A recent report by the American Psychological Association shows that for 41% of U.S. adults, the holiday season is a time of increased stress. And while many people find holidays overwhelming or exhausting, for many neurodivergent people, the stress can be particularly pronounced due to increased expectations of social performance and masking, sensory stress, and additional intersectional stress such as finances.
Those who plan holiday events in the workplace will do their best to remember that, for some, typical holiday activities can be anything but enjoyable, and the mandatory fun at work can make it worse. This diversity of reactions means that planning inclusive workplace festivities requires quite a bit more than just doing what works for one person; it requires understanding many dynamics that influence the holiday experience.
Neurodivergence is one important factor to consider in planning inclusive holidays. In addition, an intersectional perspective can help ensure that all members feel valued and recognized, contributing to a more harmonious and cohesive community or workplace.
Respecting Sensory and Physical Diversity
Creating an inclusive workplace during the holiday season involves more than just celebrating diverse cultural traditions; it also means considering all employees’ varying needs and sensitivities. One crucial aspect to address is sensory sensitivity, which can significantly impact neurodivergent people, although it’s also relevant for many others.
Sensory sensitivities can manifest in various ways. Some people might find bright, flashing lights not just irritating but potentially harmful. Others might experience sensory overload from loud music, amplified speaking, or the general cacophony of a busy event. Smells, tastes, textures, temperature – along with sights and sounds, sensitivity to any sensory experience in combination with the lack of control over the environment can lead to discomfort, anxiety, sensory shutdowns, migraines, and even seizures.
It’s essential to adjust these environmental factors to make holiday events more inclusive. This could mean opting for softer, steady lighting instead of harsh, rapidly flashing lights. It’s not just about reducing potential harm; it’s about creating a welcoming atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable.
Similarly, reconsidering the volume and type of music played can be beneficial. Lower volume levels and choosing less intrusive music can make a significant difference for those with auditory sensitivities.
Perhaps one of the most impactful adjustments is providing a quiet space. This doesn’t have to be elaborate – a simple, calm room away from the hustle and bustle, where people can take a break, decompress, or just enjoy a moment of solitude and respite from the festivities can make all the difference.
In creating an inclusive workplace, especially during holidays and events, it is vital to respect personal boundaries regarding physical contact. Mandatory touching, such as enforcing handshakes, hugs, or even high-fives, can be uncomfortable or distressing for many people. This does not just mean neurodivergent people – differences in touch preferences can stem from cultural differences, history of abuse, infection concerns, or simply valuing personal space.
During the holidays, it is also important to remember that many people have specific dietary needs or sensitivities. These can range from neurodivergent sensory issues with certain textures or flavors to dietary restrictions due to health-related conditions. It’s important for holiday event planners to consider these needs by offering a variety of inclusive food options. This could include clearly labeled gluten-free, dairy-free, low-salt, or low-spice options. Providing detailed information about the ingredients of all food offerings can also help neurodivergent people and those with specific food sensitivities navigate their food choices more comfortably.
In addition to food, holiday drinks can be a major source of contention and stress. People should never be pressured into drinking alcohol or required to provide explanations for not drinking. Sometimes, simple is best when it comes to beverages. Providing beverage options palatable and safe for most people, such as water and tea, can alleviate much of the holiday stress.
Respecting Energy Diversity
An often missed aspect of holiday planning is recognizing the diversity in the need for rest, sleep, a consistent schedule, and managing energy levels. Neurodivergent people may experience different energy patterns. Some may need more time to recharge due to the heightened sensory and social demands of holiday events. This can be accommodated by scheduling events at times that don’t disrupt regular rest patterns (e.g., avoiding late-night events), providing quiet spaces for breaks, and respecting the need to leave events early to rest.
Respecting Emotional Diversity
The holiday period can be challenging for many personal reasons, including grief, loss, stress, or mental health issues. Recognizing and accommodating these emotional differences is essential to respecting the full person and ensuring an inclusive workplace environment. Nobody should ever be shamed for not participating in activities.
Offering employees a choice to participate in holiday activities acknowledges individual preferences and circumstances. It’s equally important to respect and support those who choose not to engage in certain festivities or offer low-key alternatives. This respect for individual choices helps create an understanding workplace culture, where employees feel valued and cared for, regardless of their participation in holiday events.
Respecting Financial Diversity
Financial precarity and financial anxiety are unfortunate facts of many people’s lives, and many neurodivergent people and families are intersectionally impacted by it. When holiday planning is in the hands of the more privileged organizational members, the perspective of those less financially secure might be lost. In inclusive organizations, however, financial sensitivity should be a key consideration in workplace holiday planning. Recognizing that not all employees may be comfortable with or able to afford participation in activities like mandatory gift exchanges or events requiring additional spending on food or attire is essential.
To accommodate financial diversity, consider offering alternatives to costly activities or making such events completely optional. This approach can significantly reduce the financial pressure and stress associated with holiday expenses. By acknowledging and adapting to financial sensitivities, employers can create a more inclusive and considerate environment that respects all employees’ circumstances. Or, if an organization is spending on hosting a holiday party or gifting employees holiday items such as ornaments, consider offering an alternative – an option to select a practical present, a gift card, or simply a holiday bonus. From a broader perspective, evaluate wages and incentive structures in light of inflation, costs of living, possible disparities between groups, and overall fairness; better pay might be the best holiday news for employees.
Inclusive Holiday Planning
Inclusive planning involves the key feature of neuroinclusive cultures – participation, actively involving a diverse group in providing input, and organizing events and activities. This approach ensures that various needs, such as sensory needs, dietary restrictions, religious observances, and caregiving requirements, are considered. By including a wide range of perspectives in the planning process, the organization can create events that are more welcoming and accommodating for everyone.
Another defining characteristic of inclusive systems is attention to feedback and continuous improvement. Encouraging open and honest feedback after events allows for a better understanding of different needs and preferences. This information cn help make future events more inclusive and enjoyable for all employees – a sign of commitment to continuous learning and growth in inclusivity.
In sum, crafting inclusive holiday celebrations calls for an inclusive and participatory approach. When we plan with everyone in mind, we aren’t just celebrating the season – we’re celebrating our collective humanity in all its diversity.