Workplace neurodiversity: the power of difference
Creating a fully inclusive workforce might create a more innovative, productive and compassionate culture.
According to research undertaken by The Institute of Leadership and Management, the workplace is not a happy place for many neurodivergent people. The majority of diagnosed autistic, dyspraxic and dyscalculic employees who responded to the survey, reported that people in their workplaces behave in ways that exclude them, with just under half of dyslexics and people who have ADHD/ADD having similar experiences.
Workplaces are far less inclusive of neurodivergent people than neurotypical people believe.
The private sector seems to be the least friendly place for neurodivergent people, as the research indicated that the third and public sectors seem to be more inclusive places. More neurodivergent people are employed, or it seems to be more acceptable to be open about the conditions.
Not being able to bring your true self to work is not a situation an enlightened employer should find acceptable. Hiding one’s true self requires energy and can be anxiety provoking; energy that would be better spent on one’s work, and being anxious about relationships with colleagues adds to the complexity of collaborating with colleagues.
Addressing the perception gap
This disquiet with the work environment reported by neurodivergent people is one that neurotypical people seem unaware of. A key finding from our research is that workplaces are far less inclusive of neurodivergent people than neurotypical people believe. The majority of neurotypical employees believe their workplace encourages behaviours that are inclusive of neurodivergent people, but half (or fewer) of autistic people, people with attention deficit disorders (ADHD/ADD) and dyscalculics don’t agree.
The extent to which a workplace is perceived to lack inclusivity varies according to the nature of an employee’s neurodivergent condition. Autistic people consistently report worse experiences compared with people who have other forms of neurodivergence. Dyscalculics and people who have ADHD/ADD are also inclined to say that the workplace lacks inclusivity. Dyslexics and dyspraxics enjoy a better workplace experience than other neurodivergent employees – although even their experiences are not as positive as neurotypical people believe.
Many neurotypical respondents are confident that reasonable adjustments for neurodivergence are made during recruitment and selection processes but many autistic, dyscalculic and dyslexic candidates disagreed. This suggests that leaders and managers may believe they are making adjustments for neurodivergent people but are either not making sufficient adjustments or, perhaps more importantly, not making the right adjustments. They are therefore not attracting and recruiting sufficient talented neurodivergent people because the processes, not the applicants, are wrong.
Respondents to the study claimed a high level of awareness around neurodivergent conditions. More people were very knowledgeable about dyslexia than other forms of neurodiversity. The majority knew at least a little about ADHD/ADD, autism, dyslexia and Tourette’s, with fewer than 3% saying that they had never heard of these conditions. Dyscalculia and dyspraxia are the least known conditions.
A perception gap between what managers think is happening and how that is experienced by others in the organisation, is a consistent and recurrent finding almost irrespective of the issue being researched. Nevertheless, this research highlights how detrimental this perception gap can be on the day-to-day experience of neurodivergent employees at work.
Although our findings show there are varying levels of inclusion in different sectors, there is a serious absence of references to neurodiversity in official policies and procedures. With one in seven people estimated to be neurodivergent, this must be impacting talent acquisition and retention. If recruitment and selection processes are not adjusted to be inclusive of neurodivergent applicants, they will be excluded without anyone being aware that this has happened.
While not receiving feedback form employers is a complaint of many unsuccessful job applicants, organisations rarely seek feedback from people who don’t apply for positions to understand whether there are actions that could be taken to be more inclusive and so widen the talent pool.
Once employed, there is still much that can be done to improve the working lives of neurodivergent employees. The abrupt shift to home working for many individuals has highlighted as never before how vastly different are the domestic circumstances of the people we work with. There are signs of a new understanding of these differences and a new acceptance that work has to be flexed differently for different people, but it is so often an individual negotiation rather than a blanket policy.
There are many forms of neurodivergence and many ways this is experienced by neurodivergent individuals. The starting point for any reasonable adjustments has to be an honest conversation between an individual and their manager to establish what is needed to help the neurodivergent person bring their whole self to work and engage successfully in work that has meaning and purpose for them.
The benefits of such conversations will not be confined to those individuals, that they take place will impact the culture of the organisation and send a clear message that one’s whole self is welcome. A fully inclusive workforce is not only likely to be more innovative and productive, but also more compassionate, an environment that is good for all employees.
You can find the full research reports here.
Interested in this topic? Read How to build a more inclusive space for neurodiversity.
Prior to joining The Institute of Leadership & Management Kate Cooper worked in the university sector. She has appeared on, amongst others, BBC Television, BBC Radio 4 and has a regular column in Dialogue magazine. She is a key note speaker at conferences and provides expert commentary on a range of topics arising from the Institute’s...