Majority of neurodivergent employees experiencing mental health issues, study finds

Employers urged to offer tailored support as this group of the workforce reports higher instances of burnout, financial insecurity and poor physical health

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Nearly three-quarters (70 per cent) of neurodivergent employees experience mental health issues, a study from Willis Towers Watson (WTW) has found, leading to calls for better employer support.

WTW’s Global Benefits Attitude Survey, which looked at data from 4,129 people employed by mid to large companies at the beginning of this year, found that only a quarter (25 per cent) of neurodivergent employees felt financially secure and emotionally balanced, while a third (36 per cent) felt they had good physical health.

Half (50 per cent) reported feeling burnt out at work, compared to just 38 per cent of neurotypical employees. Three in five (59 per cent) neurodivergent employees had deferred healthcare, compared to 29 per cent of other employees. 

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Deferred care includes that which has either been delayed or cancelled by the patient or the provider. It meant almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of neurodivergent employees had faced adverse healthcare from delaying or cancelling their treatment. 

Lucy McGrath, wellbeing expert at WTW, highlighted a growing focus on the role of benefits in delivering inclusive care for employees, and an increased list of healthcare providers that support assessment and diagnosis of neurodivergent conditions.

“There are varying levels of support and intervention that a company can engage with, such as using insights and benchmarking and engaging in workshops to build an inclusive care strategy – but doing something is better than nothing,” she said.

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According to the study, more than a third (39 per cent) of employees were looking for a greater focus on benefits that manage their emotional health, and a similar percentage (38 per cent) would like more flexibility.

Neurodivergent employees also leant towards support for day-to-day finances: almost three in five (57 per cent) reported living payday to payday, compared to only 34 per cent of neurotypical employees.

However, two-thirds (67 per cent) of neurodivergent workers said employers have made progress in showing greater understanding around issues of inclusion, diversity and discrimination. 

Nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) had noticed greater visibility of inclusion and diversity as a business issue, and two-thirds (67 per cent) said employers have become more open about these issues at work.

A separate survey from WTW, which looked at responses from 173 employees in June and July this year, found that a third (38 per cent) of companies had incorporated inclusion and diversity policies into their benefits offering. 

Another WTW survey of 166 employers in January this year found that one in five (20 per cent) employers had already implemented benefits designed to support neurodivergent employees, while a quarter (24 per cent) of employers were planning to do so.

Ngozi Weller, director of Aurora Wellness, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), said the findings were unsurprising, and stressed there was a strong link between neurodiversity and mental health issues. “When the neurodivergent individual, like myself, doesn’t receive the kind of support they need, then it is easy for that anxiety to be compounded by things like depression,” she said.

She recalled her own experience, after receiving her diagnosis, the lack of understanding from her employer in terms of putting things in place to support her at work, and said employers hoping get the best out of their workforce should put “safe avenues” in place for neurodivergent employees, and focus on providing bespoke solutions for a variety of neurotypes. 

Kirsty Garshong, associate director at Harnham, who is also neurodivergent, said such employees should be treated as added value to a business, and not as a challenge to employers. Hiring processes need to be improved to see a candidate's talents, and how to bring out the best in people, she added.

Language in interviews must be changed from asking poorly framed questions about ‘learning difficulties’ and ‘needing extra support’ to “asking how someone learns best or what equipment they might find helpful day to day, such as a dictaphone”.

“It pays to be flexible… and to educate yourself on different neurological groups,” she said. 

Isabel Collins, founder of Belonging Space, said employers should focus on reaching out for the right talent, and individualising support; some with ADHD may need additional support around breaking down tasks, while those with dyslexia can benefit from simple voice tech. 

Others may feel drained from social interaction and will need quiet working areas, she said. “Social interactions may feel stressful, and finding ways to include all members within a team will be reassuring and important [for employers],” she added.