Embracing Neurodiversity in the Workplace
By Karin Tierney
The concept of neurodiversity isn’t new, and it has been gaining mainstream traction in recent years. In 1998, Australian sociologist Judy Singer coined the term “neurodiversity” to recognize that each person’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 describes differences in brain functioning as 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.
Individuals who exhibit such variations in brain functioning can be considered “neurodivergent.” The larger population not considered neurodivergent is said to be “neurotypical.”
Workplace Challenges for Neurodivergent Employees
People who are neurodivergent have differences in the way their brain works. First and foremost, neurodiversity is generally not visible; someone looking at a neurodiverse person would not immediately recognize their different brain functioning. This leaves many neurodivergent workers 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 minds. As a result, neurodiversity can often be misunderstood, making neurodivergent people feel the need to camouflage in neurotypical societies, situations, and organizations. This behavior is termed “masking” and is done deliberately or subconsciously. One of the most significant issues with masking is that it can cause burnout stemming from exhaustion and stress.
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 a 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 Neurodivergent-friendly Workplaces
Having employees from different backgrounds is often the first step to establishing a diverse and inclusive culture. 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 neurodivergent-friendly work environments:
- Asses hiring and onboarding processes. The hiring process sets the tone with candidates, and inclusive hiring practices can make a good first impression. 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.
- Create channels that attract neurodiverse workers. Recruiting is not a one-size-fits-all approach, so consider adding options which 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, so they feel more at ease by knowing what to expect.
- Focus on skills-based hiring. Ensure job postings accurately reflect roles and responsibilities. For example, not every job may need “excellent communication skills,” which could deter qualified individuals from applying. Consider ways to tailor each job description to depict the role correctly and seek transferable skills.
- Offer flexible working options. Telework or remote work models can give workers the flexibility to work in a comfortable environment over which they feel control. 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 quiet 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. 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 help them identify their strengths and 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.
Contact Hickok & Boardman HR Intelligence for resources to help develop your people leaders and to provide HR consulting services to attract, engage, and retain talent.