Neurodiversity is a somewhat new term in the workplace. Many may have heard the phrase but not fully understood its implications in the business world. This blog aims to shed some light on the topic by giving an explanation of what neurodiversity is, the benefits of a neurodiverse workplace, and finish with some practical ways you can make your organisation more neurodivergent accessible. By the conclusion, you will have hopefully gained some new knowledge on the subject and understood how your business can be more inclusive of a neurodiverse workforce.
What is Neurodiversity?
The term neurodiversity was coined as part of a growing movement fighting toward greater equality and acceptance for neurodiverse people in larger society, it is defined in the dictionary as: ‘the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population.’ A broad definition, neurodiverse individuals span across those on the autistic spectrum, as well as those with dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and a range of other conditions. It is reported that around 1 in 7 people, or 15% of the UK population are neurodivergent, which means that most large organisations may already have neurodivergent members on their team. Despite the prevalence of neurodiversity within society, whilst the large majority of organisations have some sort of diversity action plan in place, only 7% of organisations globally have expanded this to specifically address neurodiverse talent.
Increasingly, charities such as Scope are turning away from the medical model of disability and toward the social model of disability. This model states that individuals are disabled not by their impairments or differences, but rather by barriers in society. For example, a disabled person unable to use stairs may not be able to access a building with steps. The social model recognises that this is an issue with the building, rather than with the person themselves. By using this model, there is room for proactive suggestions; to add ramps or lifts in order to improve the accessibility of the building.
However, despite 77% of autistic adults stating that they want to enter the workplace, only 21.7% are in full-time employment. Amongst disability employment rates, it comes as no surprise that people with autism have some of the highest rates of unemployment. The cost of lost autistic talent alone is estimated to be around £13.7 billion annually within the UK, adjusted for inflation. With talent shortages being particularly high in the technology industry, an industry that prizes skills in which neurodiverse candidates often excel, adapting your workplace to be more inclusive of neurodivergent candidates could be a solution to plugging these gaps.
The benefits of having a neurodiverse workplace
Hiring neurodiverse talent is more than a social responsibility; it has tangible benefits for your organisation. Neurodiverse people, by definition, think differently. It is this precise diversity of thought and perspective that is shown to lead to significant innovation within an organisation, enabling a competitive edge.
Organisations such as JPMorgan Chase, SAP, EY, and the Australian Defence Force have already been reporting great results from their neurodiversity schemes. Studies have shown that neurodiverse individuals, particularly people with autism, can demonstrate hyperfocus for repetitive tasks which can be sustained for above-average periods of time, as well as enhanced pattern recognition skills and the ability to recognise irregularities better than most neurotypical people. This is shown in the huge success of the Australian Defence Force recruitment drive that focuses on talent on the autistic spectrum. Similarly, Hewlett Packard Enterprise have reported that their neurodiverse testing teams are around 30% more productive than their neurotypical colleagues, with one of their neurodivergent employees spotting a technical fix worth $40 million (£29.8 million) in savings. SAP have also reported increased productivity, greater creative innovation, and a boost in employee engagement throughout the organisation.
However, autistic people represent a broad range of thinking styles and organisations should be wary of falling into narrow perceptions based on stereotypes. For example, though many people with autism do excel in technology-based roles, there are many others that excel in different areas such as customer service, creativity, and writing. Similarly, despite pervading stereotypes that those with autism lack social skills, many individuals on the autistic spectrum demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence and empathy, although some may find it more difficult to express these feelings than neurotypical people.
Dyslexia, which has long been linked with entrepreneurship, also represents a range of benefits to the workplace. Many dyslexic individuals are known for creativity, innovation, and robust quantitative reasoning skills, all skills that are highly sought after. Through introducing support for employees with dyslexia, such as mind-mapping software, dictation tools, and access to an occupational health coach, Deloitte optimises the productivity of these employees and creates an environment in which they are able to utilise and nurture their different styles of thinking.
Similarly, individuals with ADHD, sometimes known as ADHDers, often demonstrate a range of valuable skills to the modern workplace. Despite preconceptions that reinforce negative stereotypes of ADHD, such as the notion that they are unable to focus, people with ADHD are in fact able to demonstrate hyperfocus when completing tasks that are sufficiently stimulating. In addition, ADHDers are also known for ease of composure in high stress or uncertain situations which neurotypicals may find overwhelming, as well as calculated risk-taking, multi-tasking, and insightfulness. Simple adjustments, such as offering assistance with priority and goal setting, as well as allowing short breaks for a change of scene are shown to boost productivity across all employees, not just those with ADHD.
