Thinking differently: how to embrace neurodiversity and make workplaces work for all

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Up to one in five people are neurodivergent in some way, yet most workplaces and recruitment processes are designed for neurotypical staff. Creating a positive, inclusive culture and providing neurodiversity training can help break down the barriers that are holding back a pool of workers with unique talents.

Wobble seats, Loop earplugs and a standing desk are three workplace adjustments that have made a huge difference to Amy Burt’s professional life. Colleagues who understand neurodiversity have also had a positive impact, says Burt, who is awaiting a diagnosis for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“You can really tell the difference between an employer who is taking neurodiversity seriously and one who isn’t,” says Burt, a client services manager at the ADHD Foundation. “My mental health is great, I feel good, and I feel like I can be fully myself, mask off.”

The provision by her employer of a wobble seat – a flexible stool that allows the user to rock backwards and forwards and from side to side – helps Burt to “regulate and listen in long seminars or meetings”, she explains, while the noise-cancelling earplugs make it easier to concentrate in a busy office environment.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of conditions that affect the way in which a person's brain processes information. Photograph: iStock/wildpixel

Burt is fortunate to work at a charity that specialises in helping neurodivergent people, but she would like to see all employers taking steps to become more neuroinclusive.

“Every business needs to have this because for a neurodiverse person, the reason why you change jobs is that you feel like you’ve not fit in, or the manager has not met your requirements or needs,” she says.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of conditions that affect the way in which a person’s brain processes information. Alongside ADHD, conditions covered by the term include autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and Tourette’s syndrome. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 per cent of people are neurodivergent in some way, yet statistics show that they are far less likely to be in employment than their neurotypical counterparts.

Figures from the UK Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for instance, show that just 30 per cent of working-age autistic people are in employment, compared with 53.6 per cent of all disabled people and 80 per cent of non-disabled people. A government-backed review of autism in the workplace, published in February, has set out 19 recommendations aimed at boosting the autism employment rate.

The Buckland Review of Autism Employment, led by Sir Robert Buckland KC for the DWP, found that autistic people receive a third less pay than non-disabled people, on average, and face a wide range of barriers to work, including unfair hiring practices, unclear processes and outdated attitudes by employers.

The review also found that even after finding work, maintaining long-term employment remains a challenge for autistic people. Many are not aware of their legal rights around reasonable adjustments, while access to adjustments is “highly variable”, with the onus usually on the autistic employee to identify and advocate for them.

The report has called for businesses and government to work together over the next five years on initiatives aimed at “significantly improving” the autism employment rate.

Recommendations put forward by the review include working with autistic people and autism groups to create a national awareness campaign to demonstrate the benefits autistic people can bring to the workplace; developing pilot programmes of good practice with larger national or multinational organisations; and providing tailored support to help autistic staff progress their careers.

Working with autism charities to produce “autism design guides” could show employers how to create more supportive environments, says the report, while the use of charity Autistica’s Neurodiversity Employers Index would enable businesses to measure themselves against best practice and receive guidance on designing “fully inclusive processes, procedures and premises so all staff can receive the support they need, without autistic staff needing to disclose their condition”.

Organisations need to take a strategic approach that starts with a clear policy, says Jigna Patel, chief technical and operations officer at British Safety Council. Strong leadership advocating a positive culture is vital, and training must be provided for managers and other staff members. Zero tolerance of bullying and discrimination is also essential.

“Reviewing access and reasonable adjustments on everything from recruitment processes to supporting neurodiverse colleagues – including staff who, as a result of awareness creation, identify that they may be neurodiverse and require support – is key,” adds Patel. “Let’s also not forget those who are themselves supporting neurodiverse colleagues, or friends or family who may require support.”

Noise-cancelling earplugs can help employees with ADHD concentrate in a busy office environment. Photograph: Loop

Neurodiversity is “not new”, as Patel points out, but a lack of awareness in the past has meant that individuals affected by conditions covered by the umbrella term have “struggled to find ways to cope and thrive in workplaces and in society”.

She adds: “With greater awareness that every individual has a unique set of challenges and rights, amazing people and organisations – particularly charities advocating the benefits of neuroinclusivity – are breaking taboos and recognising the contribution that all individuals can make to create an environment in which everyone can thrive.”

While awareness about neurodiversity is beginning to grow, it is clear there is still a long way to go. Research carried out by Birkbeck, University of London’s Centre for Neurodiversity at Work, on behalf of the Neurodiversity in Business charity, found that while neurodivergent employees reported “remarkable abilities and work strengths”, they still faced “significant barriers” in the workplace. The researchers surveyed 990 neurodivergent employees and 127 employers between November 2022 and January 2023, and published their report in March of last year.

