Neurodiversity in the Workplace
20 Apr 2023
Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is a core part of the HR agenda. Promoting EDI initiatives can make a critical difference to an employee’s experience of the workplace and to the company’s reputation.
A less visible and obvious form of diversity that has been recently highlighted is neurodiversity.
What is Neurodiversity?
The term ‘neurodiversity’ comes from two parts – neurological and diversity. Neurological means things to do with our brain, and diversity means things that are different.
Most people are ‘neurotypical’, meaning that their brains function and process information in a way that is common and expected. People who are neurodiverse have brains that process information differently, meaning they may experience and interact with the world in different ways. Some of the most common terms associated with being neurodiverse include, but are not limited to, autism, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and DCD (previously known as dyspraxia).
The essence of neurodiversity awareness is recognising that there are differences in the way people think, learn and behave, and challenging the stereotypes and misconceptions that exist of neurodiverse individuals. There have been reported heightened competencies of problem solving, spatial reasoning and creativity associated with dyslexia, and pattern recognition, enhanced memory and mathematical processes with autism. However, it is important to understand that every neurodivergent individual has a unique pattern of strengths and challenges, and no two people are the same.
It is estimated that between 15% and 20% of the population are neurodivergent. By embracing differences and working to design an inclusive workplace for all neurotypes, employers can produce real benefits for business.
What are the Benefits of Creating a Neurodiverse Workforce?
Like other forms of diversity in the workplace, neurodiversity has proved to be a business asset and competitive advantage by ensuring diversity of thought and spurring innovation and creativity.
The National Autistic Society states that people on the autistic spectrum have a variety of sometimes exceptional skills that are highly valued by employers, enabling them to thrive in a whole host of different roles. The executive director of JPMorgan Chase (and head of Autism at Work) has reported that their autistic employees achieved, on average, 48% to 140% more work than their neurotypical colleagues, depending on their roles.
However, the challenges that neurodiverse people face are often related to the environment and systems that they are placed in. A lack of awareness and appropriate infrastructure can cause exclusion of neurodiverse individuals from roles that they would excel in or leave them restricted to unsuitable roles.
Ensuring the Success of Neurodiverse Workers
Understanding and supporting neurodiversity in the workplace enables businesses to adopt a more diverse, inclusive, and successful workforce, which allows their talent to thrive.
People work best when they are supported in different ways. Many neurodiverse people struggle to work in environments that are not inclusive of their individual needs. In an effort to create a more diverse workplace, businesses may need to challenge their traditional workplace processes in several ways, including:
· Evolving recruitment processes. Inclusive recruitment practices can open up jobs for neurodiverse individuals where traditional interview processes prove to be an obstacle. When creating job descriptions, businesses should use inclusive language that indicates they are open to applications from all neurotypes, for example, by stating that reasonable adjustments to the process are possible for those who need it. Job descriptions should also be clear on the key skills each role requires, and on any skills or attributes that are merely a nice-to-have. Employers should also think of innovative ways to test competency for the role. Traditional interviews are often behaviour-based, for example, there is a common misconception that culture fit equates to people who display the same body language and social styles as neurotypicals. If the interviewer is neurotypical, then the behaviours displayed by certain neurodiverse candidates may seem rude or dismissive (for example, avoiding eye contact, not wanting to shake hands or failing to engage in small talk). Moving from behavioural-based interviews to contribution-based interviews will show how much a candidate can contribute to the business.
· Making changes to physical space. Many employers make significant accommodations to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible for those with physical disabilities. Those with cognitive disabilities, however, are often overlooked. Employers should have discussions with every employee when they join in order to identify and support potential individual neurodiverse workplace needs. Some people with autism, for example, report that lighting, sound, temperature and furniture set-up in an office can cause pain and discomfort, sometimes leading to cognitive meltdowns. Solutions to such issues could include the use of noise-cancelling headphones, screen readers, desk space in quieter areas, and communicating in advance expected loud noises (like practice fire drills). Flexible working schedules and environments are also important. Employers should be considerate of the need for time off for therapy appointments, or even breaks to recharge. Some individuals may struggle in an office environment and may prefer to work from home. Workplace assessments will identify these individual needs.
· Communicating effectively. Miscommunication can be a risk when dealing with any individual. Ask your employees how best they receive information, whether verbal, written, all in one go or in a small bite-size pieces. Employers should adopt a clear communication style and avoid sarcasm, euphemisms, and implied messages. Repeating key messages, following-up on assigned tasks, and concise written and verbal instructions will all assist with mitigating the risk of miscommunication. If a planned task or event changes, employers will benefit from giving advance notice of this where possible, providing the affected individual with reasons for the change.
· Meeting individual needs. When managing neurodiverse employees, employers should understand and adapt to their individual strengths and needs. Some neurodiverse people may excel when working alone, and others may like being part of a team. Some may need larger tasks broken down into smaller steps that are reiterated along the way. Managers should inform all individuals about workplace etiquette and avoid assuming that an individual is being rude or deliberately breaking the rules. The best approach is to facilitate open communication – it is okay to ask an individual what their preferences, needs and goals are in the workplace.
There will never be a one-size-fits-all model for workplace inclusivity of neurodiverse people, and employers shouldn’t feel unable to talk about neurodiversity in the workplace. When both employers and employees can have open discussions about finding ways to work more inclusively, that helps break down barriers and remove stigmas.
How does Neurodiversity fit within the Equality Act 2010?
A person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
Being neurodivergent will often amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, even if the person does not consider themselves to be disabled.
Individuals with a disability are provided with certain rights and protections under the law. Employers must make reasonable adjustments to allow them to perform their best work and protect them from discrimination, harassment and victimisation in the workplace and at all stages of the recruitment process.
Fostering an equal, diverse and inclusive workplace is key to preventing such issues arising and maintaining a happy, successful workforce with a positive company culture.
Neurodiversity in Business
On 21 March 2022, Neurodiversity in Business (NiB) was launched with the aim of supporting neurodiverse employees in the workplace. Dan Harris, Chief executive of NiB, states that although employers increasingly recognise the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce, neurodivergent employees need improved support.
NiB has therefore been designed as a business-led forum functioning as an industry group for organisations to share industry good practice on neurodiverse recruitment, retention and empowerment.
NiB and founding members, such as Accenture, AstraZeneca, Bank of England, Capita, Network Rail, Sky and Unilever, recognise that reasonable modifications can enable more neurodiversity in the workplace and also benefit sustainability. The forum also works with organisations that support neurodiversity, including Auticon, Ambitious about Autism, the ADHD Foundation, the British Dyslexia Association, Diversity and Ability and the National Autistic Society. They have a wide range of materials available to support employers.
As always, the Employment Team are here to assist you with any queries. Please feel free to get in touch.