Research Officer Institute for Employment Studies
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Neurodiversity: maximising talent in the workplace

7th Feb 2019
colourful mind
DrAfter123/iStock
colourful mind

Neurodiversity encompasses a range of conditions that are characterised by atypical ways of thinking, behaving and interacting. Whilst a challenge for employers, it can also be of huge benefit.

By virtue of their differences, neurodiverse employees can often bring particular strengths to the workplace. This article explores what we mean by neurodiversity, the benefits neurodiverse employees can bring and how organisations can become ‘neurodiversity-smart’.

New of ways of thinking

In an increasingly competitive work environment, organisations must think out of the box and look to where, and from whom, the best work is going to come. We should go back to basics in our thinking about neurodiversity and ask the following questions:

  • What are people good at rather than not good at?
  • Where does innovation come from?

Neurodiversity includes a range of conditions including dyslexia, ADHD and autism, and therefore affects around 18% of the population. Thinking, attention, memory and behaviour can all be different for someone who is neurodiverse. 

People who are neurodiverse are more likely to be unemployed and under-employed.

While there are certainly challenges inherent in neurodiverse states, there are also strengths which ‘neurotypical’ people just don’t have and which, with a little creativity and support, can be introduced into the workplace. 

People who are neurodiverse are more likely to be unemployed and under-employed, despite a high proportion of this group wanting to have a job and to do it well. 

Therefore, it is important to have a greater understanding of what neurodiversity is and to motivate employers to see it as a strength, rather than a difficulty. In doing this we can remove the barriers which restrict life choices for people who have neurodiverse conditions.

With the increased prevalence and awareness of neurodiversity, there is a need for a new way of thinking and this is a call to action for organisations to make necessary changes to existing processes and promote cultural change.

So what can and should organisations do to become neurodiversity smart?

Fit the job to the person not the person to the job

By taking a strengths-based approach, rather than a competency-based approach in selection or performance management, organisations may be able to answer these questions. 

Making reasonable adjustments to both job and workplace design this can enable neurodiverse employees to reach their potential.

With some small adjustments, potential job applicants or employees who might not immediately fit the criteria for a job, or who do not perform particularly well in job interviews or selection tests, could represent untapped talent. 

By making reasonable adjustments to both job and workplace design this can enable neurodiverse employees to reach their potential. This will also add value for the organisation.

Adding value

What could this added value look like? Enhanced productivity, greater creativity and innovation. This has been the case for pioneering organisations such as Microsoft, JPMorgan and SAP, who have reported increases in productivity as a result of proactive recruitment and selection strategies and ongoing support for their neurodiverse employees

Neurodiversity inclusion far outweighs the necessary adjustments.

The reputation of the organisation and customer trust are also at stake.

One study estimated that a typical programme of disability adjustments costs £727 per person which is considerably less than the cost of turnover per employee, estimated at £4,333 in 2007. Neurodiversity inclusion far outweighs the necessary adjustments.

Reasonable adjustments

These adjustments might be providing regular rest breaks, adjusting the lighting or volume level in the workplace, access to specialist equipment or support from a coach or mentor. 

Regular communication and feedback with the employer, as well as support with learning new tasks, are also likely to be needed.

A Workplace Needs Adjustment (WNA) can be used to identify any areas in a job description which are likely to be affected. It can then recommend reasonable adjustments to improve work performance, such as skills training and assistive technology or equipment. 

Promote cultural change

In essence, a WNA will provide information to make the workplace neurodiverse-friendly. But without support it won’t work. Changing the organisational culture requires buy-in and this is where a joined-up approach including leadership, line management, HR and L&D is needed. This will encourage effective working practices and promote an open culture. 

Demonstrate the strengths to the team which neurodiversity brings in terms of greater creativity and flexibility.

In the first instance, knowledge should be shared about neurodiversity in a ‘safe space’ in organisations so that teams and their managers are aware of what atypical behaviour might look like. Employees should feel that they can approach the organisation for support and not hide their condition, helping to create an inclusive learning culture.

Teams can be supported to understand and accommodate co-workers and provide help where needed. One way of doing this is to demonstrate the strengths to the team which neurodiversity brings in terms of greater creativity and flexibility. Teams and their leaders can work together to create change.

Neurodiversity explained

Within neurodiversity there can be difficulties experienced with a range of thinking, social, organisational and emotional skills. For example, those diagnosed with dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia (DDD), which affects up to 12% of the population, frequently face challenges with literacy, memory, organisational skills, time management, communication and stress management. 

ADHD affects up to 4% of people and they might have difficulties with time management, concentration, attention and self-regulation. 

Meanwhile, the 1.4% of individuals with autism and ASD (previously known as Asperger Syndrome) may have time management, concentration and multi-tasking challenges, or there might be social and communication difficulties and a need for routine. That said, each individual is different and will face a very unique set of challenges. 

Neurodiversity is dimensional and people will be affected in different ways; some will have more or fewer areas of challenge or strength in the workplace. 

But those with neurodiverse conditions may also have enhanced mental abilities and skills such as entrepreneurialism and creativity in the case of DDD, hyper focus and visual-spatial skills (ADHD), or innovative thinking and detailed observation (autism and ASD).

Neurodiverse conditions do not come in easy categories or boxes, however. Neurodiversity is dimensional and people will be affected in different ways; some will have more or fewer areas of challenge or strength in the workplace. 

Organisations can receive help and support from the government’s Access to Work Scheme or from charities and private organisations including: ACAS, ADHD Foundation, Affinity at Work, Auticon, British Dyslexia Association, CIPD, Lexxic, Mencap, Mind, National Autistic Society and Scope.

Support might come in the form of workplace visits to advise and help both the individual and the employer, mentoring, online resources or information on workplace adjustments.

In re-framing the way in which neurodiversity is seen, it is possible to make the most of people’s potential. 

Taking a strengths-based approach to recruitment, making small but significant adjustments to job and workplace design, and promoting organisational learning and cultural change are ways in which typically disadvantaged groups can be supported at work.

In bringing about the necessary changes to the workplace and organisational processes, it is possible to not only raise an individual’s potential, but also that of the organisation.

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