How can employers support staff who are neurodivergent?

Need to know:

  • Neurodiversity awareness workshops can encourage employees to disclose their conditions and are a good way to start changing workplace culture.
  • Clear, unambiguous communications are important for neurodivergent employees but also benefit the wider workforce.
  • Technology such as noise-cancelling headphones and dictation software can help but employers must also rethink work events such as interviews, meetings and career progression to ensure equity.

An estimated one in seven people in the UK have neurodivergent conditions such as attention deficit disorders, autism and dyslexia. While these conditions can enhance creativity, problem solving and other capabilities, research by The Institute of Leadership and Management Workplace Neurodiversity: The power of difference, published in June 2020, found that half of leaders and managers would not employ a neurodiverse candidate.

This reluctance stems from ignorance according to Sam Hernandez, cognitive neuroscientist and leadership and diversity consultant at EW Group. “Employers aren’t being consciously discriminatory,” she says. “As a result of all the stigma surrounding these conditions, they’re just not aware of what employing a neurodivergent individual would entail. We need to start talking about equity and adapting work to fit the needs of every individual.”

Increased awareness

For many organisations, the first step to changing this is to raise awareness of neurodivergent conditions. Matt Boyd, managing director of Exceptional Individuals employment agency, says an internal workshop or webinar can make a massive difference. “Only around 1% of employees would normally disclose but, following a workshop for 30 people, it’s common for two or three to say they’ve neurodivergent,” he explains.

With the conversation started and employees comfortable to discuss neurodiversity, it’s much easier for employers to make changes to create a more inclusive workplace. Under the Equality Act, neurodivergent employees can be recognised as disabled, with employers obliged to make reasonable adjustments to remove or minimise any disadvantages. “By giving employees what they need to be successful it makes it fair and equal,” says Gareth Jones, chief executive of Headstart. “It’s much better to focus on outcomes rather than forcing everyone to do exactly the same thing.”

Workplace adjustments

Adjustments might include giving an employee more time to complete a task, or allowing them to work in a quiet space away from distractions or strong smells that could cause sensory overload. There’s also plenty of technology that can be beneficial including dictation tools, noise-cancelling headphones and smart pens that save written and audio notes.

The pandemic has also helped. Greater acceptance of home working makes it easier for organisations to flex working hours and locations to suit employees’ needs. Being able to avoid a busy commute or to work from home can be a gamechanger for some neurodivergent employees.

Clear communications are also essential. As well as ensuring that instructions and expectations are unambiguous, clarity is a must when detailing job roles. “A neurodivergent employee can find it harder to navigate through an organisation and understand the career structure,” says Steve Butler, chief executive of Punter Southall Aspire and author of Inclusive culture: Leading change across organisations and industries. “Employers should clearly document roles, outlining the skills required,” he says. “This helps a neurodivergent employee understand what’s expected but it’s also good business practice.”

The recruitment process may also require attention. “Using different wordings in a job advertisement or recruitment website can make a big difference,” says Hernandez. “By stating the organisation’s commitment to neurodiversity, it sends out a strong signal that everyone is welcome.”

The interview process can represent a hurdle for some neurodivergent candidates. “Someone with autism might struggle with eye contact in an interview,” explains Boyd. “Employers need to ask themselves whether being able to perform in an interview is actually something that’s important for the role.”

Instead, he recommends that employers consider initiatives such as video CVs, allowing extra time for aptitude tests, and providing audio questions rather than written ones. Butler agrees. He recommends providing questions ahead of an interview, or before meetings, to enable employees to prepare.

Huge strides have already been made in gender and race equality and Hernandez believes that neurodiversity will be the next area for change. “Neurodivergent people have incredible skills,” she adds. “Creating a more diverse workforce that allows these employees to play to their strengths will benefit everyone.”