The new ‘neuro-equal’ workplace

Charlotte Valuer explains how firms can embrace neurodiversity in the post Covid economy

Although awareness around neurodiversity is increasing amongst employers, research shows that the vast majority of companies are not keeping pace.

For example, according to the National Autistic Society, only 22% of autistic people are  “in paid work” in the UK. This is compared with 47% of disabled people and 80% of non-disabled people.

Dyslexic individuals could make up to 40% of the unemployed population. With between 10% to 15% of the population affected by dyslexia, even if we take the lowest figure, this equates to around 7.3 million people in the UK and globally this is 700 million people, according to the British Dyslexia Association.

But what is neurodiversity? This term refers to those with what some call developmental disabilities, such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, or social anxiety disorders.

However, there is a growing understanding in the business and wider world that these individuals are not disabled, but rather see, think about and experience the world differently.

Why we need a ‘neuro-equal’ workplace

Many neurodiverse individuals experience difficulty during the hiring process because they may struggle with the traditional structure. This includes timed written assignments or a social framework that clashes with a neurodiverse person’s social skills as these may come across as different.

However, they may also be extremely knowledgeable, hold multiple degrees, have above-average abilities when it comes to certain tasks, and have above-average levels of concentration.

They could also be the perfect fit for an organisation looking to solve complex issues, but these individuals are too often told they’re “not the right cultural fit,” due to being different.

As a result, many neurodiverse people who are in employment, are not in mainstream employment: over a third of entrepreneurs identify themselves as dyslexic, which shows that employers are failing to attract or retain a significant pool of ambitious and success-driven, neurodiverse talent, according to research.

Even where neurodiverse individuals are in mainstream employment, many tend to keep their neurodiversity a secret, worried about discrimination from their employer, colleagues, or both.

Feeling unsafe to disclose who you are is a signal of an institutionalised and systemic problem that persists with the way neurodiversity is treated in the workplace and wider society. With up to 20% of the world’s population being neurodiverse, employers most likely already have neurodiverse employees or are very likely to in the future. Discrimination is not only a social injustice but is commercially short-sighted: it limits the workforce to one type of world viewpoint whilst trying to meet the complex challenges of the new decade.

However, it is encouraging to see the increasing awareness of the benefits of neurodiverse inclusion in the workforce. EY, Google and JP Morgan Chase are amongst the largest and well-known organisations to mount drives for employing neurodiverse individuals and cultivating a neurodiversity positive work environment. 

What some businesses are doing

In the UK,  GCHQ’s recent recruitment drive has called specifically for people who are dyslexic to apply, with the employer citing the different perspectives which allow dyslexic people to think differently and spot patterns that others simply don’t.

These companies and institutions can expect to see direct benefits including different perspectives and modes of thought, hyper-focus, attention to detail, directness and honesty, creativity, innovation, and more.

One of the greatest barriers to fairer treatment in the workplace for neurodiverse groups is that neurodiversity isn’t yet included in many companies’ diversity and inclusion strategies, with the majority addressing other forms of diversity such as gender or ethnicity.

A CIPD poll revealed that “72% of HR professionals in the UK stated neurodiversity wasn’t considered a part of their organisation’s people management practices” with “17% not knowing”. LinkedIn’s Workforce Diversity Report (2018) indicated a similar trend.

The neurodiverse community is talented, ambitious and an underutilised resource within our workforce. It’s time for the workplace and employers to truly value neurodiversity.

Adjustment(s) advice

Some steps employers can take to better cater to neurodiverse individuals in their organisations include:

  • Updating D&I strategies to include language and policies around the neurodiverse community. Importantly, these policies should ensure the structural process of hiring is an inclusive one.
  • Existing managers and hiring staff could be trained on the reality of what it means to be neurodiverse, promoting understanding within the organisation. For example, eye contact or understanding certain social contexts can be challenging for neurodiverse individuals. Having training on the importance of open and direct dialogue with neurodiverse individuals is a key step here.
  • The way training or team meets are conducted internally can be amended to be neurodiverse friendly. One simple example, is being aware of the font sizes and colours which are accommodating for all neurotypes. Certain colours and font sizes are difficult to read for certain neurodiverse conditions such as dyslexia or autism.
  • The ways in which  office  space or other workplaces are designed should also be considered. Making the workspace environment open, quiet and naturally lit are also key steps. Harsh lighting, crowded areas with little personal space or areas that have strong smells activate stress responses in many neurodiverse people.

Making these workspace adjustments are simple and inexpensive actions that employers can take to promote wellbeing across the firm, and not just for neurodiverse individuals.

Charlotte Valeur is the former chair of the Institute of Directors (IOD) and the co-founder and current chair of the Institute Of Neurodiversity (ION). She has over 40 years of experience in finance, primarily as an investment banker in Denmark and the UK.

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