It has been estimated that around 15% of people in the UK are neurodivergent, but often working environments are poorly suited for those who have alternative thinking styles. Neurodiversity is a term used to describe a natural range of difference in the way the brain processes and understands the world. It can result in people perceiving and experiencing the physical and social world around them in unique ways. Autism, dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia are some of the more familiar diagnoses associated with neurodiversity.
There are over half a million autistic people in the UK. Autistic people experience life-long difficulties with social interaction. Autism covers a very broad spectrum of abilities and challenges, but because people with autism may communicate and express themselves in unique ways, underlying talent is rarely given the chance to flourish.
As a result, employment rates among the autistic population are startlingly low. This has a huge impact on wellbeing and stability for autistic people. It also means companies are missing out on a potentially vast talent pool that in many cases could make a real difference to the bottom line.
A unique impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic may further threaten the already limited employment stability that autistic people experience. Social distancing measures have caused a radical shift in the way that everyone works, and autistic people may be particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of this shift. For example, many autistic people feel that daily routine and consistency are essential to successful employment. COVID restrictions have totally disrupted this existing structure.
There may also be positive aspects of the new working patterns most of us have quickly adopted. Our research has shown that many autistic people welcome the widespread acceptance of flexible practices and remote working. For others, the lack of in-person work removed their main source of social contact, leading to increases in loneliness and isolation. Unfortunately, some autistic people have also experienced worsening stigma and discrimination. They reported that with so many competing priorities for everyone else in the organisation, their needs were no longer being recognised.
Improving wellbeing and performance in the workplace
Across the UK, there is a growing drive to recognise and help neurodivergent people in the workplace. Many workplaces are usually set up based on “neurotypical” practices. For example, recruitment processes typically involve a face-to-face interview which is biased against candidates who do not have good social presentation skills – even if they have the underlying abilities to carry out the job role. In situations where neurodivergent people do start a new job, they are often poorly supported. In our recent DARE Adjustments Report, divergent people surveyed reported that their requests for adjustments (which allow them to work safely and productively) were refused or poorly implemented.
Practical examples of how to support neurodivergent employees
There are several strategies for supporting neurodivergent employees. Practical supports may apply right from the recruitment process onwards. For example, ensuring that assessment criteria are not biased towards good social presentation skills if unnecessary to the job. Once in a role, neurodivergent employees might need alterations made to the sensory environment (e.g. being able to wear headphones) or to management styles such as written rather than verbal feedback, as well as the following steps:
- Most importantly, take an individualised approach to support: involve the neurodivergent employee in the discussions about the best approach for them
- Actively encourage applications from neurodivergent candidates to develop a clear structure and expectation
- Communicate in explicit and concise ways (e.g. instructions via email rather than verbal)
- Relax expectations around social obligations (e.g. going to lunch/dinner)
- Consider extra breaks to help manage being overwhelmed throughout the day
- Ensure adjustments are implemented swiftly
- Provide frequent feedback, particularly about things that have gone well (this is crucial during periods of remote working)
- Provide neurodiversity training for all employees.
A data-led evaluation of a company’s current employment practices is also key. To design and implement sustainable changes within the workplace, it’s crucial to gather the quality information a business needs to make informed decisions, understand what areas need to be prioritised, and what challenges need addressing.
An example of this is our recent work with Fujitsu UK. Earlier this month, as a follow-on from National Inclusion Week, we worked with Fujitsu to launch our “Diverse Minds Survey”, a bespoke data collection tool to investigate the company’s current approach to neurodiversity, identify which reasonable adjustments will help promote the recruitment and retention of neurodivergent employees and help build recognition of neurodiversity into their practices, policies and training programmes.
Introducing DARE: Discover Autism Research and Employment
DARE is a globally unique employment programme by the national autism research charity Autistica and academics at UCL Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE). Unlike any other employment programme in this space, DARE draws upon one of the largest evidence-bases in the UK on autistic employment to develop data-driven insights, advice and training for companies of all sizes and sectors. Crucially, it also offers in-depth, bespoke research at a fraction of the cost of commissioning a stand-alone study or evaluation.
Explore the effect of COVID-19 on diversity and inclusion, and how business can make diversity a priority at the fourth CBI Diversity & Inclusion Conference, 30 November - 1 December. Click here to secure your place.
CBI members get unlimited tickets to attend this conference. Non-members get complimentary access to selected sessions.