Neurodivergence is an important topic in the modern day which means it is important to consider neurodiversity in the workplace. Times have changed as people have pushed back against what is considered ‘normal’, allowing neurodivergent people to give themselves the voice that they need to be heard and understood. Knowing about neurodivergence is important for employers, managers and even workers since it is important in creating a welcoming workplace environment where neurodivergent people can thrive. It is estimated that 1 in 7, or just over 15%, of people in the UK are neurodivergent, which is not a tiny portion, it is a decent chunk of the entire population. The commonness of neurodivergent people means that an organisation cannot just ignore them, their needs must be considered, because it is likely the case that some members of your workforce are neurodivergent and are being held back from reaching their full potential.
What is a neurodivergence?
Neurodivergence comes from the words neuro, in this case meaning brain, and divergence, meaning different. They are different ways someone’s brain may work, which make them different to what is considered ‘normal’, or neurotypical. Neurotypical is the way most people expect others to think. The brain of someone who is neurotypical will function and process information in the way society expects it to, while the brain of someone who is neurodivergent might function and process the same information in a different way.
There are various forms of neurodivergence, all of which fall on a spectrum, meaning the range and intensity of characteristics someone experiences vary from person to person, and can even vary in the same person throughout their lifetime. Below is a list of some (not all) of the most common forms of neurodivergence:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Tourette’s Syndrome
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Because there is no standardised description of neurodivergence or any clear line drawn, there are people argue that other things should be considered to be forms of neurodivergence as well. Some people may consider various mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, as neurodivergent conditions and others may go as far as to consider being LGBT or left handedness as being forms of neurodivergence.
What are the benefits of accepting neurodivergent employees?
Other than the fact that neurodivergent people are people and people deserve a chance, having a neurodiverse workforce can improve how the organisation functions. Neurodivergent people are not a detriment, if their needs are met properly, neurodivergent people can be a great asset to a team. Being open about hiring and supporting neurodivergent people opens your organisation up to a talent pool that would have been ignored otherwise. They can improve the organisation by:
- Being creative thinkers
- Having good lateral thinking skills
- Being good strategic analysts
- Bringing multiple different perspectives to meetings and conversations
- Being able to become highly specialised at their skills
- Being consistent in tasks which they have mastered
- Being able to understand and meet the needs of a customer base since they are able to understand the needs and thoughts of neurodivergent customers.
What changes can I make to improve the workplace for neurodivergent people?
If you want to improve the workplace for neurodivergent people, there are many ways you can support them, from making an inclusive space, to seeing to their needs, to educating everyone in the workplace about neurodivergence. If you do not wish to improve the workplace for neurodivergent people, you may be legally obligated to do so anyway. While the Equality Act 2010 does not specify neurodivergence as a protected characteristic, it does protect against disability, and many people who are neurodivergent count as being disabled in the legal definition of the word.
For many neurodivergent employees who are having performance issues, those issues can often come from the fact that they attempt to hide their neurodivergence out of fear that it is not a safe place to disclose it, which means they do not get the help they need. You can make a safer space for neurodivergent employees by:
- Stating and proving that the organisation values neurodiversity
- Treating everyone fairly and with respect
- Tailoring management to better support the employees’ needs
- Spotting issues early and talking to people to resolve their issue
It is worth noting that even if an organisation claims to and shows that it values neurodiversity, it may still take time for some people to feel safe enough to disclose they are neurodivergent.
Employers can support neurodivergent employees by making small changes to the workspace and way the organisation operates to be able to meet the needs of neurodivergent employees. These changes are reasonable adjustments. The needs you will need to meet will vary from employee to employee, but some general changes that can help a lot of people are:
- Accounting for people with sensory needs when designing the workspace, such as limiting bright flashy images and writing less information on the walls
- Putting up dividers (when it is appropriate to) to help block noise and visual distractions
- Have dedicated quiet areas for people who are feeling overwhelmed by noises
- Allow staff to book private spaces for tasks that require absolute concentration
- Provide visible instructions with both text and images for office equipment (such as printers) so people can understand how to use them
- Allow for flexible working arrangements, such as working at home some days or varied start and finish times, for people who work on different timeframes or have issues in an office environment
- Provide staff with ways to organise their equipment, such as lockers, drawers or labels, to help them stop losing things
- Remind staff to be mindful of their colleagues needs, to ensure they are not causing issue or distress
- Allow employees who are struggling with the noise around them to use noise cancelling headphones
While this list of changes is long, it is not exhaustive, and some employees may require other adjustments that are more personal to them. Changes such as these should not cost much or cause a massive restructuring of the organisation but can provide great help to employees by seeing to their needs. It is also worth noting that these changes do not just benefit neurodivergent people but they also help neurotypical people as well. For example, struggling to concentrate while there are distractions all around you can be a struggle for neurotypical employees as well, and having a quiet space can help them to focus and get work done on difficult or intense days. Supporting neurodivergent employees is not a zero-sum game, benefiting them often benefits everyone, and rarely detriments other people.
What other support can I offer?
There is a lot of additional support that you can give to employees to improve their experience at work. One way to improve the work experience of neurodivergent employees is by setting up support networks for them. Support networks can offer:
- A safe space for staff to discuss any issues they are having
- An opportunity to meet and form relationships with other neurodivergent employees
- Somewhere to share coping strategies and workplace adjustments
- An informal way to raise issues to management, who can use that information to change and improve the workplace
- A way to raise greater awareness about neurodivergence throughout the whole workplace
A great way of supporting employees can be by providing access to diagnostic assessments. Diagnostic assessments are a way to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of an employee. They are important for supporting employees, as many may be neurodivergent without knowing they are, which may stop them from seeking support which they may need. It is still important to give diagnosed staff with diagnostic assessments because they may not know what support they need in that specific work environment, and a diagnostic assessment can help them understand their needs. Diagnostic assessments:
- Evaluate an employees abilities and skills through a series of tests.
- These tests should be conducted by a psychologist or a teacher who has expertise in understanding a specific neurodivergence (people who can provide a formal diagnosis of neurodivergence)
- It will show the strengths and areas of weakness in each employee
- The report will make general recommendations and not just specifically focus on work
- The cost of the assessments should be paid for by the employer
- Online assessments are not an alternative to diagnostic assessments
How can I raise awareness of neurodivergence in the workplace?
Raising awareness of people who are neurodivergent and educating people on the different forms of neurodivergence is important. Many people may not know about or understand anything about neurodivergence, or worse they may have outdated and stereotypical understandings of the subject. Ways to help raise awareness and educate could be:
- Arranging awareness days, campaigns and educational workshops
- Provide simple, easy to understand and readily available information about neurodivergence to employees
- Make sure that staff have both the time and the space to learn
- Updating policies surrounding disability to include sections about neurodivergence
- Encourage neurodivergent managers to disclose their neurodivergence, which can enable staff to openly discuss neurodivergence and show neurodivergent staff that they are not alone
- Talking about reasonable adjustments that can/are being made to the workplace
Since slightly over 15% of the UK population is neurodivergent, ensuring your organisation can support them is important. There are many reasonable adjustments can be made to improve work for neurodivergent people to allow them to reach their full potential, and not excluding them from your work force allows you to hire from a larger pool of talent. It is also important to discuss with employees to support them and ensure they are supporting each other, by setting up ways for everyone to learn and discuss neurodivergence.