‘Neurodiversity’ is a general term to describe natural differences in brain functioning and instinctive behaviours across the population.

It typically includes ADHD, autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, and Tourette’s Syndrome.

It is estimated that around 1 in 7 employees are neurodivergent; therefore, it is essential that you understand neurodiversity and offer ways to support neurodivergent individuals in the workplace.

We outline below the challenges that neurodivergent employees may face at work and easy ways that you can support them and promote diversity within your business.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity describes the normal variations in how people innately think and act.

Neurodivergent conditions are not an impairment that needs to be fixed, but simply a different and equally valid way of thinking and processing information.

Neurodiversity is a spectrum, and as the word suggests, every neurodivergent individual is unique.

Even those with the same neurodivergent condition may display different characteristics, so you should avoid making any assumptions or relying on stereotypes.

Some neurodivergent individuals will be classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 for employment law purposes.

If an individual’s neurodivergent condition has a long-term and substantial impact upon their daily activities, they will meet the definition of disabled and benefit from additional employment rights.

Benefits of neurodiversity within your workforce

Proactively encouraging and promoting the inclusion of neurodivergent employees in your workforce can bring a wide range of benefits to your business.

Valuable strengths and skills of neurodivergent employees

Neurodivergent employees often have valuable characteristics and skills that neurotypical employees in your workforce may lack.

As explained above, neurodiversity is a spectrum, so it is important not to make generalisations, but some typical strengths of neurodivergent individuals are:

  • People with ADHD can be very innovative and determined, so they can push through challenging tasks.
  • Dyslexic individuals are commonly effective problem-solvers and able to work around challenges through logical reasoning.   
  • Those with autism tend to be very organised and conscientious, with strong expertise in their areas of interest.
  • Dyspraxic individuals are often very creative and think strategically.

Inclusivity

It is impossible to be a truly inclusive equal opportunities employer without promoting neurodiversity in your workforce.

By recruiting neurodivergent individuals and promoting neurodiversity in your business through education and awareness, you will attract a wider talent pool.

Creating a transparent and empowering work culture will also help to eradicate any stigma and negative opinion surrounding neurodivergent conditions and encourage employees to share their neurodivergence with you.

This will then enable you to provide the right support to neurodivergent employees so that they can work to the best of their abilities, increasing productivity and job satisfaction.

Difficulties neurodivergent employees may encounter

Neurodivergent employees may face challenges at work that do not affect neurotypical employees.

Recruitment process

The recruitment process often presents the first barrier for neurodivergent employees if it is not accessible and inclusive.

Neurodivergent employees may struggle with certain aspects of recruitment, such as undergoing psychometric testing or answering interview questions on the spot.

Working environment

Neurodivergent employees may find it difficult to work effectively in busy and loud open plan workspaces.

They may struggle to concentrate on their work with excessive background noise and become distracted by everything else that is going on.

The changes to working arrangements throughout the Covid-19 pandemic will undoubtedly have impacted upon neurodivergent employees.

Some may have benefited from homeworking, finding it easier to work in their own space, while others may have struggled to adapt to new ways of working without the on-hand support of colleagues.

Performance

As organisational and time management skills are challenging for some neurodivergent individuals, they may find it difficult to keep on top of their workload and meet deadlines.

These issues are exacerbated when their employer does not fully understand the nature of their neurodivergence, meaning they fail to accommodate the employee’s needs and maximise their strengths.

Communication 

Effective communication can be difficult for some neurodivergent employees.

It may be that they struggle to process and remember verbal instructions, and therefore prefer things to be written down.

Alternatively, some neurodivergent employees may find it easier to communicate verbally with managers and colleagues, it just depends on the individual and their needs.

Your obligations as an employer

Since neurodivergence can equate to a disability, you need to take extra care to accommodate the needs of these employees to avoid the risk of potential discrimination claims.

As an employer you are legally required to make reasonable adjustments to assist disabled employees and to refrain from any form of disability discrimination or harassment.

It is important to note that you will be bound by these obligations if you know or reasonably ought to know that the employee in question is disabled.

Therefore, ignorance will not provide you with a defence, as even if the employee has not disclosed their neurodivergence or they are not aware of it themselves, they will still be able to bring a disability discrimination claim if you discriminate against them or treat them unfavourably.

There is no limit on the amount of compensation that can be awarded for discrimination and the award can include injury to feelings, therefore these claims can be a significant cost to your business. 

Reasonable adjustments

Once you become aware of an employee’s neurodivergence you should explore whether any reasonable adjustments can be made to the workplace or their role to support their needs.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be applied here as the aim is to accommodate the individual requirements of the employee in question.

You must talk to the employee to find out how their neurodivergence affects their work and whether you can assist them in any way, for example by providing specialist equipment or additional support.

It can also be helpful to obtain medical advice from occupational health to understand the nature of the employee’s neurodivergence, the specific difficulties they face and the best ways to address these.

Ways to support neurodivergent employees

Even if an employee’s neurodivergence does not amount to a disability, it is still advisable to implement measures to support them in their work.

We outline some simple and cost-effective measures below which will not only help neurodivergent employees but also enhance the overall productivity of the team by creating an empowering and supportive work culture.

Making the recruitment process accessible

You should try to make your recruitment process as inclusive and accessible as possible.

You can do this by making it clear that you promote diversity and that applications are welcomed from anyone regardless of characteristics like disability.

You can also allow candidates to disclose whether they have a disability on the application form so that they can request any reasonable adjustments that they require.

For example, you may need to explain interview questions in more detail or provide the candidate with the interview questions in advance so that they have time to prepare.

This is important because individuals can bring disability discrimination claims based on their treatment throughout the recruitment process, regardless of whether they actually become an employee of the company.

Aiding communication

The key to establishing effective communication with neurodivergent employees is finding out the best means of communication for them.

Some employees may prefer written communication so that they can benefit from the use of assistive technology whereas others may prefer communication to be face-to-face so they can ask questions and seek reassurance.

We also advise maintaining strong communication links, particularly regarding any changes that may impact the individual’s working conditions, as they may require more time to adapt than others.

Effective performance management

Employees may experience a lapse in performance due to symptoms of their neurodivergence and if this is the case, the standard performance management procedure may not be appropriate.

The best approach to take would be to discuss with the employee whether their performance is being affected by their neurodivergence and pinpoint the particular aspects of their role that they are struggling with.

This will enable you to identify the problem areas and explore whether any solutions are available which would enable the employee to achieve the required levels of performance, such as assistive technology or increased supervision.

We advise taking a constructive approach rather than simply setting performance improvement targets, as these may not be achievable unless additional support is provided first.

Managing a neurodiverse team

It is important to make all staff aware of neurodiversity by offering relevant training so that they are not blinded by stereotypes and understand how to support neurodivergent colleagues.

This may encourage employees and managers to be more flexible in how they work so that everyone’s needs are recognised and accommodated.

There is a clear trend of ignorance and misconception across all discrimination cases brought by neurodivergent employees.

When managers fail to acknowledge or understand an employee’s neurodivergence and the impacts it has upon their work, it can create unnecessary conflict which could be avoided through mutual understanding and open conversation.

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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