Neurodiversity in the workplace

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The term ‘neurodivergent’ was first conceived back in the late 1990s by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, to promote inclusivity and equality of ‘neurological minorities’. It encompasses a range of conditions including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism.

Until the last few years, the term ‘neurodivergent’ and the understanding of neurodiversity was still not widely known, but this has changed in the last couple of years with the spotlight shone on the condition via, like many things nowadays, social media and a more open and inclusive society giving people suffering from the condition the confidence to speak about their experiences.

Type ‘ADHD’ into TikTok for example and you’ll find thousands of videos discussing various ADHD symptoms, which commonly include difficulty in regulating emotions, impulsivity and difficulty concentrating on tasks.

While some have turned to ‘self-diagnosis’ of neurodivergent conditions based on watching these videos, there is an increase in the number of adults being medically diagnosed. For example, several high-profile celebrities, such as Johnny Vegas and Sue Perkins, have recently spoken out about their own ADHD diagnoses. Having people in the public eye speak out about conditions they live with can make others feel less isolated when it comes to speaking out themselves, which in turn will hopefully make employees more open with their employers about the support they may need.

Unlike a physical condition, neurodivergence can be hard to detect unless an employee specifically seeks a diagnosis, which even then can be difficult to obtain. Therefore, considering how to proactively approach this in your workplace to ensure neurodivergent employees can thrive is incredibly important.

Top tips for the workplace

Working arrangements

A common symptom for neurodivergent people can be sensitivity to sensory input, for example, background noise, kitchen smells and ‘water cooler’ small talk. While equipment such as noise cancelling headphones, screen dividers, etc. may go some way to alleviating these issues, considering a neurodivergent employee’s working pattern may also help. Examples include:

  • allowing them to work from home (either permanently or as part of a hybrid working pattern);
  • giving them their own allocated desk when they are in the office, rather than hot desking, so they have their own space that they’re familiar with and comfortable in;
  • allowing flexible start/ finish times to avoid a commute during rush hour;
  • creating spaces in the office for deep work with no interruptions; and
  • creating protected periods of the day or days of the week where no Teams meetings/ calls are scheduled (incidentally, some employers are adopting this for all employees). 

Dress code

For those jobs that don’t require a uniform, consider whether the traditional ‘office wear’ dress code is really necessary.

Although the pandemic helped shift wardrobes from suits and work dresses to more casual clothing, with the increase in employers pushing a return to the office, there is a danger of automatically slipping back into a more formal way of dressing. Wearing comfortable attire can again assist with sensitivity to sensory input, meaning employees feel more relaxed at work and are able to perform better.

Application processes

Don’t limit your proactive approach to existing employees only, but also consider those potential employees you are looking to recruit. Interviews can be a daunting process for many, but particularly for those who are neurodivergent who may feel additional pressure. Adjustments you could make include:

  • providing interview questions ahead of the interview – although this goes against the ‘traditional’ method of an interview, it allows an employee to properly prepare and put forward their ‘best self’ (again, some employers are doing this for all candidates as not everyone performs best in an exam-style Q&A setting);
  • re-wording your typical interview questions – often competency-based questions are multi-faceted which can be difficult to process, so consider simplifying the questions asked or making it more conversational; and
  • if an interviewee asks you to rephrase a question or needs more time to think of a response, don’t automatically assume it is because they can’t deal with the pressure.

Provide training on neurodiversity

Given that a formal diagnosis can be difficult to obtain, many have preconceived conceptions of what having a neurodivergent condition means. For example, ADHD can be traditionally associated with ‘hyperactive children’. This is stereotypical and unhelpful. Providing training on neurodiversity and making it available to all staff or having safe spaces/ forums for those to discuss their own neurodivergent conditions and symptoms can reduce the stigma. It can also lead to new ideas about how the workplace can be best set up to support those with neurodivergent conditions.

These ‘top tips’ don’t necessarily just benefit neurodivergent employees, but all employees within an organisation. Often these small changes are simple and cost effective to implement, but the difference it can make to help someone feel more comfortable in the workplace (in turn, improving retention) can be invaluable.

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