The concept of neurodiversity isn’t new, but it’s been gaining mainstream traction in recent years. In 1998, Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term “neurodiversity” to recognize that everyone’s brain develops uniquely. Neurodiversity refers to diversity in the human brain and cognition, such as sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions.
Despite increased diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) efforts, the neurodivergent group is often overlooked in hiring and the workplace. With an estimated 15%-20% of the global population being neurodiverse, this group could be an untapped asset for organizations. As such, employers have an opportunity to embrace neurodiversity and help reduce the stigma and stress that impacts neurodiverse workers. Ultimately, it’s about building and nurturing a workplace where all workers feel like they belong and show up as their authentic selves.
This article explores the concept of neurodiversity, the challenges neurodivergent workers may face, the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce, and employer tips for fostering neurodivergent-friendly workplaces.
Neurodiversity is the concept that differences in brain functioning are normal variations with strengths and weaknesses. It is also often used as an umbrella term covering several conditions or features. Some common forms of neurodivergence include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia (difficulty with reading).
Individuals who exhibit such variations can be considered “neurodivergent.” The larger population not considered neurodivergent is said to be “neurotypical.”
WORKPLACE CHALLENGES FOR NEURODIVERSE EMPLOYEES
Neurodiverse individuals have differences in the way their brain works. First and foremost, neurodiversity is generally non-visible; someone looking at a neurodiverse person would not immediately know they are neurodiverse. This leaves many neurodiverse employees having to disclose their specific needs to do their best work or request accommodations from their managers and employers.
Most workplaces—and society in general—are tailored for neurotypical employees. As a result, neurodiversity can often be misunderstood, making neurodivergent people feel the need to camouflage in neurotypical societies, situations and organizations. This complex behavior is called “masking” and is done deliberately or subconsciously. One of the most significant issues with masking is that it creates a lot of exhaustion and stress and can increase one’s risk for burnout.
Masking differs between people, but the behavior is often triggered by an inaccessible environment or a need to fit in to avoid judgment and have a sense of belonging. Ultimately, masking and being unable to be authentic can have severe mental health implications.
BENEFITS OF AN INCLUSIVE WORKPLACE FOR THE NEURODIVERSE WORKFORCE
DEIB programs have become standard practice for many organizations. However, such efforts may fall short if they don’t account for a neurodiverse workforce. Along with successfully delivering on DEIB initiatives, there are specific benefits of employing neurodiverse teams. Consider some of the following powerful skills and talents of neurodivergent workers.
- Fresh, unique perspectives
- Exceptional focus and concentration
- Out-of-the-box problem-solving, which supports innovative and creative thinking
- Strong observational skills and keen attention to detail
Unsurprisingly, Deloitte research suggests that teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without them. In addition to productivity and innovation, diverse and inclusive workplaces can earn deeper trust and commitment from their employees. As a result, organizations may observe higher employee retention rates when workers feel included, valued and supported. A truly diverse and inclusive workforce could be an advantage for employers as they compete for today’s top talent.
FOSTERING A NEURODIVERSE-FRIENDLY WORKPLACE
Having employees from different backgrounds is often the first step to establishing a diverse and inclusive environment. Still, unless employees feel comfortable and safe to be themselves and share their talents, their unique skills and knowledge may not be utilized to their full potential.
Employers can consider the following strategies for nurturing an accommodating neurodiverse workplace:
- Assess hiring and onboarding processes. The hiring process sets the tone with a job candidate, and inclusive hiring practices can help attract neurodiverse talent. Along with focusing on skills, consider ways to streamline the hiring and onboarding process, yet make them customizable enough to accommodate various abilities and preferences, to create a competitive advantage.
- Create channels that attract neurodiverse workers. Recruiting is not a one-size-fits-all approach, so consider adding tactics that may be more appealing to neurodivergent workers. For example, host recruiting events with fewer attendees to help reduce social anxiety or provide interviewees with a detailed agenda and description of the interview process, so they feel more at ease by knowing what to expect.
- Focus on skills-based hiring. Ensure job postings accurately reflect job roles and job responsibilities. For example, not every job may need “excellent communication skills” or “social skills,” which could deter qualified individuals from applying. Consider ways to tailor each job description to depict the role correctly and seek transferable skills for neurodivergent individuals.
- Offer flexible working options. Telework or remote work models can give a neurodiverse employee the flexibility to control their working environment. Suppose organizations adopt an on-site or hybrid work model. In that case, they could offer flexible working hours, modified workspaces (e.g., collaborative areas and safe spaces) and other accommodations (e.g., noise-canceling headphones).
- Encourage employee resource groups (ERGs). These are usually led by and participated in by employees who share a common interest, lifestyle, background or demographic factor. In this case, a neurodivergent ERG could focus on employee support and inclusivity and provide personal or career development resources for neurodiverse people, as well as neurotypical people. Generally, all employees are welcome to join an ERG to support their co-workers and be allies.
- Support mentorship. Neurodivergent workers can benefit from strong support from their managers and peers to thrive. A formal mentorship program could help all employees professionally grow and succeed.
- Communicate clearly. There’s always room for error if employee communication is not specific or clear enough. To reduce potential confusion, ensure communications are straightforward and include actions.
- Train managers. While DEIB efforts start at the top, managers must receive ongoing training and development to better engage, manage and support employees. In particular, managers could work with neurodivergent employees to create a better understanding of their strengths and to help them maximize their contributions—just as they should do with all direct reports.
Ultimately, employers have a responsibility to help combat the stigmas associated with neurodivergence.
Understanding and championing neurodiversity in the workplace can help employers better deliver on their DEIB efforts and foster work environments where all employees can thrive. If you have questions about how you can foster a neurodiverse-friendly workplace, contact us to speak to a consultant. You can also follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn or here on the FBS Blog for more employee health and wellness trends.