Understanding Neurodiversity in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers
With a growing understanding of the many different ways our brains can work, it's becoming increasingly clear that traditional approaches to hiring, managing, and supporting employees may not be the most effective.
To truly unlock the potential of a diverse workforce, we need to embrace the concept of neurodiversity - recognising and valuing the unique strengths and perspectives that come with a range of cognitive styles.
In this guide, we'll explore what neurodiversity is, why it matters, and how employers can create more inclusive and supportive workplaces for all.
Understanding Neurodiversity at Work
Neurodiversity or Neurodivergence?
'Neurodiversity' is the concept that all of our brains work in different ways. For at least 20% of the UK’s adult population, this means that they may be diagnosed with conditions such as autism spectrum condition (ASC), dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory processing disorder, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and Tourettes. A group of people can be described as ‘neurodiverse’.
The term ‘Neurodivergent’ is used to describe an individual who has a condition that means they think, behave, and learn differently from what is ‘typical’. Being neurodivergent should not be considered as ‘something wrong’, but simply a difference in the way we process the world.
This image summarises how we should use language relating to neurodiversity. [Credit @scrappapertiger]
Although each condition comes with common traits, most neurodivergent conditions have a spectrum, meaning that the way a person experiences them, and the impact they have, will vary. The age that someone was diagnosed, and the support they have received to manage their condition will also have an impact on the individual. It is also common for someone to be diagnosed with more than one condition.
Why should employers take notice?
1 in 7 people in the UK is thought to be neurodivergent. While work can cause challenges for those who are neurodivergent, and they may often require additional support, employers are becoming increasingly more aware of the value neurodivergent people can add to organisations. Some organisations actively target neurodivergent candidates, as they recognise the value that neurodiversity can bring to specific areas of work.
It's also important to note that neurodivergent conditions are recognised as disabilities and therefore protected under the Equality Act 2010. This means that employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure equitable access to opportunities at work.
Reasonable Adjustments for Neurodivergent Employees (and free workplace adjustments plan template)
When an employee tells you they are neurodivergent
It is helpful to have resources and signposting information available to employees about neurodiversity and specific conditions where possible. Usually, the first step will be for them to speak to their GP, who can refer them for assessment. In the UK, it is usual for there to be a lengthy wait for NHS diagnosis, and the cost of a private diagnosis can be from £1,000 to £3,000, which can be even higher for individuals that are being assessed for more than one condition.
One of the most impactful ways that you might be able to support an employee at this stage is by providing financial support to help them pursue a private diagnosis.
The first thing to remember is that every individual is the expert in how their own condition impacts them, and managers should therefore work collaboratively with individuals to explore what support and adjustments might be beneficial, rather than offering a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Those that are newly diagnosed, or aren’t sure what adjustments might work best for them, may also need external support to identify their needs and explore options, such as a workplace assessment or coaching. Access to Work may be able to provide support and funding for this, as well as private specialists.
A Workplace Adjustments Plan can be a helpful tool for managers and employees in agreeing how to approach support and adjustments at work. This can cover things such as how their condition affects them at work, what adjustments they might need to their working environment, additional equipment or technology they might need, how they prefer to be communicated with, changes to systems and processes, and options for flexible working.
There is lots of information available listing a range of ideas for suitable, but remember there is no one size fits all approach, and what works for one person, won’t necessarily be helpful for another.
The Government’s Access to Work Scheme can provide guidance to both individuals and employers on support in the workplace, as well as funding for training, support, and equipment. You may want to consider supporting individuals in exploring what they may be eligible for, as part of a reasonable adjustments plan.
A Workplace Adjustments Plan should be reviewed regularly – particularly during periods of change, such as a new role, responsibilities, manager, or work location.
What to do if you think someone may be neurodivergent, but they haven’t told you
There may be situations where you think an employee is displaying traits of a neurodivergent condition, but they haven’t mentioned it. Usually, this will crop up when you already have concerns about someone’s well-being, attitude, or work.
It’s important to recognise that it is not a Manager’s role to ‘diagnose’ any condition, but there are some things you can do:
Be open, honest, and unambiguous around any engagement, performance, or conduct concerns in 1-1s
Ask similar questions in 1-1s that you would ask if completing reasonable adjustments plan e.g. Are they facing any barriers in performing their role?
Ensure that the organisation is clear on its commitment to inclusion, making sure there is awareness raised among employees about neurodiversity and the support the organisation offers.
Provide resources and signposting information on the intranet or shared drives on neurodivergent conditions.
Make sure that employees are aware that any disclosures of disability or neurodiversity will be treated confidentially if they wish.
Inclusive Communication and Management for Neurodivergent Colleagues
Getting Induction and Onboarding Right
It can be challenging for anyone that’s starting a new job, and neurodivergent individuals are no exception. Some conditions can impact a person’s ability to cope with change, adapt to new routines, systems and processes, and navigate new social interactions.
If you know that someone identifies as neurodivergent, you should factor this into their induction, taking the employee’s lead. They might find it useful to work through a Workplace Adjustments Plan in advance, covering how they like to be communicated with, receive new information, be introduced to the team etc. so that you can use this to inform your induction planning. Make sure you leave plenty of time for questions, discussion, reflection, and feedback (just as you would in any induction process), and consider whether a ‘buddy’ would be useful to help your new starter navigate the ‘unwritten rules’ of the organisation and its culture.
Adapting Communication for Neurodiversity
While reasonable adjustments will help, managers need to consider their style of management and communication. It is important that managers treat all members of their teams as individuals who have their own preferred working styles and methods of communication. Being able to build, retain and develop a neurodiverse team is a particularly important skill and requires managers that have high levels of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and effective communication skills.
