Neurodiversity at work and how to accommodate it
There has been a significant rise in attention paid to mental health at workplaces. There are many discussions going on about diversity, inclusivity and wellbeing for both employers and talents. However, there is an issue that sometimes goes overlooked in these conversations: neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity can be a hard topic to talk about: it’s a relatively new area for many, but not for those who live their lives experiencing it. There is a discrepancy between the neurodivergent workforce and unaware employers, which needs to be eliminated for the benefit of everyone. As a neurodivergent worker, I wanted to write this article to explain the issue to the uninformed and show any reader the reality of living and working as a neurodivergent professional.
What is neurodiversity?
Nicole Baumer, MD, MEd explains neurodiversity as “… the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.”
While the term “neurodiversity” stands for differences in cognitive abilities as an umbrella term, it is used to refer to neurological and developmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.
This concept might remind you of mental health, however, the two are not the same. Mental health encompasses all psychological conditions like depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar personality disorder and many more. Neurodiversity, on the other hand, is about differences in learning, processing new information, behavior and executive function due to neurological variables.
We all are part of a society that has only recently actually tried to understand and respect neurodivergent individuals. There are a lot of stereotypes about this community and insensitive words thrown around like “unmotivated”, “lazy”, “slow”, or “difficult”. These adjectives, of course, do not pair well with a prospective talent. This lack of awareness is among the reasons why almost 80% of the neurodivergent population in the US, for example, is currently unemployed.
What is the experience of the neurodivergent community?
As an adult woman who got her ADHD diagnosis only a couple of years ago, I can say that living life as a neurodivergent individual can be summed up as confusing and exhausting, especially when you’re not diagnosed and don’t have the right tools. We live in a world set up for neurotypical individuals, from our school schedules to standardized tests, exams, work, job interviews, even friendships.
Imagine yourself being confused by how effortlessly other people learn, complete their tasks, set goals, stick to schedules, complete projects or do other tasks that are sometimes impossible to do–no matter how much you want to do them. Being considered as “lazy” or “slow” is upsetting for neurodiverse people because we already feel extremely upset when we see our differences highlighted in people’s expectations of us.
The reality is, our brains just work in a different way. We can learn very effectively using different tools. A person on the autism spectrum might not feel comfortable maintaining eye contact and that might seem like they’re uninterested, rude or distracted. That person would perform better at, let’s say online meetings, if they’re allowed to turn off their camera and focus on the discussion. A person with ADHD might have difficulty finding motivation to start a task (as ADHD is related to dopamine deficiency) but if they are provided with the right kind of professional motivation, you’ll see that they perform excellently at high-pressure roles at companies.
Neurodiversity at work
Although the historical trend for neurodivergent employment is disheartening, there has been some effort put forward into hiring and training neurodivergent professionals. Recently, many companies including Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, Ford and SAP have transformed their HR recruitment processes in order to attract neurodiverse talents. In addition to these companies, many others like IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Caterpillar, Dell Technologies and Deloitte are working towards implementing a similar change.
This is because employers have started to realize that neurodiversity is not something to be apprehensive of, rather something that can be the missing link to success. Companies that spend the time on educating themselves about neurodiversity “look at the pool of diverse humanity and see—in the middle—the range of different thinking that’s made humanity’s progress in science and the creative arts possible”, as scholar in residence and co-chair of the Neurodiversity Working Group at the College of William & Mary, John Elder Robison points out.
Research shows that neurodivergent people can have stronger skills in mathematics, memory and pattern recognition; and that teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without them. Neurodiverse people were also found to be more inclined to spot irregularities quicker, sustain attention to detail and keep focused on repetitive or complex tasks for a longer time; which are all excellent skills for succeeding at a career.
Employing neurodiverse talents can seem challenging at first, which is true in some sense. If an employer wants to be accommodating to neurodivergent professionals, they will need to face and unlearn their prejudices and change their recruitment and management style accordingly.
