How to support employees with neurodiverse conditions

neurodiverse conditions
  • Some neurodiverse conditions can be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010, so employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments.
  • Employers can put tools in place to holistically support neurodiverse employees’ mental wellbeing.
  • Biases in performance evaluations or promotion should be removed as they are not conducive to a workplace that is fair for all employees.

Neurodiversity refers to the different ways in which people experience the world and the way they process information. The conditions that fall under the umbrella include, but are not limited to, ADHD, ADD, autism, Tourette’s, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, developmental coordination disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety and depression.

In order to fully support an employee with a neurodiverse condition, it is important that employers understand what these are and the impact they can have.

Diagnosis support

While not everyone will receive an official neurodiverse diagnosis, it does not mean that it is any less important to offer support. A diagnosis can be difficult to achieve, so employers can offer private assessments, a contribution towards costs or private medical insurance to bypass long NHS waiting lists.

Post diagnosis, employers should be understanding, supportive and remain open and communicative, says Rachel Western, principal at Aon.

“Line managers can assist employees who find it difficult to ask for help by regularly checking in and encouraging an open culture, so everyone at all levels throughout the business is aware of where to go if they need support,” she says. “Employers can also revisit the display screen equipment and workplace assessments of recently diagnosed employees, as they may no longer be effective for their working environment.”

Previously diagnosed neurodiverse champions can support by signposting relevant internal and external resources. Another example of support is sharing lived experiences, which is as important for those that have already been diagnosed as it is for those who may be waiting, says Steve Butler, chief executive officer at Punter Southall Aspire.

“It can be a challenging time and knowing there are other people in the organisation with a neurodiverse condition can be really helpful,” he explains.

Making adjustments

As some neurodiverse conditions, such as ADHD, can be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to level the playing field for disabled and non-disabled employees. Employers should ask employees what they personally require in terms of adjustments, but a flexible approach is key as change can be difficult for some.

Leanne Maskell, founder of ADHD Works, suggests providing headphones and assisted technologies such as voice dictation for those who struggle with writing.

Meanwhile, allowing employees who do not like noisy environments to work from home on busy days can help, as well as removing bright lightbulbs in an area if someone is uncomfortable and enabling them to sit at the same desk each time they come into the office, says Western.

“Employer communication can be adapted by breaking down information into smaller bite-size chunks, using different language or using a visual method instead depending on what would cause less stress,” she says.

Organisations can support neurodiverse traits in remote working, for example, by establishing structured routines that allow for flexibility when needed, and regular check-ins to help maintain team cohesion.

Employers might also consider technology and tools that assist in organising tasks, managing time and minimising distractions, says Toni Horn, neurodiversity consultant and coach at Wellness Cloud and founder of Think Differently.

“To foster a conducive work atmosphere, it’s beneficial to designate specific times during the day for uninterrupted focus, free from the expectation of immediate responses to instant messaging,” she says. “By implementing a scheduled focus block where instant messaging could be paused, employers can enable neurodiverse employees to work more efficiently and with less stress.”

Wellbeing assistance

It is important that neurodiverse employees are holistically supported in terms of their mental wellbeing. There are tools employers can put in place such as access to counselling, mental health services through provider apps, employee assistance programmes and signposting relevant resources.

“In-house training and awareness sessions for line managers and other employees about what it is and how it affects individuals are critical to understanding how neurodiversity can manifest, so they are educated on how to support varying needs,” Western says.

Employers can support employees’ mental wellbeing by fostering an inclusive culture that promotes understanding and acceptance. An internal group led by neurodivergent individuals can help staff communicate openly, exchange personal insights and connect over shared experiences.

As ADHD has only been diagnosed in UK adults since 2008, it is likely that many employees have been struggling with chronic challenges for years without understanding why, says Maskell. “Having accessible support policies that set out options and signposting towards Access to Work, the government grant of up to £65,000 per year, can help people with health conditions at work.”

Achieving a successful career

Supporting neurodiverse employees should start from the recruitment stage. Job descriptions should be flexible, adaptable and simplified, and it should be demonstrated that neurodiverse talent is welcomed. Eliminating initial job screening tests that are not designed with neurodiverse conditions in mind is crucial to ensure candidates are evaluated on an even playing field, reflecting their actual skills rather than their performance on tests that may disadvantage them from the outset.

In addition, it should be noted that during the interviewing process sometimes neurodiverse candidates will directly respond to the questions asked and interpret language literally.

Jo Berriman, workplace health consulting project leader at Mercer Marsh Benefits, suggests that employers consider including neurodiversity as part of a wider diversity, equity and inclusion policy and ask themselves: “Are we providing the recruitment teams with the tools they need to adjust the processes to be more supportive? How are you demonstrating internally and externally that you support neurodiverse talent? How are you making sure that people can access information that they might need or signposting them to information that would be important? Making sure that all the right plumbing is in place will go a long way.”

Employers must also ensure they eliminate biases in performance evaluations or promotion processes in order to foster a workplace that champions fairness for all employees.

To fully support neurodiverse employees on their career paths, it is essential to develop transparent progression frameworks attuned to their unique abilities, says Horn. “Providing feedback considerate of varying communication preferences ensures meaningful and respectful dialogue,” she says. “Tailoring career development plans to the individual’s neurodiversity is key to a trajectory that engages, challenges and grows their distinct talents.”

Other ways to support neurodiverse employees throughout their careers include ensuring objective criteria are used for assessment and promotion, and providing a mentor or additional training that can support the ease of tasks.

Christie Hedge, wellbeing expert at Willis Towers Watson, says: “Keeping employee passports that outline any notes of requirement or support needed can be shared with new line managers to avoid repeat assessments if an employee moves within the business.”

Once neurodiverse employees have been in their role for a while and are looking to progress, employers should remember that they are often not aware of career opportunities as they may struggle to understand an organisation’s structure or do not know how to network.

“To retain the talents of neurodiverse employees, employers need to understand and recognise potential barriers and, where necessary, remove them from the person’s work environment,” says Butler.

Employers are unlikely to retain a key, talented employee who happens to be neurodiverse if they do not support them. Offering a range of flexible options and frequently communicating these is vital to retaining all valuable employees.