New research to support the mental health of autistic adults at work
The new project has been backed by funding from the Wellcome Trust’s 2021 Workplace Mental Health Commission and is one of three projects to receive the funding in the UK.
The focus of the project – which began in October 2021 and will be completed in March 2022 – is on the effective use of supported employment methods to improve autistic adults’ mental health.
Dr Lisa Harkry, Lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University and lead investigator on the project, explained: “Supported employment aims to improve: the workplace environment (e.g., reducing sensory overload); colleague attitudes (e.g., through educational programmes); and work practices (e.g., by providing clearly defined tasks). Current guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommend that all employers provide this for autistic adults in their workplaces.
“We will be co-producing our research with a small group of autistic adults who have faced mental health challenges relating to the workplace, as part of our team. The research will include: interviews with practitioners such as occupational therapists, to find examples of successful adjustments and what the potential barriers are for achieving the NICE recommendations; an investigation into existing studies around supported employment to build a comprehensive understanding of what works and why; and exploration of knowledge held by employers – such as impact reports, policy and legislative documents; and an analysis of data from my existing research investigating the mental health of autistic adults in, and out, of supported employment.”
The team’s early research findings - from the UK, USA, Canada and Israel - suggest supported employment improves overall quality of life and wellbeing for autistic adults. However, mental health outcomes are less clearly understood.
Dr Harkry said: “This is important when considering autistic adults may have unique traits which result in poorer mental health. There are strong associations between an intolerance of uncertainty and severe depression and anxiety, and between sensory sensitivities and anxiety - with social events linked to distress and trauma.
“In the workplace, this means that autistic adults struggle with job interviews, workplace socialising and environmental sensitivities, and are more vulnerable to workplace harassment and stigma – worsening their mental health and resulting in increased job losses.
“Depression is the strongest predictor for work loss days for young autistic adults. However, autistic employees often display high levels of persistence, loyalty and precision - meaning employers risk losing this skilled workforce.”
The project will result in a practical report for business leaders and policymakers to improve the mental health of autistic adults in the workplace. A showcase event will also be held at Leeds Beckett University in 2022 to share the research findings, which will be represented visually by an autistic artist.
The full Leeds Beckett project team is: Dr Lisa Harkry, Lecturer in Psychology; Dr Suzie Wang and Dr Trish Holch, Senior Lecturers in Psychology; Jessica Mayes, Research Assistant; and Suzanne Clark, an independent lived experience advisor.
The Wellcome Trust Workplace Mental Health Commission was established to look at the evidence behind approaches for supporting mental health in the workplace. This year, 15 global research teams have been commissioned to investigate a wide range of mental health problems across all ages of workers.
Findings of all projects will be shared directly with employers, working closely with the World Economic Forum and other business networks.