Guest blog by Leyla Okhai, Career and Leadership Coach
In the last five years we have been hearing so much more about neurodiversity in the workplace. However, how does this translate in the workplace for both employers and employees?
In the first instance let’s define what neurodiversity actually means.
Essentially, neurodiversity means the range of difference within brain function and behavioural traits. Recognising that there are natural variations within the wider population. Neurodiversity is everyone, an individual is not neurodiverse.
Neurotypical refers to someone or a group of people who have the brain functions, behaviours, and processing considered standard or “typical”. The workplace tends to be designed for people who fit into this category, so they may not even realise what would be challenging for someone on the neurodivergent spectrum.
The term neurodivergence was coined by sociologist Judy Singer. While originally used to refer specifically to people who have Autism, usage of the term has broadened significantly in years since. Neurodivergent is the term for an individual who identifies as being on the neurodivergent spectrum. This includes Autism, ADHD/ADD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia,dysgraphia, visual stress etc. It is estimated that around one in seven people (more than 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent.
There will of course be variations between people who identify as neurodivergent based on their lived experience and other identity facets such as age, gender, race, disability, culture, LGBTQIA+ etc. This can result in certain individuals masking their neurodivergent characteristics to fit into standards of “typical” behaviour. As each culture and subculture will have differing perspectives on recognition and understanding of what neurodivergence is. For more insight you may like to listen to the Diverse Minds Podcast Neurodiversity, Race and Culture with Jannett Morgan.
What does this mean in the context of the workplace?
There are many common misconceptions about neurodivergent conditions in the workplace, as a result staff can be overlooked for roles, experience increased stress and anxiety, and be totally misunderstood.
Some common misconceptions are that neurodivergence:
- Is related to IQ
- Only affects people who speak English as their first language
- Can only be diagnosed when someone is a child
- Is about not being able to read and write
- Means people can only do certain jobs.
It’s vital to see the strengths neurodivergent individuals bring to the table and not view this as a deficit model. Here are just a few strengths:
- Independent thinking
- Holistic thinking
- Innovative approaches to a task/tasks
- 3D perception
- Code breaking and maths skills.
Invisible disabilities such as those on the neurodivergent spectrum, unlike physical impairments, are not always apparent.
Many staff who could receive support may not even know they are neurodivergent. Staff are likely to have developed sophisticated and complex coping strategies to compensate for non-neurotypical ways of processing information. However, with the demands of a changing workplace, these strategies can fail. Staff can be particularly prone to stress, due to the complex strategies they have developed.
Practical support for neurodivergent employees will usually involve minor adjustments to the working environment and practices.These can include effective assistive information technology and software, but understanding from as employer can be the most important.
What can workplaces do to support neurodivergent staff?
1. Understand neurodivergence in the workplace
Being aware of neurodivergence as an employer and organisation is the first step to starting the journey. Whilst not there to diagnose, if there is a plan to broaden the conversations and support people this is the best starting point.
2. Raise awareness
Raising awareness to enable staff to understand how to create accessible workplace environments. Including all the positive aspects of neurodivergent conditions, as well as barriers that are often in place and can be removed. Why not link to any relevant awareness days for wider impact?
3. Organise training
In my experience, once you have raised awareness, staff will be very interested in finding out more. Organising high-quality succinct training sessions is the next step in the journey. Training could include an overview of neurodivergent conditions and how they interlink. It doesn’t have to be too long either, a 90 minute session can do a lot to educate people.
4. Have a process to support staff who come forward and request help
Once you have put the three steps above into place, it is likely that staff will begin to come forward for support. This is a real milestone, as it demonstrates that all the groundwork is paying off. However, a robust process of support needs to be put in place as soon as possible. This will vary from organisation to organisation, but working with your disabled staff network, affinity group or employee resource group will be part of the journey. Support options include Access to Work, clinical psychologists, specialist coaching and workplace needs assessors. A workplace needs assessment is essential for a staff member to know about the options available to them. It also provides clear practical recommendations based on their specific needs.
5. Support line managers
Line managers may be unsure about processes and what they can or can’t do. Have clear guidance in place to make the process as easy as possible for managers to support their team members. You may also like to consider a designated lead in HR. This ensures line managers have a contact to ask any questions to and find out how they empower the team member in an appropriate and best way possible.
6. Ensure a timely process for workplace adjustments
It’s great to know what you need, but nothing is more frustrating than not having the equipment and recommendations put in place in a timely fashion. Ideally the turn-around should be two weeks. Adjustments are not usually expensive or time consuming, especially when you consider the increased productivity and outputs from the staff member.
7. Review what’s working well
As with any member of staff, talk about what’s working well at regular 1-2-1s. In addition to finding out about equipment that may need updating and how the support process has helped or what may need adjusting further. Encourage managers not to shy away from the subject, but to embrace positive conversations following support being put into place.
8. Draw on lived experience
Give staff who have been supported an opportunity to speak about the journey they have had. In particular, how it has empowered them in their role, if they feel they would like to. This could be at a team or divisional meeting or at an event. This aids understanding and encourages other staff to come forward for support.
9. Link to your organisations’ strategic mission for talent development and retention
Realising neurodivergent potential and how this can impact positively makes business sense. Make it part of your talent management strategy and business as usual. You will reap the rewards and so will staff members.
Dyslexia in the workplace in the Open Journal of Social Sciences – Leyla Okhai and Janette Beetham
Leyla Okhai is the founder and CEO of Diverse Minds. Enabling organisations to create mentally healthy and equal workplaces through coaching, training, speaking and consultancy. With a focus on practical mental health strategies, cultural awareness and race equality to facilitate a positively productive workplace.
Leyla’s current clients include ASOS, Science Museum Group, JKR Global, Mother London, University of London, UCL and FarFetch. She was appointed to the Council of the University of Leeds in November 2018. In January 2021 her podcast, the Diverse Minds Podcast won best Diversity and Inclusion Podcast in the Podcasting for Business Awards. In 2019 Diverse Minds was the winner of The Woman Who Award (Services Category) and The Asian Business Chamber of Commerce’s Outstanding Diversity and Inclusion Business of the Year.
Leave a Reply