It is also worthwhile to consider that not all neurodivergent individuals will have a formal diagnosis, this is particularly applicable to those from ethnic minority groups, women, and older individuals. As such, greater support and awareness surrounding neurodiversity in the workplace can benefit a larger number of employees than might be expected and can encourage greater strategies to improve productivity and wellbeing across the board.
Furthermore, in Glassdoor’s 2020 survey, 76% of job seekers cited workplace diversity as an important factor in deciding whether or not to work with an organisation, so greater inclusion and acceptance of neurodiversity within the workplace can help to make your organisation more attractive to neurotypical candidates too. By failing to adopt a strategy addressing neurodiversity, could your company be missing out on some of the best talent?
How this can be implemented – some simple ways to create a neurodiverse workplace
In a 2020 survey by O2, 81% of neurodiverse talent felt that there was an opportunity for better support at the workplace. Furthermore, 75% of those with a neurodiverse condition want to be actively involved in raising awareness within the workplace. With neurodiversity spanning such a large range of thinking styles, having open conversations with neurodiverse employees about how you can best support them personally is a great place to start becoming a more inclusive employer that is attentive to individual needs.
The large majority of workplace adjustments for neurodivergent employees have little to no cost, and funding can often be secured through government schemes and supported by non-profit organisations. It can be as simple as allowing employees to wear headphones to minimise overstimulation, offering consistent short breaks for those that struggle to maintain concentration, or offering job role flexibility in order to maximise individual strengths. In addition, many of these workplace adjustments have been shown to benefit employees across the board. For example, Reach reported that neurodivergent employees often require more direct communication, which has been shown to aid communication throughout the whole organisation.
Traditional hiring has been shown to systematically screen out neurodiverse talent, who may struggle to maintain eye contact, be prone to conversational tangents, or have experienced discrimination during past interviews. Discuss with candidates how best to adjust your interview process to accommodate their individual needs and tailor accordingly. For example, SAP swaps traditional interviews for informal ‘hangouts’ which last half a day and allow neurodiverse candidates to demonstrate skills and ability in a more relaxed setting. Other organisations have utilised unconscious bias training which can help hiring managers recognise their own unconscious prejudices, whilst others have found success with detailing that they are an inclusive employer on job descriptions, which encourages neurodiverse candidates to apply.
When working on job advertisements, consider ensuring that the language is concise and avoids jargon. Uptimize suggests demarcating job descriptions into ‘must-have’ and ‘nice-to-have’ skills and experience, and to avoid stressing the likes of ‘excellent communication skills’ as vital if it isn’t completely integral to the role – this can dissuade potential neurodivergent candidates from applying, who may be very literal thinkers or lack confidence in their own abilities due to bad prior experience. When reviewing applications, try to prevent punishing candidates for lack of work experience, as many may have struggled with unsympathetic employers, and being overly critical of grammatical and errors could screen out dyslexic talent. Auticon, an IT consultancy, emphasise the issues with traditional and inflexible approaches; ‘Most organisations focus a lot on CVs and interviews. This places a big focus on what people have been doing in the past and their social skills or ability to sell their skills in an interview setting. In many cases, however, social skills may not even be crucial for the role – for example, you may risk turning down a brilliant data analyst for the lack of a skill that isn’t even relevant to the role.’
When a neurodiverse candidate starts at your organisation, consider tailoring your induction process to better suit their individual needs. This could include introducing workspace preference questionnaires, taking time to clarify workplace conventions, and assigning ‘mentors’ or ‘buddies’ to help with the transition, offering advice and support. Raising awareness amongst existing employees can aid to establish an etiquette, which can be vital in understanding how to respond when a colleague discloses as neurodivergent and ensuring that team meetings and interactions are inclusive to any neurodivergent employees. Some individuals may prefer not to disclose any neurodiversity which is why it is important to ensure that workplace practices are inclusive to all.
Hopefully, this blog has given you some useful and practical information to take away on neurodiversity. It’s clear that creating a neurodiverse workplace can actually improve your organisation’s capabilities and that there are simple ways for a business to make sure they are more inclusive in the future. If you would like to read more of our blogs and resources please visit the iThink hub, make sure you sign up to be updated with any new content!
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