How to make the workplace more understanding of neurodiversity

With a continuing focus on making workplaces more diverse and inclusive in order to support and grow a workforce that is made up of individuals from all walks of life, we take a look at how businesses can be more understanding of neurodiversity.

What do we mean by neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is the name given to the difference in how an individual’s brain works and interprets information, in comparison to those who are “neurotypical” and react in the way society expects them to. Neurological conditions which are commonly understood as making individuals “neurodiverse” are autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It is estimated that 15% of the UK’s population is neurodiverse, whether or not they have been diagnosed with a recognised neurological condition, which means it is highly likely that companies will be employing individuals who are classed as neurodivergent.

Why does it matter?

As neurodiversity affects the brain and its interpretation of information, this can have a significant impact on how an individual interprets communication, physical contact, noise, light, sights, etc. These are all critical parts of the workplace and the working environment, from speaking to colleagues, to carrying out work in a noisy open plan office.

Creating a more understanding workplace is also likely to help attract, and retain, employees who are neurodivergent. As well as helping to create a workforce that is diverse and inclusive, and all the resulting benefits of doing so, neurodiversity is recognised as causing certain individuals to have higher levels of innovation, be able to think creatively or more laterally than others, to analyse strategically, and to develop highly specialised skills in comparison to neurotypical individuals.

It is important to remember that neurological conditions are recognised as “spectrum” conditions, meaning one person with autism may be affected differently to an autistic colleague based on where they fall within the spectrum. It is key, therefore, that assumptions are not made or stereotypes are not held, for example, that all autism employees are capable of lateral thinking. While some characteristics may be shared by neurodivergent employees, each individual will be impacted slightly differently than their colleague.

Creating an aware and inclusive workplace

Identifying those who are neurodiverse is not as straightforward as identifying other management areas, for example those who have high levels of absence or those who appear to be suffering from work-related stress. It will not be appropriate, at any time, for a manager to approach an individual and comment that they have seen certain indicators of neurodiversity or a particular neurological condition.

To be able to provide appropriate and necessary support to neurodiverse employees, it is crucial to create a work environment where employees feel able to speak to their manager about their neurodivergence. This will be helped by creating an understanding and aware environment, through actions such as:

  • ensuring managers are provided with training on managing and supporting neurodiverse employees at work

  • covering neurodiversity and the commitment towards creating a supportive workplace in internal policies, such as harassment, workplace behaviour, or a stand-alone neurodiversity policy

  • raising awareness of neurodiversity across the workforce, including arranging awareness days or training to help educate all members of staff

  • creating a support network for neurodiverse employees and ensuring that this network is provided with suitable tools, including the ability to signpost employees to additional appropriate support

  • implementing a neurodiversity taskforce or lead who is responsible for acting on neurodiversity and ensuring that the workforce is meeting their inclusivity commitment.

With the right culture and environment in place, neurodiverse employees are likely to feel more comfortable and confident with approaching their managers, whether to disclose their neurodivergence or to discuss appropriate support. Other forms of encouragement of disclosure can be used as would be carried out when asking about physical disabilities, such as amending medical questionnaires to ask for disclosure of physical and mental conditions including neurodivergence, or using the neurodiversity policy to encourage open disclosure and remind employees that they will not be put at a detriment if they make this disclosure.

Making suitable workplace adjustments

Neurodiverse individuals will be protected against discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 as neurodivergence will meet the definition of a disability, ie a mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Therefore, employers will have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to reduce, or remove, substantial disadvantages faced by neurodiverse employees, when compared to neurotypical colleagues. Due to the differing impact of neurodivergence on each individual, it will be best practice to meet with each employee to discuss the necessary adjustments they need which will be most effective at addressing the disadvantage. Some common examples of reasonable adjustments include the following.

  • Amending recruitment tests, such as psychometric testing or hypothetical questions, to allow for written responses to specific questions to be submitted.

  • Ensuring job descriptions clearly set out the duties and responsibilities of the role so the employee knows what is expected of them.

  • Clearly outlining tasks and expected deadlines so there is clarity over carrying out work duties.

  • Amending duties or working hours to ensure these are suitable for the employee, eg earlier working hours may provide quieter times within the office to carry out work.

  • Providing visible and easy-to-follow instruction sheets for workplace equipment, such as laptops, printers, scanners, etc.

There are also workplace alterations that employers can make to better support their neurodiverse employees, with some of these potentially falling within the reasonable adjustment duty, as neurodivergent individuals can be detrimentally affected by factors such as noise and sights of the environment they are in. These changes may include the following.

  • Introducing quiet working hours, or working periods, where noise is kept to a minimum.

  • Allowing segregation to take place in open plan offices through the use of dividers or providing separate “quiet” desks or offices.

  • Ensuring workplace notice boards or wall presentations are not cluttered and do not contain clashing or vibrant images and colours.

  • Allowing noise cancellation equipment, such as headphones or earplugs, to be used by employees.

Small changes to the workplace and increasing awareness is likely to create a more understanding and accepting workplace for neurodiverse employees, helping to recruit and retain those who will lead towards a more diverse and inclusive team.