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Businesses have long been focused on DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) efforts and, in the past few years, advances have been made to address gender, race, and ethnicity as employers strive to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce. Despite this, neurodivergent individuals have often been overlooked. And, given that 15 to 20% of the global population is neurodivergent, there is much opportunity to improve.
Below, we explore the benefits of neurodiversity at work, and actionable strategies that HR professionals and management teams can implement to empower neurodivergent employees. Neurodiversity experts, Toni Horn, a neurodiversity consultant and Founder of Think Differently; and Kassandra Clemens, a transformational coach and Founder of Heal Your Confidence CIC weigh in with their thoughts.
What is neurodivergence?
Neurodivergence is an umbrella term that encompasses individuals who have at least one condition that alters their cognitive function. These could include Asperger’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), epilepsy, and Tourette’s. Many of these individuals contribute effectively to the workforce, especially in businesses that offer personalised initiatives and soft benefits.
For employers seeking to accommodate neurodivergent workers, it’s important to be aware of the correct terminology and what it entails. Spring Health defines the following terms:
- Neurodivergent refers to a person or group with atypical brain functioning
- Neurotypical refers to individuals are who are non-neurodivergent
- Neurodiverse is a mix of people from the two groups. Supporting a neurodiverse workforce means accommodating neurodivergent individuals
Benefits of a neurodiverse workforce
Numerous studies show that diverse businesses are more innovative and agile due, in part, to a greater variance in thinking and approaches. This can lead to disruptive breakthroughs by offsetting a tendency for companies “to all look in the same direction,” according to Harvard Business Review.
Neurodiverse individuals are often excellent problem solvers, due to their ability to think in non-typical ways and identify solutions that other employees may not find.
Toni Horn explains how “those with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might excel in pattern recognition and detail-oriented tasks, while individuals with ADHD could offer high levels of creativity and dynamism.” Kassandra Clemens adds: “they may benefit the workplace through their ability to ‘dream deeply’, demonstrating visionary abilities.”
Companies who embrace neurodiversity have reported impressive statistics. They are “45% more likely to report market share growth and 70% more likely to capture new markets,” Toni explains. Furthermore, she highlights the economic impact, stating, “in the UK, increasing employment rates for people with autism could add £23 billion annually to the economy.”
An increase in reputational value is also a considerable return for employers investing in a neurodiverse workforce. Hiren Shukla, Neuro-Diverse Centre of Excellence Leader at EY summarises that, “our clients want to do business with companies that do good. Candidates want to work with companies that do good.” With Gen Z and Millennial jobseekers increasingly desiring to work for organisations that are positive contributors to society, a neurodiverse hiring programme can allow employers to tap into diverse talent and receive a boost in reputation.
Further, neurodivergent employees are on average more loyal, and likely to stay at a company for longer than neurotypical workers. According to JP Morgan Chase, their Autism at Work initiative discovered that neurodiverse hires were “90% to 140% more productive than employees who had been at the company for five or 10 years”. Therefore, investing in accommodating neurodivergent workers will not only provide a positive reputational boost, but it can also create loyal, well-oiled teams that approach tasks in creative and dynamic ways.
Steps to create a supportive workplace culture
The bedrock of supportive workplace culture for neurodivergent workers is, as Pamela Furr notes in a Forbes article, to create “an open and safe environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up about their accommodations”. Key to this is ensuring employees are not penalised when asking for accommodations and that these conversations are kept confidential.
Leadership plays a pivotal role in fostering this environment. “Leadership from the front is crucial,” Toni emphasises. “When company leaders openly support and advocate for neurodiversity, it sets a powerful example for the rest of the organisation.” Leaders should be trained not only to understand neurodiversity but also to recognise and nurture the unique talents of neurodiverse employees. She notes that “by doing so, they demonstrate a commitment to inclusivity and diversity that can inspire others within the organisation”.
Businesses can consider creating their own, tailored awareness programmes for employees. For example, PWC implemented a neurodiversity interactive learning programme for all 32,640 UK employees. It “explores the topic of neurodiversity and includes bite-sized resources, as well as stories and experiences from PWC employees.” By learning from the lived experience of employees, the programme is designed to help the rest of the workforce understand neurodiversity and how they can best accommodate neurodivergent co-workers.
If an employer doesn’t have the budget for an awareness programme, inviting a neurodivergent speaker to educate staff is an option. Gaining an understanding can help avoid discriminatory scenarios, as Toni recounts a neurodivergent woman whose promotion was retracted, stating, “her employer expressed concerns that she wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure, a decision based more on stereotypes than her actual abilities and performance.”
Hope Gillett, writing for PsychCentral, discusses numerous ways employers can take steps to evolve their workplace culture to be accommodating to neurodivergent employees. From offering designated quiet areas and providing headphones to “prevent distraction or overstimulation”, to including breaks in long meetings to allow employees to “re-centre”, and “eliminating mandatory attendance at work social events”. Recognising that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to workplace culture, and adding small initiatives that appeal to neurodivergent employees may work wonders in fostering a healthy and inclusive working environment.
Inclusive hiring practices
While the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce are clear, organisations often struggle to recognise and tap into this talent pool. Toni states, “with an estimated 15-20% of the population being neurodiverse, this is a significant segment of potential talent that can contribute to various industries.” HR professionals should actively work to identify and attract neurodiverse talent, going beyond traditional recruitment channels. This can be done by engaging the local community, and partnering with groups such as “government agencies, non-profits, vocational rehab centres, educational institutions, or offices for disabilities”.
Harvard Business Review states, “the behaviours of many neurodiverse people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee”, which often includes “solid communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, salesperson-type personalities, and the ability to network”. When hiring managers adhere to the above criteria, neurodivergent employees are often at a disadvantage when applying for roles. This issue is echoed by Claire Hastwell, who notes that “many superficial norms, such as a strong handshake or looking someone in the eye, are difficult for neurodiverse individuals to perform.”
Instead, Kassandra suggests employers provide full interview information in advance for neurodiverse candidates, allowing them to prepare adequately and showcase their skills effectively. Kassandra states, “reasonable adjustments benefit everyone! When a business treats diversity as a company asset, it naturally caters to the whole workforce.”
Including task-based assessments or job trials that mirror actual job responsibilities will also allow neurodiverse individuals to adequately showcase their skills.
One interview method that can help neurodivergent jobseekers feel at ease and demonstrate their potential is discussed by Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano, entailing “comfortable gatherings, usually lasting half a day, in which neurodiverse job candidates can demonstrate their abilities in casual interactions with company managers.”
Employers should consider offering new recruits neurodiversity awareness training to allow them to get up to speed with inclusive practices. As part of this, Pamela Furr suggests including an “introduction to neurodiversity, explaining what it is and how it affects different people in different ways.” In addition, during onboarding, employers may wish to assign a mentor or buddy to help new employees navigate the workplace and understand company culture, which can be particularly beneficial for neurodivergent hires. If you’re unsure where to begin, becoming familiar with these DEI recruitment guidelines is a good starting point for employers.
Empowering neurodiversity at work involves leadership by example, inclusive policies, open dialogue, and ongoing adaptation of company processes. By embracing neurodiversity, companies not only benefit neurodiverse employees but can also enrich the entire organisation. Kassandra concludes, “creating a truly accessible work environment benefits employee retention, closes skills gaps, and prevents employee burnout.”
For HR professionals and organisations looking to be inclusive towards neurodiverse professionals, the key lies in a commitment to diverse hiring, educating employees on accommodations, and taking steps to nurture neurodivergent employees that allow them to perform at their best.