How to accommodate neurodiversity at work
If you are an employer willing to put the necessary effort into welcoming neurodiverse talents, we have some tips on how you can make your neurodivergent talents feel welcomed and address their needs.
Change your recruitment process
Let’s start at the beginning. If you’re looking to transform your company into a welcoming organization for neurodiverse talents, you should start with reconsidering your hiring process.
One idea can be emphasizing your efforts in accommodating neurodiversity in your job listings. For the interview process, you can try departing from the standard back-to-back online interviews and offer different assignment options for candidates to show their skills. Also, you can do the interviews with a group of candidates, allowing neurodivergent people who have difficulty with one-on-one meetings to communicate more easily.
Offer different work models
There have been several articles and research papers that prove the remote working model has a positive impact on mental health. This can be true regarding neurodiversity as well. For example, one of the difficulties some people on the autism spectrum go through is “masking”. Masking is the term used for describing the behavioral change neurodivergent people willingly perform in order to fit in, or blend in, with their environment.
Having this fact in mind, it is easy to imagine how difficult working at an office would be for a neurodivergent person who feels the need to “mask” every single day. As this psychological effort requires great energy to keep up, it would cause a decline in performance. That is one of the reasons neurodivergent people might feel more comfortable working remotely. In the end, a working space perfectly tailored to one’s needs is hard to come by in traditional offices.
Operating with flexible working models allows the employees to make the best decision for themselves in order to perform at their best. On the other hand, some neurodivergent people might find flexibility overwhelming. For example, organization, self-scheduling and time management are usually skills weaker in people with ADHD. An employee with ADHD might perform much better if they are given a set schedule, deadlines and clear instructions.
Just like how companies integrate “flexibility” differently, the same can be said for neurodivergent people. They can be comfortable with flexibility to some extent, but might need help in some areas. The key concept here is autonomy. If your talents feel that they have the freedom to choose how they work, they might be more open to trying out new tools to make flexibility work for them, like digital management and organization programs.
There are resources that you can make sure are available to employees in order to create a welcoming environment to neurodiverse talents, both in-office and remotely. These resources can include:
- Professional counseling
- Health insurance coverage for psychiatric treatment
- Dedicated quiet areas in the office
- Mental health sick days protected by company policies
Train other workers and managers
It’s always important to keep learning. If you also value transforming your organization with the changing landscape of society, you can train all talents (including team leads and managers) on the correct ways to accommodate neurodiversity in the workplace.
You don’t need to arrange training and write up guides from scratch by yourself, you can use outside sources on neurodiversity to educate both yourself and your employees. CIPD, a non-profit HR and development organization has an amazing guide to neurodiversity at work you might want to check out for a start.
Social interactions and communication in general might be harder than usual for neurodivergent people. You can alleviate this challenge by directly asking your neurodivergent talent what you can do in order to make them comfortable enough to effectively communicate. Also, as conversational, professional and social cues might also be harder to recognize for neurodivergent professionals, codifying implied rules might be immensely helpful.
One important thing to remember is that all neurodivergent people are different, as neurological and cognitive conditions present in different ways for different people. Not every person on the autism spectrum has the same sensitivities, and not every person with ADHD has problems controlling hyperactivity.
To speak from experience, when I was diagnosed with ADHD, my psychiatrist very quickly explained how differently ADHD presents itself in women when compared to men. To give an example, one of the most well-known ADHD symptoms, hyperactivity, very rarely presents in women.
If you’re an employer: Communication is key to effectively working with neurodivergent people. Employers can and should ask their neurodiverse talents their needs and expectations at a workplace and be willing to figure out how to implement the necessary changes. Remember to stay empathetic to conditions you might not experience or understand yourself but affect people every day.
If you’re a neurodivergent professional, you can try starting the conversation by having a chat with your team lead and communicate what tools or changes you would require in order to keep working at your best. Neurodivergent people aren’t “lacking” because of their condition and there is nothing to be ashamed of if you require different accommodations. This conversation might be difficult to have, but it might lead to a better working environment for you in the end.
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