How can we support neurodiverse people at work?

1 in 5 people in the UK are neurodiverse.

Yet only 3 in 10 people have disclosed their neurodivergence to their manager. When you look at the data, it’s hardly a surprise: only half of these workers feel their organisation has a supportive climate. 

And that’s just the neurodivergent people who are in work: unemployment rates among neurodivergent adults are as high as 30-40%

Speaking to the people on the other side of the coin, it’s clear there’s a discrepancy between the support neurodivergent people need at work, and the support they get. Half of managers say they’d feel uncomfortable hiring a neurodivergent worker. 

Our own research suggests the same. We recently ran an event on supporting neurodiversity in the workplace, and repeatedly heard from senior HR and business leaders that they were desperate to learn but very few of them felt comfortable speaking about it.

There’s a lot of work needed to close this gap. So, what can we do to start? How do we help people bring their full selves to work? 

In this blog post, we’ll run through what neurodiversity is, why supporting neurodiverse people at work is important, and key ways in which you can make your workplace more inclusive. 

Ready? Let’s dive in. 

Understanding neurodiversity 

Simply put, neurodiversity refers to the different ways in which people’s brains process information. It’s common to be neurodiverse (remember that 1 in 5 stat from earlier). 

In fact, there’s no standard way for a brain to work, or process information; everyone is different. Keeping this in mind can be helpful when self-reflecting on your approach and attitude to neurodiversity. 

Common forms of neurodiversity include: 

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Dyspraxia 
  • Dyslexia 

Note that neurodiversity encompasses a further range of experiences. Individuals may or may not opt to identify as neurodivergent.

Why is it important to support neurodiverse people at work? 

The concept of neurodiversity sits with the social model of disability, developed by activists in the 1980s. The social model is a reaction to the medical model, which views disability as something to be ‘fixed’ or ‘lived with’. Rather, it argues that an inaccessible world is what defines people as disabled, and that different ways the brain works are natural, rather than something out of the ordinary. 

Neurodivergent people bring a host of strengths to work, for example: 

  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving
  • Enhanced listening skills
  • Intuitive thinking 
  • Pattern spotting

Businesses that recognise these characteristics as strengths to harness come out on top. Teams with neurodivergent employees in them can be 30% more productive than those without (Deloitte, 2022). 

As well as giving your business a competitive advantage, being inclusive is part of any top-tier DE&I strategy. You’ll widen the talent pool you hire from, speed up your team’s thinking, creativity and productivity, and protect your business’s reputation to boot. 

Showing your employees you care about inclusivity is key to how they feel at work. Flexa recently told the story of one of its own employees, Shannen Pollard, who described sharing her diagnosis as feeling like “a weight had been lifted…I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief”. In contrast, if your employees carry extra stress and anxiety around their diagnosis they’re not going to perform their best – or stick around for very long. 

How can I support neurodiverse employees? 

The CIPD notes that supporting neurodiverse employees isn’t a box to tick. Rather, it’s a journey – one that will develop as your workforce becomes even more diverse. 

To make an impact, you’ll need to drive significant change across all areas of the employee lifecycle. We’ve put together some tips below – and if you need more resources, the Neurodiversity Hub has an excellent collection here

Let’s get started: 

Audit your hiring process

Start by looking at your job descriptions. How clear and concise are they? Have you differentiated ‘must have’ and ‘nice-to-have’ skills to help those that think very literally? Always include a disability statement in your job descriptions, and make sure candidates know you’re happy to discuss reasonable accommodations. 

When it comes to the interview, keep in mind that these are often a measure of social competence rather than ability. Let candidates know what to expect, choose a suitable place, offer adjustments if needed, and try not to let first impressions influence you. It’s worth looking into interview training for your hiring team, to make sure they’re not inadvertently passing over good candidates. 

Need more help? We love this toolkit for hiring managers

Train managers 

Give managers basic awareness training so that they can confidently support any neurodiverse direct reports. Encourage your managers to do their own research and find guides and courses that work for them, and periodically check in on how they think it’s going. 

Helpful traits to have when managing neurodiverse employees are flexibility and adaptability. They should be able to react quickly to insight from the individual, whether that’s a request for flexible working, a different office set up, new tools, or anything in-between. And – as with all your employees – kindness and patience should be a given. 

Avoid stereotyping 

There are plenty of assumptions out there around neurodivergent people and certain skillsets or preferences. Every brain is different, though – and people will have different strengths and abilities regardless of their neurotype. 

Instead, adopt an attitude of commitment and curiosity – ask rather than assume, and respect individual differences. The goal here is to understand how neurodivergence can uniquely impact team members. Ensure your managers check in regularly to make sure that your team’s working together effectively. 

Make sure your workplace is accessible and inclusive 

Neurodivergent people might need specialised equipment like noise-cancelling headphones, digital tools to help with concentration, or items like fidget toys for meetings. Some will need a quiet space to work, while others might prefer to work from home. Be ready to accommodate these requests where possible, and make sure the team knows that every situation is different. 

Etiquette guidelines for the office can also be a useful resource for neurodivergent employees – and make sure to explain any unwritten rules of the office, too.  

The inclusive employers podcast on neurodiversity is a great resource to listen to if you need more guidance. 

Rethink how you communicate 

Reducing uncertainty at work can help your neurodiverse employees complete their work more effectively. Make your guidance as clear and jargon-free as possible, give new starters an acronym handbook, and make sure meetings are well-structured with an agenda, takeaways and action points provided. 

Build a culture of listening  

Neurodiverse people may not be comfortable disclosing their diagnosis to their manager. Do they have someone else they could share with if they wanted to? Setting up a buddy system is a great initiative here, as it creates a bond or at least a natural person to talk to should they need to. 

Be ready to listen – and be prepared to act on what you hear if you have to. The CIPD recently found that as many as 1 in 5 neurodivergent employees have been harassed at work. 

Acknowledge neurodivergence’s impact beyond work

Neurodivergence has a real effect on all parts of life; relationships, activities outside of work, and approaches to money, to name a few. 

For example, 60% of respondents with ADHD in a survey for Monzo Bank by YouGov estimated that the disorder cost them more than £1,600 a year. Make sure your business provides necessary support to your employees – such as an EAP or financial coaching – to look after their wellbeing

Make sure career pathways are inclusive

Neurodiverse people take longer to progress at work, because they’re told they don’t show certain behaviours needed to ‘be a leader’. 

Have you made sure your career paths are inclusive? Charthop has a helpful guide to getting started on their website.

Recognising that great minds don’t think alike is key to any company’s DE&I strategy – and to building a happy, healthy, productive workplace. Want to learn more about promoting diversity at work? Just heard here.

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