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Neurodiversity in the workplace: how to support neurodivergent staff

Neurodiversity in the workplace: how to support neurodivergent staff

The term ‘neurodiversity’ was coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s and it recognises that variations in brain function and the resulting behavioural traits are indicators of how diverse the human population really is.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that can be broken down to describe ‘neurotypical’ and ‘neurodivergent’ people. While neurotypical people are those who have a style of neurocognitive functioning that falls within the societal standards of ‘normal’ - neurodivergent people are those whose minds function in ways which diverge from the dominant societal standards. Typically, when we think about neurodiversity, we are talking about people who have Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia or Dyspraxia.

It is estimated that around 1 in 7 people in the UK (roughly 15%) are neurodivergent. Therefore, organisations that aim to be truly inclusive cannot exclude such a significant proportion of the workforce without the risk of missing talent, compromising on productivity and damaging their customers’ trust. Equally as important as the business case for diversity, is the importance of diversity of thought. This means getting people with different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences into a room so that your team is more innovative and creative.

In everyday business, we see that neurodivergent staff can excel when given the opportunity and, some of the typical traits that you might find in neurodivergent staff include:-

  • high levels of concentration 
  • reliability, conscientiousness and perseverance
  • attention to detail and accuracy
  • technical ability in areas such as in IT
  • detailed factual knowledge and an excellent memory
  • creative and new ways of thinking outside the box
  • optimism and energy in the workplace

By following the lead of companies who actively seek to hire and accommodate neurodivergent staff, such as Microsoft, JP Morgan and Dell, employers can tap into a great source of potential in the marketplace.

What support should I offer neurodivergent staff?

While many neurodivergent people would not consider themselves to be disabled, due to the impact that these conditions can have, some will be classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 and, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee (or applicant) on the basis of their disability.

The types of disability discrimination include:-

  • Direct discrimination: directly discriminating against an applicant or employee by treating them less favourably than others because of their disability.
  • Discrimination arising from disability: treating an applicant or employee unfavourably due to something that is a consequence of their disability without objective justification.
  • Indirect discrimination: acts, decisions or policies which, while not intended to treat a job applicant or employee less favourably, nonetheless have the practical effect of disadvantaging them without objective justification.

Crucially though, it is also unlawful for an employer to fail to comply with its duty to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled job applicant or employee is placed at a substantial disadvantage because of their disability.

Under section 20 of the Equality Act 2010, an employer's duty to make reasonable adjustments will arise in the following situations:

  1. Where a provision, criterion or practice applied by the employer puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with those who are not disabled, the employer must take such steps as is reasonable to avoid the disadvantage;
  2. Where a physical feature of the employer's premises puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with those who are not disabled, the employer must take such steps as are reasonable to avoid the disadvantage; and
  3. Where a disabled person would, but for the employer's provision of an auxiliary aid, be put at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with those who are not disabled, the employer must take such steps as are reasonable to provide the auxiliary aid.

If an employer finds itself in one of these situations, managers should consider making some of the following changes to help level the playing field for neurodivergent staff:-

  • Offering use of private rooms or quiet spaces within the office away from doors, busy phones or loud equipment;
  • Allowing home working for part of the week to avoid distractions or alternatively, offering flexible hours, i.e. coming in early or late when the office is quieter;
  • Understanding how sensory issues can affect neurodivergent workers by positioning room dividers to enhance soundproofing and providing access to natural light or alternative options for light adjustments;
  • Arranging regular but brief meetings to check in on the progress of work and prioritise workloads for neurodivergent staff; and
  • Making information available in different formats, i.e. audio, video, drawings, diagrams and flowcharts.

Employers should also check their policies and guidance to ensure that neurodivergence is mentioned. This can be either within an equality, inclusion and diversity policy or in its own a stand-alone policy. Specifically addressing the topic will help both workers and employers know what support is available for neurodivergent staff and it will also highlight the organisation’s commitment to supporting neurodivergency in the work place.

Getting senior managers or leaders involved in the discussion, especially if there are any who are neurodivergent, may be helpful to demonstrate what reasonable adjustments have already been made in your organisation and show senior role models to employees and candidates.

Employers should consider offering training on neurodiversity across all levels in their organisation so that staff are aware they can request support. It may also be useful to offer more specific training for managers to ensure that they know how to appropriately manage neurodivergent workers and what they should be doing to offer support.

Overall, employers will need to be open to the idea of taking a holistic approach to each individual’s needs and identifying what support can reasonably be provided to try and alleviate the disadvantages that neurodivergent staff face due to working in environments which are inherently set up to serve the neurotypical workforce. By encouraging diverse employment in the work place and recognising the valuable skill set of neurodiverse people, employers will see the benefit that their abilities can bring.

If you would like to discuss your approach to neurodivergent staff further or if you feel you could benefit from some refresher training in this area, please get in touch with a member of the Employment Team on 03330 430350.

About the author

Chris Phillips
Chris Phillips

Chris Phillips



For more information, contact Chris Phillips or any member of the Employment team on +44 131 322 6163.