Future of Work Insights

A neurodiverse workforce

6 minute read time

Businesses are learning how to best support a neurodiverse workforce, and the benefits this can bring.

Organisations have largely woken up to the fact that creating a workforce that is more representative of the people they do business with can deliver significant benefits. But while equality on gender and ethnicity lines is well understood, the concept of neurodiversity remains more of a challenge for employers.

Policies aimed at promoting greater levels of gender and racial equality in the workplace have been implemented at both the governmental and corporate levels. Meanwhile, a significant body of research has developed to demonstrate the business benefits of creating more representative workforces.

The concept of neurodiversity, however, is one that has not yet received such a widespread level of recognition. Essentially this idea suggests that a business can derive advantages from employing ‘neurodivergent’ staff – such as those that have conditions like autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia.

Studies in the UK, for example, suggest that around 15% of the population can be classified in this way. So what are the implications for employers?

Widening the talent pool

“Neurodiversity is an opportunity for businesses to benefit from unique talent, as well as the broader benefits of inclusion, such as increased creativity, employee retention and brand health,” explains Alex Hirst, co-founder and joint CEO of international consultancy The Hoxby Collective. “And incorporating neurodiverse talent can bring competitive advantages.”

Hirst points to research from the UK-based National Autistic Society, which suggests that some individuals with autism can solve problems up to 40% faster than those without. “Small changes to working environments, communication styles, and recruitment processes can make it easier to recruit and retain those with autism, for example. A remote working environment presents a solution that is less chaotic, and social interaction might be less stressful.”

Assessing individual needs

Adapting to suit the varying requirements of neurodivergent talent can require flexibility – but many of the adjustments that may suit such candidates will benefit the majority of your workforce.

Suki Sandhu, founder and CEO of recruitment specialist Audeliss, adds: “People with ADHD can suffer from low self-esteem, so providing a safe and secure environment in the workplace can give them the constancy they desire – and may even be life-changing. The growing popularity of flexible working is improving accessibility and confidence for these candidates, enabling them to shape their day around their energy levels, which can fluctuate daily. A safe, secure and flexible environment can really help employees with ADHD to flourish.”

Debbie Scrimshaw, director of Isle of Man-based consultancy Paragon HR & Recruitment, says: “The potential merits of a neurodiverse workforce cannot be underestimated; the need for diversity in organisations is a given and it’s generally accepted that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams.

“While generalisation and stereotyping can be unhelpful, positive attributes commonly associated with neurodiverse groups can include creativity, enhanced visual spatial thinking, development of highly specialised skills and consistency in tasks once mastered.”

Factoring diversity into recruitment practices

Scrimshaw says that while employers should aim to avoid “simplistic labelling”, they should be attuned to the possible benefits of increasing the number of neurodivergent staff in their workforces – a process that begins with the right approach to hiring.

“Equality is not about treating everyone the same: it is recognising and treating people according to their unique needs”

Debbie Scrimshaw, Director, Paragon Recruitment

“Recruitment processes can be a potential barrier to neurodiversity and care should be taken to avoid discrimination,” she explains. “Simple solutions include offering multiple application methods, avoiding ambiguous job adverts, setting only relevant tasks at the interview stage and ensuring that the selection process gives candidates the chance to demonstrate their abilities in different ways.”

Employers should also consider what steps they could take to accommodate neurodiverse staff of all kinds at work, Scrimshaw says. “Minor adjustments in the workplace may also be beneficial, and these adjustments are frequently easy to implement and often inexpensive.

“Management awareness and ability, together with sensitivity in application, is key and raising awareness is therefore a great starting point for employers to make their workplaces more neurodiverse. Equality is not about treating everyone the same: it is recognising and treating people according to their unique needs.”

Sandhu adds: “Everybody deserves a chance to be employed and reap the benefits of financial security, purpose and being a part of something. Neurodiverse individuals have faced challenges throughout their lives and are well-versed in tackling issues head-on and dealing with them in their own way. This should be celebrated and supported through mentorship programmes, ongoing support, training and development.”

Unconscious bias training

Andrew Willis, head of legal and advisory at HR consultant Croner, says that businesses should be aware of the potential impact of unconscious bias when it comes to improving neurodiversity. “Businesses should introduce unconscious bias training, as well as ensuring key hiring and promotion decisions are transparent and based solely on a predetermined list of skills and experience,” he recommends.

“Businesses may also seek to increase awareness of neurodiversity in order to create a more inclusive and understanding environment. One way of doing this would be to create a specific neurodiversity policy, which could be read in support of any existing equal opportunities policy, to reaffirm a commitment to meeting employees’ needs.”

Management should also reassess any performance targets to ensure they are appropriate for neurodivergent individuals, Willis says. “Employers are warned against jumping to rash decisions when individuals struggle to meet performance targets and might instead examine where further support may be required.”

Ultimately, however, Scrimshaw says that embracing neurodiversity can help businesses become more effective and successful. “This approach is about helping everyone to thrive and seeing everyone as talent, no matter how their brain works, creating more inclusive, engaged and innovative organisations.”

By Chris Torney