As HR managers and leadership teams continue to embrace the DEI agenda, many companies have outlined their ambitions to become more inclusive employers. As many know, however, the reality of achieving this specific goal has broad implications.
Because while there are official frameworks that must be followed, implementing a DEI policy that truly addresses the needs of every employee as an individual is a nuanced and multi-layered undertaking.
This point is underlined by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). It highlights how there are nine elements of personal identity that are legally protected under the Equality Act 2010, including disability, race and religion. At the same time, it points to more than a dozen further personal characteristics that should be considered when building a positive working environment for all.
Among those characteristics is neurodiversity. In this article we look at what makes a neurodiverse employee, how their needs might differ from other workers, particularly in terms of health and well-being, and how employers can support them within their EDI strategy.
What is neurodiversity?
In literal terms, neurodiversity simply references the fact that we all think, learn and behave differently from each other. When applied in the context of neurological differences such as Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Dyslexia, use of the term encourages a focus on inclusivity, respect and acceptance, while seeking to dispel the notion that any difference should somehow be perceived as a negative.
Within a psychological context, neurodiversity refers to disparities in cognitive abilities, such as verbal skills and working memory, where an individual might score well above average in certain areas but lower than average in others. In contrast, someone whose abilities are recognised as having a less divergent or ‘spiky’ profile can be described as neurotypical.
It is estimated that up to 15% of the population are neurodiverse and, by definition, this can manifest itself in a number of ways. For example, neurodiverse individuals might have problems with communication and social interaction, co-ordination and practical tasks, number concepts and calculation, organisation and concentration or word-based tasks.
It is important, however, to note that neurodiverse individuals might also excel in these areas. They can bring enlightened, lateral perspectives to problem-solving challenges and apply exceptional levels of productivity in certain roles. Harnessing these talents through inclusion strategies is therefore a means to enhancing the neurodiversity of the organisation as a whole.
No one-size-fits-all approach
For employers, neurodiversity can be difficult to identify and support. It is a psychological rather than physical difference and, as an umbrella term where diversity is inherent, no two neurodiverse people will think and act the same.
For those working in an office setting, certain neurodiverse traits can make the workplace uncomfortable to navigate. For example, an oversensitivity to atmospheric conditions, such as levels of light and noise, can present a struggle for some individuals, while others who are under-sensitive to these stimuli might appear to lack awareness for others or regard for social norms.
If neurotypical colleagues are unaware of the wider context in these situations, neurodiverse individuals can feel judged. This can be harmful to self-esteem, potentially leading to anxiety and even depression. It can also lead to neurodivergent employees masking their behaviour or being unwilling to address their status with employers in the first place.
Indeed, research has previously found that three-quarters (73%) of neurodivergent job applicants chose not to disclose their status with managers and HR departments, and more than half (58%) of those who did share their status later regretted it.
Being sensitive to all aspects of well-being
After a challenging couple of years, marked by a global pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis, it is also worth noting that neurodiverse employees can be more vulnerable in terms of their mental, physical and financial wellbeing when compared to other colleagues.
A study reveals that half (50%) of neurodivergent employees report feeling burnt out at work compared with 38% of neurotypical employees. In addition, 70% of neurodivergent employees said they experienced mental health issues, only around a third (36%) said their physical health was good, and just a quarter (25%) felt financially secure and emotionally balanced.
Worryingly, the majority of neurodivergent employees (59%) also said they had experienced deferred healthcare, where either they or their provider had cancelled or delayed appointments. This contrasts with a figure of 29% for other employees.
This data underlines the need for workplaces to tailor benefits packages and support offerings for neurodiverse employees, ensuring there is an appropriate emphasis on their all-round well-being, and focusing on emotional welfare as well as mental and physical health.
There are specific ways this can be achieved. For example, ensuring any communication is clear in content and kind in tone; making appropriate sensory adjustments to workspaces; and establishing a connection to a trusted workplace ‘partner’. Underlying all these approaches is the ability to listen and respond with flexibility to an individual employee’s situation and needs, which can vary from person to person.
While not necessarily simple, putting the right measures in place can contribute towards the development of a truly inclusive workplace culture – something that is valued by neurodiverse and neurotypical employees alike.
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