Neurodiversity at work

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Health Assured team

18 June 2019

It’s estimated that roughly 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent. Meaning their brain functions, learns and processes information differently than others.

Previously, many employers mistook these divergences as laziness. We now understand that this isn’t the case. It’s likely you will have neurodiverse employees, either now or in the future. So, it’s important you know how to support neurodivergent employees. 

Those with neurodivergent conditions are often more at risk at risk of suffering from mental illnesses or poor wellbeing. This is often due to a lack of support, and the stress of 'masking' — acting neurotypically in order to avoid negativity.

The stress and strain this causes stops neurodiverse people performing as well as they can.

Read on to understand how you can support a neurodiverse workforce and get the best out of all of your employees.

What is neurodiversity?

A relatively new term, neurodivergent simply means someone who thinks differently from the way the majority (referred to as neurotypical) expect.

Neurotypical means the opposite –someone whose brain behaves in the same way as the majority of society.

Employers should recognise and understand that neurological differences are to be respected. These conditions should be accepted, respected and recognised as a social category alongside any other human variation, i.e., ethnicity or gender.

We often consider nurodiversity to be a social justice movement that focuses on celebrating neurodivergence along with cultural diversity. People have often seen these as medical disorders and focused on how to “cure” these issues.

The movement asks people not to consider these conditions as disabilities but as a variation of the human mind. Besides this, many believe that therapies and medication to either change or monitor a person’s behaviour is unnecessary and unethical.

History

The idea of neurodiversity was first established in the 1990s by an Australian sociologist, Judy Singer.

Singer herself was on the autism spectrum, and she created the term neurodiversity. She created the word as a term to describe a new movement towards neurological diversity being recognised, accepted, and respected.

She hoped they would see neurological diversity not as a defect or a disorder, but simply different. They soon recognised that there was an issue with how people facing these differences were discriminated against.

Here are several neurodiverse conditions that employers should know:

  • ADHD: affecting around 4% of the population, ADHD can cause issues with impulse control, attention, and concentration.
  • Autism: affecting 1-2% of the population, autism affects the way someone perceives the world. People with autism can find social interaction and change difficult and uncomfortable.
  • Dyslexia: a condition that gives someone language processing difficulties that cause issues with reading, writing, and spelling.
  • Dyspraxia: affecting around 5% of the population, dyspraxia affects physical coordination. People may seem clumsy, disorganised, and have trouble with structure.
  • Dyscalculia: a specific learning disorder with impairments in learning basic arithmetic facts, processing numbers and performing accurate and fluent calculations.
  • Dysgraphia: a specific learning disability that affects written expression. Dysgraphia can appear as difficulties with spelling, poor handwriting, and trouble putting thoughts on paper.
  • Tourette Syndrome: a neurological condition where there are tics they can’t control - sounds and movements.

Each of these conditions brings strengths and weaknesses. For example, neurodiverse people with autism can be extremely thorough, while people with dyspraxia often have great creativity.

Neurodiversity in the workplace

Employment law has recognised nurodiversity within the context of employment and the workplace. The Equality Act 2010 protects many neurological conditions. It protects individuals against disability discrimination for issues often referred to as ‘hidden disabilities.’

 

We define a disability under the Act as “any physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities”. This ensures those with said characteristics are treated equally – with the same rights, status, and opportunities in society.

 

Every condition covered under neurodiversity has its own set of challenges. These can include but are not limited to:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Excessive stress
  • Issues with timekeeping
  • Maintaining a schedule
  • Physical illnesses

Some may thrive in a working environment and build resilience towards the difficulties they face. Others may struggle to complete certain tasks because of their condition. In these instances, disclosing these challenges to an employer can allow them to support an your people in the workplace.

These people have unique skills and ways of seeing the world, which can be a real benefit for businesses. Over the past two years Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s neurodiversity program has placed more than 30 participants in software-testing roles at Australia’s Department of Human Services (DHS). Preliminary results suggest that the organization’s neurodiverse testing teams are 30% more productive than the others.

Be inclusive, be supportive, and the benefits of neurodiversity employment can be yours.

How can I help?

Those with neurological differences often suffer from mental health issues, including depression, stress, and can often be victims of bullying. To prevent this from happening in your workplace, ensure that you contribute towards building an accepting and nurturing working environment.

  • Improve wellbeing: if your organisation has a good wellbeing system in place, neurodivergent individuals will feel far more confident and secure. Implement an employee assistance programme, display literature, and make sure people know you appreciate their differences.
  • Encourage openness: it’s hard for some neurodivergent people to open up. If you treat every employee equally, it’s a lot easier for them to talk about their differences and therefore much easier to support them.
  • Inclusivity: it’s likely that there are neurodivergent workers in your organisation. Be proactive and think about how to include these people in every aspect of the company’s workings.

You can achieve this by taking part in various awareness day activities, or by simply leading by example and showing an attitude of respect and equality.

Neurodiversity and mental health

If someone is neurodivergent, this doesn’t mean they have a mental health condition. There isn’t really any such thing as a neurodivergent mental illness like ‘neurodivergent depression’ or ‘neurodivergent anxiety,’ just people who think differently from most.

However, the National Autistic Society explains that ‘mental illness can be more common for people on the autism spectrum than in the general population’

The extra pressures on autistic people, while navigating a neurotypically shaped-world, contributes to greater impacts on their mental health.

At work, it’s not hard to imagine how unsympathetic co-workers could lead neurodivergent people to feel isolated or even ridiculed or bullied – or how unsympathetic managers could contribute to stress and anxiety regarding work performance and job security.

The future of neurodiversity

The National Autistic Society’s Autism Employment Gap Report (2016) found that just 16% of adults on the autistic spectrum are in full-time work and 77% of those unemployed want to work.

Recognition of neurodiversity has created a greater level of awareness. Many acknowledge both the strengths and challenges those with neurological differences face.

Developments in the workplace are apparent, creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce. However, there is still room for increased understanding, awareness, and embracement of neurodiversity in our society.

Get help from Health Assured on diversity in the workplace

Failing to support diversity at work can affect employee wellbeing.

It’s your responsibility to look after your employee’s wellbeing at work. If you don’t, you will face legal consequences, see your best employees leave, and experience decreased productivity.

Having wellbeing resources, such as an EAP or our app, you can support your employee’s wellbeing and keep productivity high.

If you want to know more about neurodiversity, or if you have any wellbeing concerns, please call our call our free helpline—it's available 24/7, 365 0844 891 0352.

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