Neurodiversity in the Workplace Takes Center Stage at SXSW

By Diane Faulkner

Neurodiversity in the Workplace Recap

Diversity in the workplace is far from being a new topic of conversation. Neurodiversity in the workplace, however, is. And it’s a topic that had people abuzz at this year’s SXSW conference. What can happen when depression goes undiagnosed? What havoc may be wreaked by a stressful work-life week? What happens when wellness in the midst of growing a thriving business goes unchecked?

The Midwest House at SXSW 2023 hosted a panel of entrepreneurs who came together to talk about mental health in the workplace, specifically as it affects entrepreneurs. Each shared stories of how neurodiverse aspects of mental health had an impact on them, and discussed the role their unique companies play in helping neurodiverse communities today.

The High Stress Lifestyle of Entrepreneurs

Brophy set the stage for the panel discussion when he spoke about a horrific week he experienced nearly 25 years ago. During the dot-com boom, Brophy had a rapidly growing tech company. He was hiring fast, growing faster and living the classical entrepreneur life of high stress, maximum adrenaline and minimal sleep. This lifestyle seemed normal to him, as he was friends with other founders who lived the same way.

One particular week stood out in his memory: it was jam-packed with meetings with other entrepreneurs. The first was with a man whom Brophy admired for his confidence and competence. The man shocked Brophy by opening the meeting when he tearfully asked for a $100,000 loan to cover payroll. When Brophy awkwardly told the man he wasn’t able to help, the man walked out of the office, crying. Several days later, the man’s business closed. Brophy never saw the man again, not for lack of trying. That taught Brophy there’s no guaranteed protection for the entrepreneur against catastrophe.

Brophy’s next meeting was with a potential merger partner who also had a fast-rising business. This fellow entrepreneur and friend had a very calm, soothing style; he was unflappable. After a no-show meeting at a restaurant, Brophy learned his friend had left his company and moved to the other side of the country. He’d reached his breaking point. Brophy was never able to get in touch with him again.

The final meeting was with a fellow entrepreneur whom Brophy had never met but heard a lot about. His business, too, was tech-related and growing rapidly. Because of his reputation of having a high work ethic and being hard-driving, Brophy thought they’d really connect and was eager to meet with him. The meeting, sadly, never happened — as the entrepreneur died from suicide. This death reinforced a hard truth for Brophy: no matter how ambitious and hard-working a person may be, it doesn’t guarantee you won’t hit a wall of hopelessness, or struggle with mental health challenges that feel insurmountable.

Mental Health and the Entrepreneur

Business is risky. It’s risky financially. It’s risky emotionally. In an era where one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year, and one in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, entrepreneurs and other employers alike need to be sensitive to the neurodiversity that surrounds them — and possibly even includes them.

“Mental illness across the board is on the rise,” Brophy told the SXSW Midwest House audience. “Anxiety, depression, ADHD, PTSD, if we dial it in to look just at entrepreneurs, the numbers are even starker…Entrepreneurs have six times the rate of ADHD, three times the rate of bipolarism [sic], and twice the rate of addiction and depression.”

A recent UC Berkley study backs those numbers up. It shows that 72 percent of entrepreneurs in their sample self-reported mental health concerns. Entrepreneurs, the study said, are significantly more likely to report a lifetime history of depression (30 percent), ADHD (29 percent), substance conditions (12 percent), and a bipolar diagnosis (11 percent).

New Resources to Alleviate Mental Health Stressors

“There is some upside,” Brophy said. “The mental health stigma has reduced over the last couple of decades. There’s much more awareness of the value of stewarding one’s physical and mental health, and there are a lot of resources available, like the 988 Suicide in Crisis Prevention line.”

Zach Booker, CEO and co-founder of Mentavi Health and ADHD Online, talked about his and his son’s experience with ADHD and the expense of the diagnosis process, which takes, on average, seven months once referred by a physician to see a psychologist.

Costs are an issue, too. Booker said the process cost upwards of $2,000 even after insurance. “Not to mention the complexity of taking time off from work and school,” he added. “It was disheartening.”

To alleviate those expenses and stressors, a company was born. “We ended up creating an asynchronous assessment allowing a doctorate-level psychologist to understand the mental space of a patient, and diagnose them in less than three days after submission of the assessment,” says Booker. “The new brand [Mentavi Health] encompasses not only ADHD, but also anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.”

Opnr founder Dre Wallace talked about the extraordinary pressures musicians face and the detrimental effects those pressures have on mental health. Wallace created Opnr to relieve the pressures of live booking and everything that comes with it, like finding places to play and negotiating fees. This platform streamlines the process to make life easier for musical entrepreneurs.

Keith Cheney’s company Peadbo, which is a personal advisory board for entrepreneurs, has a board of people with diverse skill sets to help entrepreneurs accomplish their business goals. Cheney believes everyone should identify people they respect or admire, then create an environment where the individual entrepreneur is held accountable and gains support for their personal or professional journeys. That’s what Peadbo does. It helps entrepreneurs define their board’s focus, strengths and areas to prioritize, then helps them build a team dedicated to their personal or professional success. That team serves as an advisory board to help the entrepreneur be accountable for the goals set.

Building an Emotionally Safe Workplace

Making room to include neurodiverse employees in the workplace has benefits. These employees, according to JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work initiative, are 90 to 140 percent more productive than 10-year tenured employees, tend to be loyal to a good company and have a high retention rate, and bring unique perspectives and traits to the workplace, like high levels of empathy and creativity.

“Listen carefully to the team you build,” Brophy said. Teams are the most connected to the business. Listening to them usually pays off. “They used to call this good team building, but nowadays, it’s called building an emotionally safe space. Where there’s trust and listening and empowerment, you know they’ll move mountains.”