Neurodiversity and the workplace: challenges and opportunities

team of neurodiverse wokers in small team meeting. One woman presenting at whiteboard and 3 others sitting working with laptops

A dynamic and evolving topic, neurodiversity in the workplace is presenting both challenges and opportunities for employers in the UK and internationally.

With growing awareness of the unique perspectives and strengths that neurodivergent individuals can bring to the workplace, forward thinking companies are recognising the importance and benefit of creating inclusive working environments where all employees, including those who are neurodivergent, can thrive.

Benefits of neurodiversity for employers

In fact, the Harvard Business Review states that organisations that actively promote inclusivity generate 19% more revenue and Hewlett Packard reports that neurodiverse teams are 30% more productive; just some of the positive benefits leading to the conclusion that neurodiversity is actually a competitive advantage.

“Neurodifferent employees can bring exceptional abilities, particular specialisms and creativity to their work. We can help flip the narrative from duty of care to opportunity and potential for advancement.”

At Make A Difference, we’ve certainly seen an increase in organisations exploring and implementing strategies to foster neuro-inclusive work environments. Our recent webinar ‘Unlocking neurodiversity in the workplace’, had a high uptake of registrations and saw experts come together to discuss challenges, debunk myths and share strategies for fostering truly inclusive workplaces.

Neurodiversity at work

Neurodiversity describes the variation of cognitive functions and behavioural traits in people. When it comes to the workplace, a neuro-inclusive perspective encourages the acceptance and recognition of neurodivergent staff – those individuals with varying neurotypes; recognising and valuing the differences in how people’s brains function, with unique ways of thinking, processing and engaging.

Neurodiversity, or neuro inclusion, challenges outdated perceptions that certain cognitive conditions are disorders needing to be fixed, instead celebrating those natural variations, considering them to be a normal part of human diversity. 

Neurodiversity in the workplace encourages employers to recognise and utilise the strengths of neurodivergent individuals, such as enhanced problem-solving skills, creativity, and attention to detail.

Common neurodivergent conditions

It’s estimated that in the UK 1 in 7 people (between 15 – 20%) have some kind of neuro difference – a statistic that underlines why many are saying it’s time to normalise neurodiversity.  These include a wide range of cognitive differences that can affect how individuals experience and interact within the workplace. 

Common neurodivergent conditions include:

  • Autism 
  • attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Dyscalculia

This neurodivergence can influence how individuals communicate, process information, focus on tasks, and respond to sensory stimuli at work. When organisations recognise and support these differences, they can further develop the diverse skills and talents of employees, as well as fostering a more inclusive and productive workplace.

Challenges for neurodivergent workers

Unfortunately, neurodivergent employees are likely to encounter workplace challenges that can affect both their individual wellbeing and professional growth. And according to a recent survey by global tech firm Alludo, more than half of neurodivergent workers either want to quit their jobs, or already have because they don’t feel valued or supported by their employer.

It’s clear then, that acknowledging and addressing these challenges is an important step for employers wanting to build inclusive and supportive workplaces that support and retain their neurodivergent employees.

Here are just some of the workplace challenges experienced by neurodivergent employees.

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  • Misconceptions and social stigma: Misconceptions about neurominorities can lead to bias and discrimination that affects how neurodivergent employees are perceived by colleagues. Employers can help to dispel myths by promoting awareness and educating their teams about neurodiversity.
  • Sensory challenges: Workplace environments, such as those with bright lights and crowded, noisy spaces, can sometimes present challenges for neurodivergent individuals with sensory sensitivities, which can lead to heightened stress and anxiety. 
  • Communication/teamwork: Differences in processing information and social cues may cause some neurodivergent individuals to find aspects of communication and teamwork challenging. Employers can help to promote clearer communication through inclusive training and promoting a culture of understanding and empathy in teams.

Challenges for employers

Similarly, creating a neuro-inclusive workplace where neurodivergent individuals are valued and supported, can also present challenges for employers, such as:

  • Lack of awareness/understanding: Some employers may not have sufficient knowledge or awareness about neurodiversity, which could lead to misconceptions, biases, and stereotypes, hindering the creation of an inclusive environment.
  • Stigma/discrimination: Negative stereotypes and stigma could result in discrimination against individuals who disclose their conditions in the workplace. Fear of judgement may prevent employees from seeking accommodations or support.
  • Limited resources: Access to resources such as accommodations, specialised training, or support may be limited or unavailable in some workplaces. Employers may struggle to provide the necessary support and accommodations to enable neurodivergent employees to thrive.
  • Communication barriers: Neurominority individuals may have unique communication styles and preferences, which can pose challenges in workplace interactions and collaboration. Employers need to foster an inclusive communication culture that accommodates diverse communication needs.
  • Accommodations/adjustments: Neurodivergent employees may require specific accommodations to perform their job duties effectively. Identifying and implementing appropriate adjustments tailored to individual needs can be challenging for employers, particularly if they lack expertise or resources in this area.
  • Recruitment and retention: Neurominorities may face barriers during the recruitment process, such as bias in hiring decisions or inaccessible application processes, so employers need to work to make sure the recruitment process is inclusive. Similarly, employers may struggle with retention if workplaces fail to provide a supportive environment where neurodivergent employees feel valued and included.

“We need to break down the barriers to recruitment so that neurodivergent people (and others) can get in the door in the first place, rather than having a specialist programme for them. That means thinking differently about how employers interview and assess people. It also means that candidates can be open about their neurodiversity, or not.” 

