By Dr Alice Siberry
December: A time to celebrate with colleagues the successes of the business year passed. But for neurodivergent colleagues, concerns about the Christmas ‘do’ will begin months before the big day.
Although Christmas parties are designed to be fun, an opportunity to bond and let off steam with work friends, there are a number of reasons why they might (unintentionally) exclude neurodivergent colleagues:
At Christmas parties, there is a significant focus on ‘mingling’ with others. It is well-documented that unstructured conversations, or ‘small talk’, is particularly challenging for some neurodivergent people. Often such conversations lack function or meaning, something that is reportedly essential for neurodivergent styles of conversation (Jack, 2020). Therefore, for neurodivergent colleagues, ‘mingling’ requires a lot of masking.
Christmas parties are often hosted in city centres, function rooms and restaurants that are unfamiliar to most people. For neurodivergent people, this unfamiliarity can cause a lot of sensory challenges (https://www.creasedpuddle.co.uk/christmas-shopping/).
Drink and food
Most Christmas parties involve both food and alcohol. There is often a three-course meal, with a ‘set’ menu and alcohol will be served with your meal (and in some cases, before and after the food too). Particularly autistic people might have sensory-restricted diets that will prevent them from being able to pick from a ‘set’ Christmas menu.
Furthermore, there has been a significant amount of research about the relationship between ADHD and alcohol. Not only can alcohol have a detrimental effect on those who take medication, but it is estimated that 15% of adults with ADHD have been dependent on alcohol at some time in their life (ADDitude, 2022).
Surprises and team building activities
Christmas and ‘surprises’ are synonymous, and this is no exception in reference to the Christmas party. Organisers often want to have fun activities for colleagues to enjoy throughout the day / evening. However, for neurodivergent colleagues, changes in routine and unpredictability can heighten anxiety. Not to mention that team building activities and ‘party games’ often rely on a social and communication requirement.
What can employers do to make Christmas parties more inclusive?
In the spirit of Christmas, ensuring that everyone can access the celebrations is essential. There are several ways to support neurodivergent employees enjoy Christmas parties:
- Provide choice and flexibility about attendance – it might be that neurodivergent employees want to engage in the meal but leave after.
- Be mindful of stimulus – when deciding on a venue for the Christmas party, consider the sensory environment. This might be as simple as ensuring there is a safe, quiet space for people to use to decompress.
- Provide options not to drink and enforce a rule not to judge if someone does not want to drink.
- Provide food options well in advance and facilitate any adjustments that someone might require to the menu.
- Provide an agenda for the party well in advance and break up the event into chunks.
- Where possible, don’t factor in surprises. If a surprise is essential, provide an option for people to ask / know.
- Outline a dress code with specific examples, such as ‘smart casual includes a shirt and jeans, no trainers, high heels are acceptable’.
- To prevent challenging social situations, if a table plan is required, allow people to sit with people that they feel comfortable with (as opposed to mixing people up).
ADDitude Magazine (2022) ADHD and Addiction: The Truth about Substance Abuse. Source: https://www.additudemag.com/slideshows/adhd-and-addiction/
Jack, C. (2020) Can you do small talk when you have ASD? Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/women-autism-spectrum-disorder/202003/can-you-do-small-talk-when-you-have-asd