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Neurodiversity in the workplace

Neurodiversity is a relatively new term that many people may not yet know much about. However, learning more about neurodiversity and taking steps to better support it in workplaces can be hugely beneficial for employers and employees.

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information. It highlights that people naturally think about things differently. We have different interests and motivations, and are naturally better at some things and poorer at others.

Most people are neurotypical, meaning that the brain functions and processes information in the way society expects.

However it is estimated that around 1 in 7 people (more than 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently. Neurodivergence includes Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia.

Types of neurodivergence

Most forms of neurodivergence are experienced along a 'spectrum'. Each form of neurodivergence (such as dyslexia and autism) has a range of associated characteristics and these can vary from individual to individual. For example, the effects of dyspraxia on one person can be different to another person who also has dyspraxia. The effects on the individual can also change over time.

Additionally, an individual will often have the characteristics of more than one type of neurodivergence.

It is therefore important that people are not stereotyped according to the better known characteristics. For example, not all autistic people will be good at maths.

Despite this, it is still helpful to have an awareness of some of the indicative traits that each type of neurodivergence can have:

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders)

It is estimated that about 4% of the UK population have ADHD. It affects the person's ability to control attention, impulses and concentration, and can cause inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Some people have problems with attention but not the hyperactivity or impulsiveness. This is often referred to as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

People with ADHD can often be good at completing urgent, or physically demanding tasks, pushing on through set-backs and showing a passion for their work.

Kate Gilbert from Genius Within talks about how her ADHD is supported at work



Autism (which includes Asperger's Syndrome)

It is estimated that about 1-2% of the UK population are autistic. It impacts how a person perceives the world and interacts with others, making it difficult for them to pick up social cues and interpret them. Social interactions can be difficult as they can have difficulty 'reading' other people and expressing their own emotions. They can find change difficult and uncomfortable.

People on the autistic spectrum are often very thorough in their work, punctual and rule observant. Many autistic people develop special interests and can hold high levels of expertise in their given topic.

Luca Borrelli from @GSTTnhs talks about being autistic in the workplace



Dyslexia

It is estimated that 10% of the UK population are dyslexic. It is a language processing difficulty that can cause problems with aspects of reading, writing and spelling. They may have difficulties with processing information quickly, memory retention, organisation, sequencing, spoken language and motor skills.

People with dyslexia can often be very good at creative thinking and problem solving, story-telling and verbal communication.

NHS nurse Tamara Thomas talks about how her Dyslexia is supported at work



Dyspraxia (also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder)

It is estimated that up to 5% of the UK population are dyspraxic. It relates to issues with physical co-ordination, and for most, organisation of thought. People with dyspraxia may appear clumsy or have speech impediments and might have difficulties with tasks requiring sequencing, structure, organisation and timekeeping.

People with dyspraxia often have good literacy skills and can be very good at creative, holistic, and strategic thinking.

Fundraiser Jonathan Levy talks about how he is supported at work

Other forms of neurodivergence include Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, and Tourette's syndrome. Like other forms of neurodivergence, these bring strengths as well as difficulties.

Why should employers be taking steps to support neurodiversity in their workplace?

There are a number of reasons why employers should be ensuring their workplaces support neurodiversity.

Make the workplace more inclusive

Neurodivergence is fairly common, so most workplaces are already neurodiverse. Yet, there is still a lack of understanding around most forms of neurodivergence, and misperceptions persist. It therefore makes sense for organisations to take steps that make their neurodivergent staff feel valued, part of the team and supported to contribute fully towards achieving the goals of the organisation.

Creating a more inclusive workplace can:

  • highlight the employer's commitment to diversity and inclusion
  • reduce the stigma around neurodivergence
  • make staff feel safe and empowered to disclose a neurodivergence
  • make it more likely that neurodivergent staff will be treated fairly by their managers and colleagues
  • open the organisation up to a pool of talent that may otherwise have been overlooked
  • help retain skilled staff and reduce recruitment costs.