Here are some things worth considering:
Clear and concise is always best – consider how you can get your message across in a simple way that is also thoughtful and authentic.
Try reading through emails before you send them - is there anything ambiguous, have you used any vague language that could be misinterpreted, and could your ‘tone’ be taken in the wrong way?
Back up actions agreed in meetings via e-mail in bullet points – ensuring it is clear that this is to support the individual rather than to create a ‘paper trail’.
Set clear deadlines and milestones for projects, so team members have a chance to plan out their work.
If you are the kind of manager who works flexibly, without much planning or you are prone to adapting and changing plans, consider how this may impact others. Clear communication is vital, and all change should come with a support plan.
Tools such as Lumina Spark are a powerful way to support leaders in understanding their unique styles, encouraging them to value diversity and adapt their approach, leading to more inclusive teams.
Here are some things worth considering when planning neurodivergent-inclusive meetings:
Allowing for regular breaks in long meetings and training sessions
Reduce 1-hour meetings to 50 minutes and 30-minute meetings to 25, to allow for breaks between them
Ensure clear agendas are created for all meetings, so colleagues can make informed decisions about whether to attend
Send information to read or consider beforehand, with clear questions and guidance on what to prepare
Provide contact details of the meeting organiser, so people can ask for adjustments where needed
Ensuring meetings do not ‘take over’ and working with colleagues to make sure they are able to plan in enough protected focus time. Many colleagues will benefit from having ‘meeting free’ days.
Neurodiversity and Recruitment: How to Attract and Support Diverse Talent
Is your employer brand attractive to everyone? Start with your website – is your commitment to inclusion obvious? Can you publicise your staff handbook that shows how you support disability and neurodivergence at work? What stories do your career pages tell? What about your social media, and company reviews on Indeed/Glassdoor?
Adverts and application forms should be reviewed for their accessibility. If you have a multi-page application form or an online portal, check whether they work with assistive technologies. If they don’t, make sure you make it clear how candidates can apply. Bear in mind that, disabled candidates will be less likely to apply for a role if they have to ask for an alternative application route, so the best thing you can do is design an application process that works for everyone.
Asking candidates to answer a few simple questions related to the person specification (rather than a detailed application form) and providing the option for everyone to submit this in either written, visual, audio, or video format is a straightforward approach and can also lead to you seeing some really creative responses.
Here are a few other tips for creating a candidate experience that will support neurodivergent candidates to be at their best:
Candidates should be given the opportunity to tell you about their condition at the application stage (should they wish to) and reassured that they don’t need to have a formal diagnosis. They should also be given space to tell you about the adjustments they would find helpful during the selection process and in any interviews.
Provide a contact number and e-mail address, ideally for the hiring manager, so that candidates can contact you to ask questions.
When designing assessments and interviews, ensure that they are assessing the requirements in the person specification and this is clear.
Consider sending interview questions or themes in advance (this can benefit everyone, but particularly neurodivergent candidates), and make sure you provide clear information about what will happen, who will be involved, and what is being assessed. You should also try to provide a quiet place for candidates to wait before the interview.
Use clear language, avoid using idioms, slang, or jargon, and make sure the panel is prepared to repeat or explain questions to make candidates feel at ease.
The panel should all agree that candidates will not be penalised for asking to repeat questions, for appearing ‘nervous’, or for being honest about not understanding a question.
Where possible, avoid timed assessments, but if they are necessary, make sure candidates are able to ask for extra time if they need it.
Increasing Awareness and Education around Neurodiversity
Educating managers and employees about the benefits of neurodiversity and how to provide support to those that are neurodivergent is not only essential if you want to create an inclusive employee experience, but also to ensure your organisation has the skills to collaborate and build relationships with a diverse range of external stakeholders, too.
To ensure that inclusion is embedded as part of your management development, competence around inclusion should be tested during interviews, discussed during performance conversations, including in 360-degree feedback, woven into your values, behaviours, and people policies, and measured as part of your employee engagement surveys and exit interviews, and incorporated into your learning and development strategy.
When designing or sourcing management training, make sure you work with providers that have a solid understanding of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, including neurodiversity. Not only does this mean that training itself will be more accessible and inclusive, but that managers will be supported to develop essential skills for the future enabling them to provide real support to every member of their team. You can start by putting together a resource package of curated content, such as free webinars, books, podcasts, and websites, and making these accessible to colleagues across the organisation. A great place to start is to look at the resources created by charities devoted to supporting individuals will certain conditions (we’ve included some links at the end).
Job Design and Neurodiversity: How to Optimise Roles for All Employees
Neurodivergent employees offer a unique set of valuable skills and talents. At the same time, there might be parts of some roles that they find especially challenging. For example, some employees may excel at data analysis and report writing but find planning and organisation challenging. Others will be highly creative and visual, whilst struggling with reading or writing long pieces of text. Some will have strong social skills and high levels of confidence in customer-facing roles, and others may prefer to work ‘behind the scenes’. Being able to design meaningful work and adapt roles to suit individual strengths is an important skill for leaders, and is useful for supporting every employee.
Small organisations may find this more difficult, where roles and responsibilities are often quite broad and cover a wide range of work. It’s important for managers to think about the strengths across the whole team, and where possible, allocate tasks based on what people enjoy and are good at, rather than allocating the same tasks to everyone.
Our talented consultants have a range of experience in supporting charities and values-driven organisations to develop focused, high-impact inclusion strategies that lead to all individuals feeling supported and engaged at work. Get in touch if you’d like to talk about how we might able to help you do the same.