borne of a lack of knowledge and understanding rather than coming from a place of intentional discrimination.
Nonetheless, this fear of the unknown can result in a workforce lacking in diversity, or at least disclosure of diversity, and can prevent employees from reaching their full potential. This can cause additional stress for employees and often exacerbate symptoms; critically, it can prevent employers from realising and fully drawing on the immense potential of neurodiverse, chronically ill and disabled people with a huge amount of talent to offer.
This article takes Energy Limiting Conditions (ELCs) in the form of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME)/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and neurodiversity in the form of ADHD, as examples to demonstrate how to fully embrace diversity and achieve inclusivity in the ecology sector.
It's time now that we look to fully embrace diversity in relation to the human body and mind; there is a huge amount to be gained by the employer, employee, client and the natural world, by drawing on a very wide pool of often ignored or overlooked talent among the neurodiverse, chronically ill and/or disabled.
Working with an Energy Limiting Condition – ME/CFS
Covid-19 presented us with many challenges, but one long-term consequence is the presence of Long Covid, which in turn can become lifelong ME/CFS. Long Covid and ME/ CFS fall under a rather wide umbrella of ELCs (see Box 1), with ME/CFS being classified as a disease of the nervous system (World Health Organisation, 2023), affecting multiple body systems.
The ME Association (2023) estimates that more than 1.25 million people in the UK live with a diagnosis of ME/CFS and/or Long Covid, and there are likely to be many more undiagnosed.
With the increased prevalence of viral diseases such as Covid, which are often a trigger leading to ME/CFS, the industry needs to take seriously the likely increase in the number of ecologists who will need to be supported through this health crisis
Having lived with ME for 14 years, progressing from a Graduate Ecologist to Associate Director in the private consultancy sector with this chronic illness, hopefully, I can shed a bit of light on what people with ELCs may be facing and provide potential solutions to both employees and employers.
ME/CFS, like so many chronic illnesses/ disabilities, is a fluctuating condition and hugely variable. Its symptoms range from those that, whilst still life-changing, can be managed in a way that allows employment to be an option, to those that leave people permanently bed bound. For those able to work, the constant anxiety of the unknown and the potential for relapse or exacerbation in symptoms can be stifling in itself.
Every day, and indeed sometimes every minute, can be unpredictable in terms of the level of chronic pain or fatigue that will be experienced. Forward planning for many different eventualities is therefore essential for those able to work with this condition.
There is no cure for ME/CFS and the only proven technique to maintain or sometimes improve symptoms is through rest and careful pacing. The best medical advice I've received in relation to ME/CFS is to only ever do 70% of what you feel able to do; this way you don't push beyond your limited supply of energy and cause a worsening of symptoms. Clearly, this presents many challenges, particularly in the ecology industry where seasonality and time of day play a big part in when you have to work.
ME/CFS causes chronic pain and fatigue, which can, in some cases, also lead to mobility issues. The fatigue is body-wide, impacting even eye and throat muscles, thus sight and speech, as well as the more obvious muscle fatigue that we may typically think of. ‘Brain fog' is another common symptom, which is often when the underlying neurological cause of ME/ CFS can most easily be seen by others; brain processing is slowed, word recall may become tricky, and even things that are normally automatic, like moving a limb in a particular way, suddenly require great effort.
Why should employers embrace disability and neurodiversity?
Those whose brains and bodies work in different ways to the majority of a particular society or culture, have to adapt; it requires tenacity and determination to reach a point where they are considered equal to their peers. This involves immense problem solving skills and typically means that by the time they meet a potential employer in the interview room, they have already overcome more challenges than most, and are likely to be hard working, sure of the route they are seeking to take, and be an example of resilience personified. What employer wouldn't want someone in possession of these qualities?
Having employees with different types of brain processing means that where one struggles, another excels, and these skillsets can lead to great balance and
teamwork. For example, my ME/CFS go-slow brain and my colleague Tracey's go-fast ADHD brain are often at complete opposite ends of the brain processing spectrum. However, we have found that we make an excellent team, with Tracey generating highly creative solutions very rapidly for very detailed aspects of a project, whereas I maintain a well-organised overview of the entire project; between us we end up with a well ordered, timely output for our client with detailed and creative solutions incorporated in key areas.
Making reasonable adjustments to accommodate neurodivergence and disability in the workforce need not be arduous or costly; indeed, any upfront costs will be far outweighed by the benefits to be obtained from tapping into this vast amount of talent.
Employees should always be fully encouraged and supported to ask for reasonable adjustments to be made where this will enable them to perform their role more effectively and efficiently, and to minimise the risk of work impacting negatively on their health and wellbeing.
There is nothing quite like a global pandemic to highlight the fragility of our health; an increasing number of people are living with ELCs and employers must incorporate new ways of working to ensure that these people can not only be retained and recruited into the industry, but thrive within it. The sooner we incorporate working practices that enable the widest possible range of neurodiversity among our workforce, the sooner we will reach a point of long-needed equality. Only then will we, our clients, and ultimately our natural environment whose protection so often rests in our hands, reap the biggest rewards.