May 21, 2010
For years I’ve been presenting programs on the challenges and opportunities associated with accommodating mental disabilities in the workplace. I think the first iteration was in 2004 at the Labor & Employment Advanced Practices Symposium with my friend and colleague Rich Paul at the Paul Plevin firm in San Diego. One premise was that many contributions to science, music, the arts, industry, fashion have come from individuals diagnosed with mental disabilities. We encouraged employers to think about making a place for talented people who may have unconventional behaviors or needs in the workplace.
Validation! Today I picked up the Lawrence Journal World and spotted this headline: “Creative people’s brains similar to schizophrenics’ brains, study finds” This Bloomberg News article cited a study in Sweden involving people who took creativity tests. The researchers found that creative problem-solvers had a lower concentration of proteins that aid in the chemical transmission of information in the thalamus, the part of the brain that determines what data is relevant for reasoning. That’s a trait commonly found in patients with schizophrenia, a mental illness whose symptoms include hallucinations, jumbled thoughts and paranoia. As I understand it, there is less information filtered by the thalamus on the way to the cortex where information is processed and analyzed. With more data in play, the individual might be able to make more creative associations – to see things others don’t.
One of the researchers is quoted as saying “We tend to think of psychiatric diseases s negative, as destructive. But we can see that some traits or components of psychiatric disease may be useful.”
Accommodating mental disabilities in the workplace can require some creativity and a willingness to suspend the rules about the way we’ve always done things. So often the characteristics of the condition affect how people do their work, the environment, attendance, work hours, behavior, and social skills. And an employer might be able to defend a decision not to hire – or to discharge – an individual who doesn’t comply with clearly communicated expectations. But consider whether making accommodations might not open your organization up to some amazing talent. Sit down with the individual and talk about how the company might be able to work with him or her to get the work done.