Neurodiversity in the workplace

Posted by Nia Evans on

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity refers to the different ways in which the brain works and interprets information. This is particularly important in the workplace as employers and employees should have an understanding of how neurological differences can affect the way in which people work and what they can do to help train and support anyone who are considered neurodivergent. 

ACAS has recently published a comprehensive research paper with extensive guidance to help organisations support neurodiversity.

Neurodivergence has become an umbrella term to include conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia – the so called "hidden disabilities", because they are not physically obvious to another person.

Studies have found the majority of people are neurotypical, meaning their brains function and process information in the way society expects. However, an estimated 1 in 7 people (more than 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently because of the above conditions. 

What is the impact? 

This can have several implications for employers: 

  • Firstly, being neurodivergent may amount to a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. Consequently, employers may have to consider making reasonable adjustments to remove or minimise any disadvantage which a neurodivergent employee is experiencing and to prevent any unfavourable treatment due to something arising from neurodivergence, for example, poor communication skills or behavioural issues. The various forms of neurodivergence are experienced along a "spectrum" and each has a range of associated characteristics and these can vary from individual to individual. ACAS does provide guidance on the indicative traits that each type of neurodivergence has but it is important for employers not to stereotype or make assumptions in relation to a person's working practices or behaviour.
  • Secondly, promoting and supporting neurodiversity can help create an open culture of support and well-being in the workplace – something that is of particular relevance in today's culture when a lot of focus around the workplace relates to stress and well-being of employees.
  • Thirdly, having and utilising a neurodivergent workforce can bring benefits to the organisation. Neurodivergent people work differently to people who are neurotypical and this can have a positive impact on the business. Businesses flourish when they have a wide range of talent and utilise that talent effectively. Common attributes associated with neurodivergent people include creativity and innovation, problem solving and strategic analysis. Once any potential difficulties have been assessed and managed, then the person can utilise and enhance these skills in a positive manner. 

What should employers be doing?

Set out below is a summary of practical steps employers can take to create and maintain a diverse and inclusive workforce.

Increasing awareness of neurodiversity 

Many organisations will be aware of neurodiversity and have policies in place but for others, there will be issues caused by not understanding neurodivergance or how the working environment can affect neurodivergent employees.

A lack of understanding is not uncommon because of the way in which the workplace culture reflects the norms of society. By increasing awareness, for example through mentoring, role models and employee networks, employers can break down any cultural barriers and norms and show their commitment to diversity and inclusion and enable everyone in the business to contribute to and support a more inclusive workplace. The more aware people are of neurodivergent employees, the easier it will become for staff to be supportive towards each other, as well as employers as a whole to the affected employees.

Improve health and well-being 

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. This is something employers are frequently being encouraged to do as mental health becomes an increasingly publicised and important topic. With Mental Health Awareness Week coming up, businesses should be aware and active in promoting good physical and mental health in the workplace. There are various ways of achieving this. Some of the initiatives Blake Morgan have in place are: 

  • A mental health first aider programme designed to provide employees with access to trained members of the team who can identify and act on the signs of mental ill health.
  • An Employee Assistance Programme with contact details available on the intranet.
  • Subsidised lunchtime yoga sessions and a running club. 

Comply with legal obligations

If a neurodivergent employee's condition amounts to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, then the employer will have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace to allow that employee not to suffer any disadvantage. Being proactive, supportive and open to neurodivergence will allow employers to identify any disadvantages to employees and to implement reasonable adjustments at an early stage.

Adopting practices and strategies to support a neurodivergent workforce 

As the majority of the population are neurotypical, the workplace environment naturally becomes neurotypical also. Employers should go beyond their legal duty and ensure that there are various actions and strategies to allow neurodivergent people to feel included and reach their potential within the workplace.

This could include changing the way in which training and working practices are rolled out to allow different styles of working and learning. For example, an open plan office may not suit someone on the autistic spectrum and therefore, an appropriate alternative quiet space should be provided. Communication styles may differ; for some people, email communication may be preferred whilst others may prefer the telephone. Another example is with training; employers could use a range of formats such as presentations, interactive role-play sessions, small group discussions or individual online learning tools so that everyone has the opportunity to work, learn and develop in a way which suits them. 

Allow staff to feel safe and supported 

It is well known that many people are reluctant to talk about any disability or health condition that they suffer with and this can cause them to be disadvantaged in the workplace. This may also mean that employers are unaware of what adjustments or support they need. Findings from the ACAS guidance showed that some people are reluctant to openly discuss their condition as it may have previously impacted upon their health or performance.

Therefore, support from employers is more appreciated than just a reliance on employees coming forward with suggestions/requests for adjustments. If employees know that the organisation is dedicated to supporting neurodiversity, then they are more likely to disclose their neurodivergence at an early stage. This can make it easier for employers to treat each employee fairly, identify and implement appropriate workplace adjustments and help support employees on an ongoing basis. Support could include a two-way discussion between managers and employees about what might be helpful for them. As a starting point, a manager could suggest ways of working that other staff with the same condition have found helpful to see whether that employee would find the same approach useful.

Employers should particularly tailor training to managers on how to approach and deal fairly with any neurodivergent employees, how to support them and also train them to help spot the signs to better meet the needs of the employees. Other staff can be trained via training sessions, talks or blogs and diversity policies available on the staff intranet. If employers have appropriate policies and procedures in place for employees with neurological conditions, it is important to regularly inform them and new employees how these can be accessed.

About the Author

Nia is a Solicitor in the Employment, Pensions, Benefits and Immigration Team. She advises a broad range of clients in relation to all aspects of employment law in both the public and private sectors.

Nia Evans
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02920 686269

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