Neurodiversity in the workplace
Neurodiversity is a relatively new term that you may not know much about, however, learning more about it and taking steps to better support it in the workplace can be hugely beneficial for employers and employees.
Neurodiversity is a term which refers to people who have who have dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and other neurological conditions. These are ‘spectrum’ conditions, with a wide range of characteristics, but which nevertheless share some common features in terms of how people learn and process information. Given that forms of neuro divergence are on a spectrum, and therefore have a wide range and severity of associated characteristics, it is not always obvious to employers that a particular behaviour or need arises out of the individuals condition.
Often, the individual will appear as if they are coping well, when in fact the opposite is true. It is in this way that the condition, and in particular its effects on the individual, can be disguised. This can cause problems, particularly following the recent case of City of York Council v Grosset which held that an employer would still be guilty of disability related discrimination even if it could not reasonably have been aware that a particular behaviour arose out of the employee’s disability. It is therefore important that employers of neuro-diverse employees, take steps to understand the individual’s condition as fully as possible.
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information. It highlights that people naturally think about things differently.
Most people are neurotypical, meaning that the brain functions and processes information in the way society expects. However, it is estimated that around 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently.
Most forms of neurodivergence are experienced along a 'spectrum'. Each form of neurodivergence has a range of associated characteristics and these can vary from individual to individual. For example, the effects of dyspraxia on one person can be different to another person who also has dyspraxia. The effects on the individual can also change over time.
Additionally, an individual will often have the characteristics of more than one type of neurodivergence. It is therefore important that people are not stereotyped according to the better known characteristics. For example, not all autistic people will be good at maths.
Despite this, it is still helpful to have an awareness of some of the indicative traits that each type of neurodivergence can have.
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders)
It is estimated that about 4% of the UK population have ADHD. It affects the person's ability to control attention, impulses and concentration, and can cause inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Some people have problems with attention but not the hyperactivity or impulsiveness. This is often referred to as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).
People with ADHD can often be good at completing urgent, or physically demanding tasks, pushing on through setbacks and showing a passion for their work.
Autism (which includes Asperger's Syndrome)
It is estimated that about 1 to 2% of the UK population are autistic. It impacts on how a person perceives the world and interacts with others, making it difficult for them to pick up social cues and interpret them. Social interactions can be difficult as they can have difficulty 'reading' other people and expressing their own emotions. They can find change difficult and uncomfortable.
People on the autistic spectrum are often very thorough in their work, punctual and rule observant. Many autistic people develop special interests and can hold high levels of expertise in their given topic.
It is estimated that 10% of the UK population are dyslexic. It is a language processing difficulty that can cause problems with aspects of reading, writing and spelling. They may have difficulties with processing information quickly, memory retention, organisation, sequencing, spoken language and motor skills.
People with dyslexia can often be very good at creative thinking and problem solving, story-telling and verbal communication.
Dyspraxia (also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder)
It is estimated that up to 5% of the UK population are dyspraxic. It relates to issues with physical co-ordination, and for most, organisation of thought. People with dyspraxia may appear clumsy or have speech impediments and might have difficulties with tasks requiring sequencing, structure, organisation and timekeeping.
People with dyspraxia often have good literacy skills and can be very good at creative, holistic, and strategic thinking.
There are a number of reasons why employers should be ensuring their workplaces support neurodiversity.
A more inclusive workplace
As you will see, neurodiversity is fairly common, meaning that most workplaces are already neurodiverse. Yet, there is still a lack of understanding around most forms of neurodivergence and misperceptions persist. It therefore makes sense for organisations to take steps that make their neurodivergent staff feel valued, part of the team and supported to contribute fully towards achieving the goals of the organisation.
Creating a more inclusive workplace can:
· Highlight the employer's commitment to diversity and inclusion.
· Reduce the stigma around neurodivergence.
· Make staff feel safe and empowered to disclose a neurodivergence.
· Make it more likely that neurodivergent staff will be treated fairly by their managers and colleagues.
· Open the organisation up to a pool of talent that may otherwise have been overlooked.
· Help retain skilled staff and reduce recruitment costs.
Being neurodivergent will usually amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This means the organisation has a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace and the individual's role that will remove or minimise any disadvantage to them.
Having a workplace that is set up to proactively think about what can be done to support the needs of each employee can make it much easier to identify and implement adjustments for neurodivergent staff.
Please note, a person is disabled if they have 'a physical or mental impairment' which has 'a substantial and long-term adverse effect' on their 'ability to carry out normal day to day activities'. Therefore, someone may not have been diagnosed with a neurodivergence but still be considered to have a disability under the Equality Act 2010.
Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace
While time and resource is needed to identify ways to minimise any potential difficulties, there are clear benefits and competitive advantages to having employees who think differently. Positive attributes commonly associated with neurodivergent employees include creativity and innovation, lateral thinking, strategic analysis, bringing a 'different perspective', development of highly specialised skills and consistency in tasks once mastered.
With around 15% of the UK population estimated to be neurodivergent, supporting neurodiversity within the workplace can make it easier to identify and provide the support that neurodivergent customers need too.
Make staff feel safe
Many performance issues are caused by neurodivergent employees not feeling safe to disclose it, trying to hide it and not asking for the adjustments or support they need. If staff know that the organisation is dedicated to supporting neurodiversity, then they are more likely to disclose their neurodivergence at an early stage.
If an employer can make staff feel more able to disclose, it makes it easier for them to:
· Treat each employee fairly
· Identify and implement appropriate workplace adjustments
· Tailor management and training support to better meet the needs of the employee
· Help staff flourish
· Spot issues early and resolve them before they become serious
It can be difficult for neurodivergent staff to tell their manager about it. Even if an organisation does claim to support neurodiversity, it may still take some time before they feel confident enough to disclose it and not worry about being treated differently or unfairly.
The health and well-being of staff should be important to all employers. Healthy and motivated employees are more likely to perform well, have good attendance levels and be engaged in their work. Many issues are caused by not understanding neurodivergence or how the working environment can affect neurodivergent employees. Making the workplace more accommodating and supportive can reduce much of the stress they often experience and contribute to better mental health.
Everyone is unique and so changing the workplace to better meet different needs and preferences can improve the health and well-being of all staff. While creating a workplace that supports neurodiversity is particularly important for neurodivergent employees, the actions and strategies put in place can benefit all staff and help an employer get the best out of their whole workforce.