More than 80 per cent of the employees listed hyperfocus as a key strength, followed closely by creativity, innovative thinking and detail processing. Despite possessing these sought-after skills, however, researchers identified barriers preventing neurodivergent employees from disclosing their conditions to employers and requesting workplace adjustments.

Almost two-thirds of respondents said they feared discrimination from managers, while more than half thought they would face discrimination from colleagues, and 40 per cent said they did not feel that there were enough staff in their organisations who were knowledgeable about neurodiversity.

Professor Almuth McDowall, one of the Neurodiversity at Work report’s co-authors, tells Safety Management that she would like to see “genuine culture change” in organisations, with employers taking a holistic approach “where absolutely everyone can thrive” from the outset, rather than waiting for an employee to disclose a condition and request an adjustment.

“A lot of practice is still very compliance-based because, here in the UK, the law is fairly clear that if people declare a disability, then the organisation has to make reasonable adjustments. So, the environment has to adapt to the person rather than the person to the environment,” says Professor McDowall.

“What we are witnessing is that when people declare themselves disabled, employers will start kicking into action. A much better way would be to take a pre-emptive stance, where we think about how we can make work more neuroinclusive for everyone.”

The way in which work and organisational structures are designed needs to change, she suggests, “so that people need very few adjustments to thrive, because it’s not just about doing your own work, it’s about the culture; it’s about how we communicate with each other and being really, really clear”.

The study’s authors highlight four key priorities for improving neuroinclusivity in the workplace, starting with making wellbeing and inclusion for everyone – including neurodivergent employees – a pillar of corporate strategy. Employers should also focus on staff relationships as well as on how policies and practices can develop careers “beyond surviving, to thriving”. The effectiveness of any adjustments should be objectively evaluated, to find out what works for whom.

Survey respondents who had received adjustments from their employers said that having a flexible schedule and the ability to do some of their work from home were the most helpful changes. Having a private space to work from, when required, came next, followed by the provision of a dual-screen or reading stand, and the ability to change noise levels.

When putting workplace adjustments in place, employers should ensure they are tailored, and that training is provided to the recipient. Professor McDowall also recommends that companies provide neurodiversity training to all staff members, “so that people know when somebody is neurodivergent what that’s actually like, what phenomenal strengths they bring to the workplace and what challenges they might have”.

One company that offers neurodiversity training services and helps employers attract, recruit and integrate neurodivergent talent into their workforces is Enna. The company was founded five years ago by Emily Banks, whose father and brothers are autistic and who has ADHD herself.

“I could see some incredible skillsets but, unlike me, my brothers really struggled to find employment and to find an employer that was supportive,” says Banks. “I think because [autism] is invisible, a lot of employers don’t really know how to deal with it or how to best support it.

“With autistic people, you’ve got the need for a routine, and they might struggle with social communication or interaction. A lot of our workplaces are simply built for those who are neurotypical, which makes it very hard for those people with autism or ADHD to then fit in.”

Training is a key first step for companies seeking to become more neuroinclusive, says Banks, followed by ensuring that there is a “proper process” in place for implementing workplace adjustments.

“Simply educating your workforce on how these conditions manifest and how you can help people is a really good cultural foundation to support neurodivergent people in the workplace,” says Banks, adding that employee resource groups are also beneficial.

“If you set up a specialist employee resource group for neurodiversity, you’re joining together some really passionate people in your workplace who can help push a neurodiversity strategy forward. This can help get senior leadership buy-in,” she adds.

Employee resource groups can help push neurodiversity strategies forward. Photograph: iStock/SDI Productions

Enna works with around 300 employers on neurodiversity training and recruitment. The company is “getting busier and busier”, says Banks, suggesting that employers are beginning to take neurodiversity much more seriously than in the past.

“The movement from neurodiversity being a tick-box exercise to something employers intrinsically feel is a business imperative, is the most essential thing that can happen,” she emphasises, warning that employers risk missing out on “exceptional talent” if they don’t take steps to become more neuroinclusive.

Organisations should not fear the perceived costs of starting a journey to become more neuroinclusive – it’s probably not as expensive or complicated as they might think, and the return on investment could be high.

As Patel puts it: “Employers must not be daunted by getting it wrong or myths about costs associated with reasonable adjustment. Engaging with the workforce to identify where the greatest needs and impact can be is a significant step forward in ensuring resources go as far as possible to make a real, and often immediate, difference.”


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