Remember, everyone is different. While creating a workplace that supports neurodiversity is particularly important for neurodivergent employees, the actions and strategies put in place can benefit all staff and help an employer get the best out of their whole workforce.

Comply with legal obligations

Being neurodivergent will usually amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This means the organisation has a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace and the individual's role that will remove or minimise any disadvantage to them.

Having a workplace that is set up to proactively think about what can be done to support the needs of each employee can make it much easier to identify and implement adjustments for neurodivergent staff.

Remember, a person is disabled if they have 'a physical or mental impairment' which has 'a substantial and long-term adverse effect' on their 'ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities'. Therefore, someone may not have been diagnosed with a neurodivergence but still be considered to have a disability under the Equality Act 2010.

Create a more resilient and competitive organisation

While some time and resource is needed to identify ways to minimise any potential difficulties, there are clear benefits and competitive advantages to having employees who think differently. Positive attributes commonly associated with neurodivergent employees include:

  • creativity and innovation
  • lateral thinking
  • strategic analysis
  • bringing a 'different perspective'
  • development of highly specialised skills
  • consistency in tasks once mastered.

Remember, around 15% of the UK population is estimated to be neurodivergent. Supporting neurodiversity within the workplace can make it easier to identify and provide the support that neurodivergent customers need too.

Improve health and well-being across the organisation

The health and well-being of staff should be important to employers. Healthy and motivated employees are more likely to perform well, have good attendance levels and be engaged in their work. Many issues are caused by not understanding neurodivergence or how the working environment can affect neurodivergent employees. Making the workplace more accommodating and supportive can reduce much of the stress they often experience and contribute to better mental health.

Remember, everyone is unique and so changing the workplace to better meet different needs and preferences can improve the health and well-being of all staff.

Make staff feel safe to disclose and seek support

Many performance issues are caused by neurodivergent employees not feeling safe to disclose it, trying to hide it and not asking for the adjustments or support they need. If staff know that the organisation is dedicated to supporting neurodiversity, then they are more likely to disclose their neurodivergence at an early stage. If an employer can make staff feel more able to disclose, it makes it easier for them to:

  • treat each employee fairly
  • identify and implement appropriate workplace adjustments
  • tailor management and training support to better meet the needs of the employee
  • help staff flourish
  • spot issues early and resolve them before they become serious.

Remember, it can be difficult for neurodivergent staff to tell their manager about it. Even if an organisation does claim to support neurodiversity, it may still take some time before they feel confident enough to disclose it and not worry about being treated differently or unfairly.

Employers: Changing your workplace to better support neurodiversity

It can be difficult knowing what to do or where to start when first considering how to better support neurodiversity in the workplace. Employers should ask themselves some key questions that will help them identify what actions they can take to improve their workplaces.

For more information, go to Employers: Changing your workplace to better support neurodiversity.

Managers: Managing staff with ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and other forms of neurodivergence

When a manager becomes aware that a team member is neurodivergent, they may be unsure about what to do and how best to support them.

Managers should focus on identifying what they can do to provide their team member with the support and guidance they need to perform at their best and ensure they are treated fairly if any issues arise.

For more information, go to Managers: Managing staff with ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and other forms of neurodivergence.

Employees: Working when neurodivergent

Neurodivergent employees should feel supported and valued by their employer. Knowing what their rights and responsibilities are in the workplace can help to ensure that they are treated fairly by their employer.

For more information, go to Employees: Working when neurodivergent.

Research and case studies

pdf icon Neurodiversity at work [619kb] looks at the impact neurodiversity can have on workplace relations and seeks to identify policies and practices which help neurodivergent people find work and flourish.

It is based on the case studies of two organisations who are good practice employers in many ways, coupled with expert testimony from a number practitioners operating in the field.

This guidance has been produced with contributions from Dr Nancy Doyle and the Neurodiversity and Employment Working Group, British Psychological Society; the British Dyslexia Association and the Dyspraxia Foundation.
 
We would like to thank all those who assisted in the development of the guidance.