Growing Interest in Supporting the Wellbeing Needs of Neurodiverse Colleagues

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Last week, Make A Difference Media collaborated with DMA Talent and Texthelp to present an online workshop focused on how to support the mental health and wellbeing of neurodiverse colleagues.
With 601 registrants from a wide range of organisations, it’s clear that this is a topic that many in the Make A Difference community feel they need to learn more about.
Employers are increasingly recognising the strengths and skills associated with neurodevelopmental conditions such as dyslexia, autism or ADHD. Yet many don’t realise that people who are neurodiverse are also statistically far more likely than the rest of the population to suffer from anxiety and depression.
The session explained what neurodiversity is and went on to consider:
  • The long-term impact of coronavirus and lockdown on neurodiverse colleagues.
  • Whether to make remote working more permanent for neurodiverse colleagues.
  • How to support neurodiverse colleagues with technology within a blended working environment and whilst working remotely.
  • How to navigate the return to the workplace.
  • Long-term effects of social distancing.
  • The impact of limited opportunities for socialising.
  • Approaches to introducing/expanding support networks.

Here are my key takeaways.

We’re all ‘deficient’ one way or another…

Matthew Trerise (Autism & Neurodiversity Consultant at DMA Talent) and Angela Armstrong PhD (Leadership Coach and L&D Consultant) provided an exceptionally clear overview of what neurodiversity is. They explained that neurological variations are simply that: differences. They’re the result of normal variations in the human genome/DNA. However, all too often, people view them as deficiencies.
We probably all like to think we know what our ‘deficiencies’ are but it was helpful to be reminded of how they show up to others, and to acknowledge that while in one situation a ‘deficiency’ might pose a challenge (e.g. overly focused on the detail), in another situation ‘a difference’ might offer a distinct advantage (e.g. brilliant at seeing the detail). If we can recognise what those differences are, we can appreciate them more in ourselves and others.

Everyone’s got a threshold for what they can cope with

One positive outcome of the pandemic has been an increased awareness of what we each need in order to flourish. It’s not until you don’t (or do) have something that you realise you need it.
Trerise and Armstrong explained that the physical mechanics of our senses (e.g. hearing) are the same for all of us, but neurologically we interpret the stimulus differently depending on our sensory capacities. How our brains are wired fundamentally determines how we experience the world. It also determines what and how we can contribute to the world.
If the environment provides over-stimulation for something we’re more sensitive to (e.g. noise), this can make work incredibly draining, which in turn can affect mental wellbeing and productivity.
Neurodiverse colleagues who’ve been working from home may have been able to create an environment that reduces sensory overload. Therefore, when planning the return to the workplace, employers should consider to what extent physical presence is necessary and be prepared to make adjustments for those who need them.

We want to be with others (but only so much)

Alongside the differences in cognitive preferences/abilities and sensory capacities, we all have different needs with regard to social interaction. The pandemic has heightened awareness of what those social needs are: many of us (regardless of whether we’re neurotypical or neurodiverse) may not have appreciated just how introvert or extrovert we are and the extent to which our energy levels, wellbeing, and productivity depend on having the right level and type of social interaction.
Neurodiverse colleagues may have got used to having their own space and have reduced capacity for social interaction. They may also feel out of practice of being around others. Employers can help them readjust by asking them what they need (while making it feel safe to open up and be honest), and making reasonable adjustments accordingly.

Having the right tools for the job

Stuart Blair (Workplace Product Manager at Texthelp) reminded us that not only do employers need to understand the cognitive, sensory and social needs of their colleagues, they also need to ensure that everyone has the right tools to do their work.
One size doesn’t fit all but with the right technology, colleagues can feel empowered, inspired and purposeful, all of which contribute to mental health and wellbeing, and ultimately benefit the organisation through increased productivity.

Co-creating solutions

The Equality Act of 2010 requires UK companies to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with disabilities including those with neurodevelopmental conditions. Some organisations are ahead of the game in this respect. NetworkRail is one such. The company has 44,000 employees, and statistically, one in seven are likely to be neurodiverse.
Caroline Eglinton (Access & Inclusion Manager) provided inspiring insight into what NetworkRail has done to promote a culture of inclusivity. Its primary aims are to focus is on the experiences that individuals have, and to address any challenges that might get in the way of them being at their best at work.

Navigating the return to the workplace

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that if the needs of organisations are to be met during significant change, they need to be balanced with needs of individuals. As we look to 2021 and the next wave of change on the horizon, employers should seek to create workplaces in which neurodiverse colleagues feel valued, understood and supported.
People now have a much better understanding of what they need in order to do their best work; it’s up to employers to ask what this is and ensure they have it. Any positive changes in culture and support that they introduce will benefit everyone regardless of whether they are neurodiverse or neurotypical.
You might also be interested in these articles:
https://makeadifference.media/mental/neurodiversity-in-the-workplace-embracing-and-encouraging-different-ways-of-thinking/
https://makeadifference.media/mental/six-kinds-of-workspace-in-one-designing-for-a-neuro-divergent-office-population/
https://makeadifference.media/newsletter/thinking-outside-the-box-auticons-new-impact-report-on-benefits-of-hiring-neurodiverse-workers/
And these resources:

Dyslexia Employer Guide

Autism Employer Guide

Live-Online Workshops on Neurodiversity

If you are interested in attending future online workshops on this (or other) topics, contact [email protected]

About the author
Charlotte Whitehead is a careers consultant who offers a strengths-based approach to professional and personal development.  She works mostly with people who are at a transition point in their work, especially those in mid-career who are seeking a new direction.  She uses Gallup’s CliftonStrengths® assessment along with other tools to help clients identify their natural talents and abilities, and understand the contribution that they, uniquely, can make. She has particular interests in meaning and purpose in work, and in the rehabilitation of ex-offenders.   You can connect with her on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/charlottewhitehead1 or via her website at: www.careerpractic.com.
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