Supporting Neurodiversity In The Workplace

September 21, 2023 thehrobserver-hrobserver-neurodiversity

A decade ago, very few organisations were talking about anything related to mental health. Fast forward to now and it is becoming commonplace for organisations to be much more aware.

Neurodiversity is a fairly new term in the business world, but one that is being recognised as something which organisations should be focusing on from both business case and wellbeing perspectives. The business case is strong in terms of attracting and retaining talented employees who add value to the organisation.

Of course, across organisations, industries and cultures there are different levels of understanding of what neurodiversity is.  In some countries, disclosing something like this may be perceived as a sign of weakness and consequently not routinely reported. The size of organisations may also be a factor, with smaller ones having less time and resource to invest. Even inside organisations there will be different levels of knowledge though many larger organisations are putting in place CPD for all colleagues in the workplace. Building knowledge and understanding may help to prevent stereotypes and encourage neurodiverse employees to make their managers aware that adjustments may be needed.

Almost mirroring the earlier debates of equal opportunities versus diversity as concepts, organisations have started to appreciate the benefits of people thinking differently and use this as a positive thing in the workplace.  So, for example, not trying to create corporate robots where everyone is expected to do and say the same thing; and instead recognise the need to support individual employees. 

Line managers play a critical role in supporting their team members; therefore, organisations should ensure that they have the necessary training and tools to do this. Obviously there must be clear boundaries as they cannot be expected to provide any sort of medical advice, but where occupational health services are available, they should be able to support referrals if the employee agrees.

When considering the provision to support neurodiverse employees, it is important to understand that there will be no one best way to do this. For example, whilst some employees may benefit from things such as flexible working, others may prefer a fixed and predictable working pattern. The ethos should be about enabling everyone to thrive; not just survive.

Possible support mechanisms could include:

  • Ability to take additional breaks or flexibility in when breaks are taken
  • Provision of quiet spaces
  • Review of the physical work environment – for example, lighting and how desks are positioned
  • Offering mentors
  • Appointing ‘champions’ or ambassadors for neurodiversity 

In addition, there are many straightforward technical solutions that can be employed in terms of equipment and/or software. This may include speech-to-text software and noise cancelling headphones. Organisations may find it useful to provide training for someone in the IT department so they can familiarise themselves with potential solutions.

It is important to remember that not all employees will feel confident or comfortable in sharing information and this should be respected. However, there should be opportunities for employees to disclose the information at any time, not just at the recruitment and selection stage.

The HR team should undertake a holistic review of their policies and practices to consider whether updates may be appropriate. This could involve amending job application forms and reviewing criteria on the person specification. Using mindful recruitment and selection practices may open up the talent pool. Changes to the standard wording and tone of employment contracts may be considered as well as consideration around all stages of performance management. Larger organisations may deliver awareness sessions or run a promotion campaign. Ideally these changes will all be in place before they may be needed – not waiting until it is required for an individual colleague.

Professor Fiona Robson

Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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