Work gatherings are considered a time for employers to champion inclusivity and show gratitude to their team for their hard work and dedication. But for some, such gatherings might not be the welcome treat that it appears, and instead a catalyst for discomfort and anxiety.
So how great would it be if that work gathering you’re dreading wasn’t a must-attend event? If ducking out with a wafer-thin excuse wasn’t a black mark on your record? If you were given permission to give it a miss? Sounds like a pipe dream.
Imagine, too, not being compelled to participate in the sort of team bonding exercise that fills you with fear. What a relief.
But that is exactly what we’re advocating – recognising that a one-size-fits-all absolutely does not work and can, in fact, be counterproductive for a large percentage of your workforce.
With 15-20% of the global population thought to be neurodivergent, it has never been more important for managers and HR professionals to consider what they can do to help their workforce.
When reviewed in a workplace context there are significant opportunities to enable neurodivergent employees to thrive and for employers to build fully inclusive teams. And in the wider world, we all need to start considering how we change perceptions about neurodivergent individuals and to demystify what neurodiversity feels like and means.
Neurodiversity recognises that all human minds are differently wired and that there is no ‘right’ way to learn, think, communicate or interact. We all process the world differently. Just as there are no two fingerprints the same, there are no two brains the same.
Neurodiversity can include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette syndrome, which can, for some, make socialising challenging. Ordinarily, there can be an uncomfortable pressure for many to enjoy work celebrations that may not entirely be to our taste. But factor in being neurodivergent and the anxiety can multiply.
There is this idea of “forced fun” at work gatherings, but we have got colleagues who could think of nothing worse than attending such events. So, we just say “Don’t” – there’s permission, nobody will mind at all. And we add, the partygoers won’t be working this afternoon, so you don’t need to either and the budget we’d have spent, you can do something else with that you would prefer – there’s the inclusion and the equity.
It’s just common sense: do we all really need to do a team building (and I’ve nothing against these things) in a safe room or build a raft, or anything at all, in fact? Going a step further, do we all need to be in that team meeting? It might be that you just ask people, ‘What’s good for you’?
If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. I really do think that one-size-fits-all never has and never will work. And there’s a particular phrase that I am a huge fan of: “Change the system, not the person”.
This is clearly a year-round conversation we need to have and we’re looking for employers to provide choice and understanding and to begin the conversation. Whoever initiates it, whether they’re part of an employee network or a senior leader, it doesn’t matter. Start by raising awareness across your organisation on a workforce level through effective training.
Training will demystify neurodiversity, help to break down workplace barriers that neurodivergent people often face, and ultimately seek to foster an environment where employers are enabled to recruit, develop and retain neurodivergent colleagues.
Then, once you have greater knowledge, think about what inclusion looks like and how you can create a journey of change.
But throughout the process, put the individual at the centre. It’s vital not to impose things on anyone, but to work with people. A senior sponsor can often be an important factor: if someone senior in your organisation has direct experience of neurodiversity, it is immensely beneficial for them to share their stories openly and, in so doing, encourage others to feel it’s ok to do the same.
Neurodiversity is often cited as the last frontier in workplace diversity and inclusion with misunderstanding, stigma and stereotypes excluding talented individuals from joining the workforce, utilising their skills, and progressing their careers.
By championing neuroinclusion in the workplace and supporting a neurodiverse workforce, an organisation demonstrates commitment, that they truly care about addressing real-life challenges, and can make a tangible and positive impact on staff.
It can also support the recruitment and retention of a robust workforce and help access an untapped pool of talent. Employers who recognise, embrace and support neurodiversity can attract and keep the best employees.
But crucially, diversity needs to become much more central to business strategy, in the same way, that issues like climate change and mental health have become integrated over the last decade.
Earlier this year we launched Scotland’s first Neuroinclusion at Work programme, supported by the Scottish Government, to help employers improve the experience of neurodivergent colleagues. It supports employers to become more aware, informed and empowered to take action to support neuroinclusivity in their workplaces and we’re aiming to reach one million workers by 2026.
So, if diversity is important in your workplace, this could be the way to support your team and unlock talent. It’s undoubtedly the next step on the way to achieving equity in the workplace and I would encourage employers with an interest in this space to work with us as we break new ground.
Having a workforce with the knowledge, confidence, and language to initiate the conversation is a critical first step to embracing, integrating, and harnessing the potential of neurodivergent employees and creating a workplace where all employees can thrive. But we can’t stop there, this is about creating a culture which embraces all forms of inclusion and belonging. What is good for your Neurodivergent employees is likely to make for a more inclusive environment for all.
Alan is the CEO of Salvesen Mindroom Centre. Alan actively works across the public, private and third sectors to support a fairer, more inclusive and sustainable society.