Caroline Eglinton, Head of Inclusion, East West Railway Company 

Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace 

So, what are some practical things employers can do to build inclusive, productive neurodiverse workplaces?

Prioritise education

It’s generally accepted among neurodiversity consultants that there is still a lack of understanding around neurodiversity within the workplace. Workshops, online training, webinars, are all things employers could offer to raise awareness and knowledge of neurodiversity at work.

Be open to reasonable adjustments

Under UK employment law, individuals are able to request employers to make reasonable adjustments to make it easier for them to carry out their work duties – this is also relevant to those who are neurodivergent. Whilst individual needs will differ, some adjustments that may be helpful include things like:

  • Interview adjustments
  • Screen filtering
  • Static workstations
  • Flexible working
  • Remote working
  • Extra breaks
  • Reduced sensory stimuli and the British Dyslexia Association all offer guides and examples of reasonable adjustments.

It’s also important to make sure that adjustments are available to all employees, and not just to single out those who are neurodivergent. Psychological Safety and Neurodiversity Advocate, Richard Peachey, says: 

“The first shift in thinking that needs to happen is that neurodiversity includes everyone. Just like everyone has mental health. A lot of the ways that we support neurodivergent people should be ubiquitous and available to everybody. Once we stop labelling, and sub categorising, and we start dealing with everyone, looking at how we get the best out of each person, then we’re going to end up with more productive, engaged workforces.”

If the reasonable adjustments requested are too expensive for employers to implement, it’s possible that financial assistance is available via the government’s Access to Work grant. It doesn’t affect any other benefits that an employee may be receiving.

Create good policies

Clear diversity and inclusion policies are also a good way for companies to articulate their commitment to inclusion and also provide a framework for action.

Read more: 14 tips to get the best out of your neurodiverse workforce

Neurodiversity and workplace design

Considering neurodiversity within workplace design can also significantly enhance productivity, creativity, and overall wellbeing.

Designing a workplace with neurodiversity in mind could involve things like:

  • Creating a sensory-friendly workspace – Considering factors such as lighting, noise levels, and spatial arrangements. Employers might provide options for adjustable lighting, noise-cancelling headphones, and designated quiet areas.
  • Flexible/Agile workstations and break areas – Offering flexibility such as adjustable desks, alternative seating options, and designated break areas can accommodate varying sensory needs and promote wellbeing in the workplace.
  • Incorporating nature and green spaces – Access to nature has been shown to reduce stress, improve concentration, and enhance creativity, so integrating natural elements such as plants, green spaces, and natural lighting into the workplace design can have a positive impact on employee wellbeing and productivity.

Diagnosis and disclosure

Areas that current thinking seems to be a little more divided on, are the benefits and necessity of disclosing neurodivergence, and the need for diagnoses. 

Whether or not you believe individuals should disclose their neurodivergence to their employer, one thing that can be agreed on is that workplaces should aim to foster an environment where employees feel psychologically safe to be able to disclose if they so choose. Kirsty Cook, global director of D&I services at auticon says that ‘by taking a person-centred and individually tailored approach, you can also better support someone that may not even realise they’re neurodivergent or aren’t ready to share that information with their employer’.

And while getting a formal diagnosis can be really helpful for people personally – as Caroline Eglinton shared with us:

“Whilst I strongly suspected that I had ADHD for around a year, getting a formal diagnosis really did help me. Importantly, ADHD is highly treatable and medication can help to manage symptoms. However you can only be prescribed the medication if you have had an official diagnosis.”

– it may not necessarily be as helpful to share in the workplace. Professor Amanda Kirby puts it this way:

“Diagnosis should never be the answer for the workplace. We’re not defined by a diagnosis, just as you don’t need to tell people you’ve got diabetes or irritable bowel syndrome. No employer expects you to do that. So why do people expect you to share your neurodivergent conditions and traits?”

A SOM paper on evaluating and supporting neurodifferences at work suggests a variety of adjustments that can be offered without a formal diagnosis, and also states you ‘do not need a diagnosis for the Equality Act to apply’.

Neurodiversity and Occupational Health

So what about the role of occupational health when it comes to fostering inclusive, neurodiverse workplaces? Well, the government’s recent response to a consultation into ways to increase the uptake of OH provision outlined plans to “imminently” set up an expert “task and finish” group to support the development of a “voluntary minimum framework for quality OH provision which employers could adopt to help improve employee health at work”.

Given this OH push, it may become increasingly important for OH professionals to have a good understanding of neuro differences, and how they can affect performance at work, especially if employers are referring neurodivergent employers to OH. Kirsty Cook suggests that often companies expected “their occupational health teams would understand neurodiversity and the support needed, but that’s not always the truth”.

There has been some contention over how occupational health fits in with the wellbeing remit, with some thinking that it has traditionally been a reactive service where prevention should be more of a focus. However, a shift towards wellbeing and OH working better together could be ‘revolutionary for workplace wellbeing’ and a positive step for all employees, including those who are neurodivergent.

Read more: So, you think you’re doing neurodiversity support well? You may need to think again…

Embracing neurodiversity for positive change 

In conclusion, fostering neurodiversity in the workplace is not just a box ticking activity; it’s about building a stronger, more resilient workforce. By actively seeking out, being accessible to, and supporting existing neurodivergent employees, companies gain a strategic advantage, helping to drive innovation and productivity, as well as improving employee satisfaction and retention.

With thanks to Genius Within for their contribution to this piece.

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