One third of businesses failing to support neurodiverse workers, report suggests

Experts highlight importance of embracing ‘perspectives and value’ offered by employees with conditions such as dyslexia and autism

One in three businesses is failing to support workers with neurodevelopmental disorders such as dyscalculia, dyslexia and Asperger’s, research has suggested. 

A third (32 per cent) of 2,000 UK workers surveyed for Willis Towers Watson's Employee Health, Wellbeing and Benefits Barometer 2019 said their employer did not offer any additional support for those in the workforce with neurodevelopmental disorders.

This was despite more than one in 10 (15 per cent) reporting that either they, or someone they worked with, was neurodivergent – an umbrella term for conditions where the brain functions, learns and processes information differently, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson, said that while these disorders clearly affected the lives of many working-age people – with more than 500,000 adults living with autism in the UK alone, according to Austistica – much more could and should be done in terms of understanding, education and support.

“There is still a long way to go when it comes to recognising the scale of, and the level of support needed, for adults with autism and other conditions,” he said. “Employers may not be aware if someone is suffering from a neurodevelopmental condition, but supposition can be a harmful route and one that can fuel isolation. A supportive environment in which people can be open about living with their conditions, without fear of judgement, is vital.” 

Blake recommended organisations establish this by offering workplace adjustments for affected workers and workshops to help staff better understand neurodivergence. 

He emphasised the importance of privacy and that “boundaries should be respected” but added workers should be consulted about the level and nature of support needed, as some may see their condition as a highly sensitive. 

“Regular communications about how common such conditions are, their symptoms and the support available to those affected will help break down barriers, help to allay concerns and encourage workers to feel more comfortable about the challenges they face,” he added. “For some, it may also give them the confidence to tell their employer about their condition in the first place.”

The findings follow CIPD research which last year found more than 70 per cent of HR professionals did not factor neurodivergence into their people management processes, while 17 per cent did not know whether or not it was included. It found a lack of awareness and flexible HR structures meant many were failing to enable neurodiverse individuals to perform to their full potential

Dr Jill Miller, diversity and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, told People Management employers should embrace the perspectives and value neurodivergent employees could bring, such as alternative thinking styles associated with unique strengths such as data-driven thinking, inferential reasoning, creativity and an ability to spot patterns and trends – “all extremely valuable to employers.” 

She said: “We’re just scratching the surface of understanding how neurodiversity at work can help organisations be more creative and innovative, but the insights we already do have show the value neurodivergent individuals can bring to the workforce.

“However, even at a time when employers are under pressure to identify new talent pools to fill skills gaps, recruitment and development practices are screening out such individuals and the unique skills they possess. Rather than measuring potential employees against a long wish list of capabilities, we need to be clear on the key skills each job requires and enable people who possess those to play to their strengths.”  

Claire McCartney, CIPD associate research advisor, agreed it was great to see the profile of such an important issue being raised.

“Often this area feels a bit daunting to employers, but there are different practical steps which can be taken. More employers are now open and aware but more still needs to be done. Keep talking about how you might do things differently,” she advised.