Neurodiversity at work
As the benefits of increasing diversity across the workforce gain traction, some forward-thinking employers are starting to consider how to harness the talents of people who may be highly skilled or have a lot to offer, but find it hard to function well in traditional workplaces. Specifically, they are looking at how to welcome people who think differently into their work space – not only to diversify the melting pot, but to benefit from their considerable skills.
‘Neurodiversity’ embraces people on the autistic spectrum, along with others with conditions such as ADHD, Tourette syndrome and those with more ‘traditional’ mental health conditions such as bi-polar disorder, and a tendency towards depression and anxiety. People with those conditions may tend to behave differently from others in terms of sociability, attention and mood, along with other mental functions.
It’s well known that some people on the autistic spectrum, for example, have excellent IT skills, though many struggle if a particular job also requires copious communication and team working skills. So, it’s important for employers to separate out the skillset required for each job. But if you advertise for a pure IT role, say, and a neurodiverse person turns out to be the best person for that job, it’s in everyone’s interests that they should be the one hired. The issue then becomes one of how best to support them and harness their talents, whilst minimising the risks posed by their vulnerabilities. What is clear, is that finding a way to do so can be beneficial for all.
If you decide to hire a neurodivergent employee, it’s worth being aware that there may be provisions in some countries to help. In the Netherlands, in certain circumstances, the employer will not be obliged to pay salary in the case of illness, as it will be covered by social benefits. There are also subsidies the employer can apply for, such as compensation for adjusting the working space. If you are aware of a person’s neurodiversity at the start of employment, it’s also a good idea to document the health status of that individual, so it’s clear how far a condition pre-exists at hiring.
But all this involves both an individual and an organisational approach. At the organisational level, the leadership needs to promote a healthy working environment and line managers also need to look at people on an individual level, in terms of how to reduce their particular risk of overload.
If you are thinking of encouraging neurodiversity in your workplace, there are a number of ways in which to do so. To begin with, the recruitment process itself is key. You should make sure to use inclusive language in your advertising, carefully checking also for any unconscious biases that might otherwise creep in. Be bold and make it clear that your organisation welcomes neurodiverse candidates and at the same time, make sure your interviewing methods bring out the best from all candidates.
Use of language is key, both in recruitment and afterwards, but can also involve something of a balancing act. It is fine to use the term ‘neurodiversity’ in your training programmes for new employees, for example, but you should avoid overusing it, so that people don’t start to feel self-conscious.
Make sure senior leadership are on board with the new drive. If the message does not come from the top, it will not be absorbed within the culture of the organisation and neurodiverse members of staff will not feel comfortable opening up and sharing their experiences or their take on the world with colleagues.
Good and regular communication between neurodiverse employees and their line managers will be key to keeping everything on track and helping to ensure that issues don’t build up. This is, of course, the same for any employee, but may be particularly important for neurodiverse employees. Appraisals are part of this, and may need to be tailored to ensure the performance measures used are suitable for neurodiverse employees and are set up to get the best out of everyone. They may need to be devised on an individual basis.
It may be sensible also to provide awareness training every so often to all employees, to ensure that the leadership messages about tolerance and diversity (of all kinds) properly infiltrate the workplace. The training should include help with understanding the different ways of thinking and different approaches to work that neurodiverse colleagues may have. And training should not be restricted to any particular department or type or level of employee, because, to make them stick, these messages should be embedded in the whole of the organisation.
If you have an occupational doctor or nurse (which is more common in some parts of the world than others), make sure neurodiverse employees are on their radar and that they are on hand to help them, as and when they need it, based on their particular condition.
Of course, as with all aspects of HR management, COVID-19 throws up a particular set of challenges. In terms of longer term working from home, one issue that affects all employees, but may represent specific challenges for neurodiverse employees is ensuring good mental health. Communication is key and line managers play a vital role in ensuring this is frequent and detailed enough to enable them to spot difficulties emerging. With the gradual return to work, it is important to provide clear instructions and assurances that what is planned is safe and secure for all. This advice is no different for any of your employees, but may be particularly important for some neurodivergent employees. If any of your neurodivergent workforce express concerns or fears about any aspects of the return to work, you should consider allowing them to continue to work from home, if their job allows it.
It is always important to ensure you plan any major changes to the workplace that will affect everyone and communicate them well in advance, as different people will deal better or worse with change. So, for example, when you design a new workplace or refurbish an old one (including to accommodate COVID), it’s as well to be aware of some features that may play better or worse with your range of employees, For example, open plan offices may not suit neurodivergent employees as well as more enclosed or secluded spaces. Quieter areas and private offices, if available, work well, as does allowing for headphones or earplugs. Similarly, bright office lights can be distracting and contribute to sensory overload, whereas natural light plays well. Swapping bright overhead office lights for desk lamps that mimic natural light can also work. If you have some scope (perhaps depending on your brand colours), lower-stimulant colours on walls and office furnishings may be more relaxing for some people. If you have a hot-desking system, you might nevertheless find ways in which people can organise their personal space, such as trays and filing drawers. Common equipment such as tablets with self-organisation apps and desk filing trays could also be made available on demand for those who want them. If you are purchasing new equipment, clear, visible instructions help everyone, but particularly, for example, those with dyspraxia.
Overall, be aware of the need to rethink aspects of office life that you might once have taken for granted and considered axiomatic. And if you are unsure what those might be – just ask your employees. They will appreciate having their views taken into account.