Using scales to manage workload and stress

Autistic people often have an innate sensitivity to experiencing stress and anxiety. This can be exacerbated by unexpected changes, challenging social situations and triggering sensory environments.

I’m aware that I can’t influence a lot of what is external to me, and not within my circle of influence, but instead I do like to plan and maintain aspects of my life that I can control

When it comes to my workload, I use various planning techniques involving prioritising, lists and visualisation to best manage my workload, however this isn’t always enough. An unexpected email or additional work can be added to my load, and it compresses the spare buffer of capacity further – often to a point of no return. In some circumstances, this can lead to a shutdown or meltdown, or over time: exhaustion and burnout, resulting in periods of time off work. So what can be done about this and how can we best look after ourselves? The answer is of course multi-faceted and unique to each person.

It takes time and practise to figure out what works well for you

I know that I and others on the spectrum I have worked with, use a series of bespoke scales to plan our workload, which help with decision-making in terms of if and when to take on more work. I like using these practical approaches that make sense to me; I know I can depend on them to aid decision-making when I don’t always feel I’m coming from an objective and neutral place to make accurate decisions. I know I can rely on them.

When creating a scale, I start with triggers and prompts to ask myself around the sustainability and viability of taking on new work. I find this especially useful – even before considering my current workload. I consider aspects such as whether the pay is adequate for the time and energy spent, how impactful the work will be in terms of serving others, how I am currently doing from a wellbeing perspective, my motivation to take on the work and how enjoyable I perceive the work to be. Sometimes I add in other factors, and the point is that the scale fits around you and your needs.

You can use whatever markers you like; for instance the prospect of career progression, colleagues you will be working with, resource capacity, the scope to learn something new, or to follow your passion

You can have as many key factors as you like, as long as they are important to you. Once you have created a list of measurable components that will influence whether you take on the new work, you can assign a score between 1-5, with 5 being the highest for each factor. You then add up the scores and divide by the number of measures you have used. I assign 3 as the minimum score to then decide to take on the piece of work, but depending on how busy you are, you can change this. For example, if I have very low spare capacity, I may then assign the priority level to 4.5.

The scale is flexible -and that’s the key takeaway to have from this model

I appreciate this isn’t full-proof and there will be instances when you simply have no choice in the work being assigned – and you just have to take it on. But I see this scale as a buffer and a breather. It gives you the chance to get curious about a piece of work and to really examine what you are gaining from it and at what level it is fulfilling you. This can be useful in terms of looking at your overall job satisfaction or perhaps building up a case over time of the types of work/projects that nourish and give you pleasure and reward. There are all sorts of visualisations you can use, for instance I have an autistic client who uses two triangles to determine whether he should help and support another person. After assigning various scales, he’ll help someone if the size of his triangle is greater than the triangle of the person requesting support from him. This helps him greatly as he can separate out how he is feeling and the resources, skillset he can offer in that moment, versus what the person’s needs are. I also know someone who uses a ladder rung system to calculate their workload – and they move up or down the rungs, depending on the scores assigned.

These visuals are also tools that can also be used to communicate why you have made certain decisions, and even be designed to use in collaboration with your line manager or other work colleagues

Equally, they can be kept personal and used for yourself only – there really is no right and wrong. I know for me, using scales are a versatile tool to help me determine how important new projects and work are in relation to my vision and values. They act as a pause, when all too often I end up being reactive and make instantaneous decisions – when actually, my stress, anxiety and overall wellbeing is of much greater importance to me.

Mahlia Amatina

August 2022

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