The workplace benefits of neurodiversity

Progressive employers are recognising that neurodivergent employees are an important part of the workforce, says Naeema Choudry

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As we emerge from a period of pandemic and economic challenges, maximising staff skills and available resources to meet business demand is proving a significant employment issue. This is why many employers are now recognising and acting to make sure that the neurodivergent are welcomed as part of their diversity efforts.

Neurodiversity is now a widely accepted term for conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyper-activity disorder, dyslexia and dyspraxia. Each of these can affect how individuals think or respond to their environment but they are increasingly recognised as bringing unique perspectives, ideas and talents to the workplace.

Many employers now understand and want to capitalise upon the value that greater diversity brings. It is a strength just like many others. And progressive employers are recognising that the neurodivergent make up an important part of that diversity.

The positive impacts of having a diverse workforce is well-evidenced. A 2020 report by global management consulting firm McKinsey once more confirmed the significant statistical correlation between diversity and business performance, including for profitability and productivity. That particular report found that companies in the bottom quartile for gender and ethnic/cultural diversity were 29 per cent less likely to achieve above-average profitability, significantly lagging behind their competitors.

However, similar advantages are reflected where there is broader diversity, including neurodiversity. Research suggests particular synergy with neurodivergent workers can arise within certain roles. A 2021 report by JPMorgan Chase found that neurodivergent employees in certain tech roles could be up to 140 per cent more productive than neurotypical colleagues.

Despite the convenience of grouping workers under a particular umbrella term, avoiding stereotyping or making assumptions regarding neurodiversity is as important to this group as to any other if employers are to tap into the pool of talent available.

While a number of big tech companies have actively recruited neurodivergent workers, focusing on the advantages, this relies upon individual attributes not generalisations.

More frequently, employers overlook the needs or capabilities of this group, starting from recruitment, where simple adjustments to the process can transform the neurodivergent candidate’s experience, some of whom may experience heightened anxiety in face-to-face situations or need additional time to navigate competency tests or written aspects. It is important that employers ask if any accommodations are needed, not only as a matter of good practice but to ensure recruitment processes are fair and non-discriminatory.

It is estimated that one in eight of us has neurodiverse characteristics, meaning there will be various manifestations in the workplace. Often in practice, HR managers or lawyers will be called in to assist with a grievance or conflict that has escalated and might have been managed very differently and with much better results had accommodations been made for neurodiversity. Better understanding, leadership and training for managers can help to reduce conflict and facilitate much greater inclusion and positive changes in attitude.

Accommodating different ways of working can be just as constructive. The increased ability to work remotely and to manage workplace interaction online during the pandemic facilitated working and greater productivity for many neurodivergent workers. For many it demonstrated that working flexibly can improve opportunities and outcomes for both employers and neurodiverse workers. But smaller changes, possibly in communication strategies, working environments and other adaptations specific to individual needs and reasonable for the business can be similarly effective.

As businesses look to recover from the pandemic, deal with skills shortages head on and create a more diverse work environment, they cannot forget the neurodivergent. Better creativity through alternative perspectives and a new culture that brings higher retention and attraction rates – the employers that create the right environment will reap the right rewards.

Naeema Choudry is a partner at Eversheds Sutherland