Supporting Neurodiversity in the Workplace
This guide provides advice on some of the practical steps SMEs can take to support neurodivergent people to be comfortable and successful at work; this includes encouraging neurodiverse job applicants, removing potential ‘friction points’ in the recruitment process and supporting all staff to work to their strengths so as to achieve their full potential.
1. Develop a Neurodiversity Policy
As a starting point, employers may wish to develop and introduce a Neurodiversity Policy. Whilst each organisation will differ in its approach, depending on the extent of support they can offer, the policy should set out:
- the organisation’s understanding of neurodiversity
- the organisation’s commitment towards neurodiverse employees
- the legal requirements that apply
- how individual support will be offered
- encouragement to employees to notify managers of their neurodivergence
- the making of reasonable adjustments
- how an inclusive environment will be fostered
- the responsibility to prohibit harassment and discrimination.
2. Raise Awareness
Many problems are caused by employers not understanding neurodivergence or how the working environment can affect neurodivergent employees, as well as the stigma that is still associated with such conditions. Issues can arise if neurodivergent employees do not feel safe to disclose their condition, try to hide it and/or do not ask for the adjustments or support they need. Raising levels of understanding and awaremess or neurodiversity within the organisation is, therefore, important. If staff know that the organisation is dedicated to supporting neurodiversity, then they are more likely to disclose their neurodivergence at an early stage, which will contribute to better mental health.
Employers can raise awareness by:
- highlighting the organisation’s commitment to supporting neurodiversity and the actions being undertaken to improve the workplace
- arranging activities, training and workshops to educate staff
- providing readily available, simple and useful information to staff on different forms of neurodivergence
- updating policies and guidance on disability to also refer to neurodivergence
encouraging neurodivergent senior managers and leaders to openly disclose and talk about it
3. Ensure line managers have the right skills
Managers can sometimes be recruited because of their expertise in a previous role rather than because they can demonstrate the skills needed to be a good manager. Managing a neurodiverse team, with various needs and different ways of learning, can be particularly challenging. If managers do not have the skills or awareness to build good relationships with each team member it can affect the performance and well-being of their whole team.
Employers can ensure that managers have the skills needed to manage a neurodiverse team by:
- recruiting managers demonstrate the key skills for the role, such as good communication skills and empathy
- providing managers (and potential future managers) with training opportunities that will help them to improve their skills
- providing workshops or additional information on neurodiversity, in particular understanding the difference between a mental difficulty (such as memory retention or concentration) and an attitude issue.
- ensuring managers regularly hold one-to-ones with team members to check on how work is going, identify upcoming challenges and agree how best to support staff.
While this will benefit all staff, it can be particularly important for neurodivergent team members as it provides the right conditions for issues to be identified and addressed early-on, as well as for misunderstandings to be resolved before they escalate.
4. Consider changes to the workplace environment
Workplace environments and processes are almost always designed with a neurotypical person in mind. Whilst an unsuitable working environment can affect the performance of all staff, it can be a particular issue for neurodivergent employees. For example, most offices are now open plan but the noise and stimulation of a large space filled with people may be difficult for neurodiverse individuals to cope with. Those with ADHD or Autism can be particularly sensitive to sensory inputs, such as sounds, sights and smells.
Employers can reduce many potential distractions and obstacles in the workplace by:
- putting up dividers in appropriate areas to block and reduce noise
- having dedicated quiet areas
- allowing staff to book meeting rooms for tasks that require a lot of concentration
- providing visible instructions next to office equipment and machinery, such as photocopiers
- allocating work areas with more natural light to staff that struggle with office lighting or allowing daylight lamps
- offering flexible working arrangements such as homeworking for part of the week or allowing staff to start earlier or finish later
- providing staff with organisers, lockers, cabinets and name labels to help them organise and retain their work and equipment
allowing employees (when appropriate) to use equipment such as noise cancelling headphones
5. Review recruitment processes
Standard recruitment processes, usually designed to assess job competence, often involve assessments of social skills, communication abilities and personality traits, which potentially place neurodivergent applicants at a disadvantage. This can also be the case with the traditional ice-breakers and team building activities that are often built into training programmes.
Whilst an employer’s recruitment process usually asks applicants to advise if they have a disability and need adjustments, applicants are often reluctant to do so in case it prejudices their application. Also, applicants with a neurodivergence may not consider it a disability and therefore not realise they have a right to reasonable adjustments. If a recruitment process is not actively designed to be inclusive, it is likely to unintentionally disadvantage neurodivergent applicants and be discriminatory.
Employers can make their recruitment more inclusive by:
- identifying and clearly explaining which skills and experience are essential for the role and which are only desirable or beneficial
- offering different ways to complete the application such as online, by email, post and in-person
- providing examples of reasonable adjustments that are used by the organisation to reassure candidates that invitations to disclose are genuine
- using the phrase ‘do you have a disability, a form of neurodivergence (e.g. ADHD, autism, dyslexia or dyspraxia) or any condition that affects you at work?”
- providing guidance notes for all applicants that explains the structure of the interview and includes example questions and answers
- ensuring that any agencies used in the recruitment process are aware of the policies aimed at supporting neurodiversity
- training interviewers in unconscious bias and how to avoid making assumptions based upon an applicant’s body language or social competence
- asking clear and specific questions and avoiding open-ended or hypothetical questions
- allowing applicants to know the questions they will be asked before the interview
- holding interviews or assessments in suitable, quiet spaces away from other distractions
- considering alternative options to interviews, such as short paid work trials or practical assessments
- providing clear and constructive feedback to unsuccessful candidates
- ensuring that the new manager of a successful applicant who disclosed a neurodivergence is advised so support can be provided from the outset.
6. Design jobs so they get the best out of everyone
It can seem easier and fairer to design roles with similar responsibilities and objectives at each level of an organisation. However, effective job design does not have to be uniform. Some elements may need to be similar but other parts can often be varied to suit the post-holder. For example, employees on the autistic spectrum can sometimes struggle with line management responsibilities, so designing specialised roles without this responsibility could remove the issue and enable the employee to focus on tasks that they excel at.
Employers can improve how they design roles by:
- identifying the main purpose and main tasks for each role within the organisation
- considering whether job roles need a broad range of skills and abilities or more specialised skills
- creating roles that can accommodate flexible working arrangements
- trusting managers to spot and make the most of employees’ strengths and minimise any difficulties
- allowing managers to set appropriate objectives that can fairly assess performance
- regularly checking that the job role, tasks and objectives are still accurate to what the organisation actually needs from the employee.
Having a workplace that is set up to proactively think about what can be done to support the needs of neurodivergent applicants and employees can, therefore, make it much easier to identify and implement adjustments that will help them thrive. In a genuinely diverse workforce, the focus should be on people’s strengths i.e. what they can do and what they excel at, rather than what they can’t do or find difficult.
7. Consider offering workplace needs assessments to identify reasonable adjustments
Many people may be neurodivergent without knowing it or having formal diagnosis. This usually means they do not receive (or even seek) support inside or outside the workplace. Even staff who have been formally diagnosed may not know what support is available, or what support they actually need.
In some cases, it may, therefore, be appropriate for employers to offer an independent diagnostic assessment, or workplace needs assessment, which can establish an individual’s strengths and identify areas of difficulty, as well as making recommendations to mitigate these difficulties. Staff should not, however, feel pressured into having an assessment and, if they do go ahead, the focus should not be on confirming a diagnosis but on putting practical help in place for employees who say they need it. Employers can then also use Access to Work to help them to identify the most appropriate workplace adjustments.
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