Embracing and employing a neurodiverse workforce brings many benefits but requires a shift of perspective from a world historically built for neurotypical individuals. Often systems fail to acknowledge that many policies and practices have been designed for ‘one type of brain and thinking’.
The resulting mental load of trying to fit into societal norms can be stressful and tiring for those with neurodivergences. A study found that 70% of neurodivergent employees experience mental health issues, and 50% reported feeling burnt-out at work, compared to just 38 per cent of neurotypical employees. A National Autistic survey (2016) also found that 48% of respondents reported feeling bullied, harassed, or discriminated against in a workplace setting.
Understanding neurodiversity, its strengths, and challenges, can offer businesses insight into how an inclusive, productive workforce can be nurtured. Diverse thinking is often after all, progressive thinking.
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that covers several neurodevelopmental areas including dyslexia, attention deficiency hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).
Approximately one in seven people in the UK is regarded as neurodiverse. However, many people who are neurodivergent may not have a formal diagnosis, while some may view the world differently but not consider themselves neurodiverse at all. Others are pleased to receive a diagnosis to ‘reframe’ their own life story and feeling ‘different’. Alternatively, for some, seeking a diagnosis can require addressing feelings of stigma, both real and perceived.
The experiences of neurodiversity sit on a broad spectrum, and it is possible to have overlapping areas of neurodivergence. This spectrum on which each of us experiences the world highlights the importance of moving away from simplistically grouping people as either neurodivergent or neurotypical. This helps avoid stereotyping or applying one-size fits all approaches to supporting neurodiversity in the workplace.
Benefits of a employing a neurodiverse workforce
Nurturing a pro-neurodiverse culture is also beneficial to staff recruitment and retention. The competitive edge it offers businesses has also been recognised, with Siemens reporting a 50% increase in productivity. When JP Morgan actively recruited individuals with ASD, their team’s output increased by 50% within six months.
Examples of the strengths a neurodiverse workforce may bring include innovative and strategic thinking, attention to detail, big picture thinking and problem solving, hyperfocus and exceptional abilities to work as part of a team.
Approaches to recruiting a neurodiverse workforce
Different approaches to recruitment are required to attract neurodiverse talent.
To boost inclusivity of the recruitment process, HR teams could consider offering alternative ways of accessing role descriptions, such as through assistive technology or instead highlighting focused skills. For example, the language used in job descriptions can sometimes exclude or put off people from applying. Consider, if you have difficulties with spelling, the phrase ‘must have good communication skills’ may feel overwhelming.
While interview questions may need to be closed or less ambiguous, and interview environments designed to have few distractions; innovative ways of conducting interviews should be considered. For example, one company found adopting a gaming format to be successful.
Supporting a neurodiverse team
Employing neurodivergent talent requires a top-down overall approach which is often missing. This includes supporting teams, managers, and individuals, so that together, individual strengths within a team can win out overall.
Businesses can proactively nurture an inclusive culture by providing education and training that empowers managers and employees to provide the right support to colleagues, spot potential barriers and break down stigma and preconceptions.
A workplace assessment by an experienced independent assessor can help identify needs and reasonable adjustments to improve working life. Adjustments may include a ‘quiet’ room that all employees find beneficial, screen filters to aid reading and text distortion, adjustable lighting or options to work in less busy areas or ‘snugs’. Offering flexible hours could be useful for those who find rush hour crowds overwhelming while the introduction of a neurodiversity champion can assist with onboarding and beyond.
Providing structured and frequent feedback and check-ins should increase communication channels to ensure employees feel fully supported. The smallest adjustments can make a world of difference. Someone with ASD may have difficulty with understanding unspoken office rules or politics and assume a literal stance, whereas an individual with ADHD may become time ‘blind’ whilst working on a project. Being conscious to these differences and providing employees with information needed, such as how long a task should take, can help employees thrive.
Running short, expert coaching courses can also provide employees with positive coping strategies. These sessions can also share an understanding of tools to help employees reach their potential, such as mind mapping techniques, software that can aid concentration or the benefits that noise cancelling headphones can bring.
Small changes can make the world of difference to everyone. Educating all the workforce to better understand neurodivergent characteristics and encouraging a culture of openness can be life changing. Particularly to those exhausted by trying to ‘fit in’ to a workplace designed for ‘one type of brain thinking’.
Christine Tanner is a Lead Psychologist at HCA UK and frequently advises HR departments, senior managers, and individuals to implement innovation and change.