‘A world not made for us’ – experiences of neurodiverse employees and how HR can help

With only 10 per cent of organisations mentioning neurodiversity in their policies, it’s time for them to step up, says Kaya Sidhu

Neurodiversity is gaining traction in society as more people with learning conditions such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia are opening up about their lived experiences and creating communities of acceptance in person and on social media.

This movement gained public legitimacy after the 2010 Equality Act, which enshrines neurodiversity as a protected characteristic from direct and indirect forms of discrimination.

However, when it comes to organisations many employees are unwilling to voice their neurodiversity as they fear bias, retaliation and judgements about their competence, especially from senior management. These concerns about disclosure would subside if there was greater recognition of the prevalence of neurodiversity in our general population. Experts estimate that at least 15 per cent of us have a learning condition, with many still undiagnosed. This means that many of our colleagues and managers are consciously or unconsciously navigating a workplace that is not orientated toward their talents and abilities. But this could change if workplaces were designed to be more inclusive.

Only 10 per cent of businesses even acknowledge neurodiversity in their policies, meaning that the majority of neurodiverse employees do not have any formal avenues of support. Consequently, many workers with neurodiversity rely on their own coping mechanisms to perform work, which depletes their energy to the point of burnout. 

Over time, this could lead to their resignation and wasted potential. There has been much research on how the recruitment process could be more accessible for candidates with learning disabilities by providing certain adjustments. Meanwhile, the experiences of neurodiverse employees currently in employment have largely been neglected. So I decided to conduct a research project that exclusively focused on the neurodiverse work experience by interviewing 24 employees from multiple sectors who have at least one diagnosed learning condition. 

These interviews revealed that the experiences of neurodiverse employees are highly contextualised, shaped by the nature of their work, relationships with their managers and colleagues, interactions with their workspace and perceptions of their wider organisation. More importantly, they shed light on what practical actions organisations could take to enhance the experiences, wellbeing and performance of their neurodiverse employees. The first step is ensuring that there are psychologically safe opportunities for disclosure as early as the onboarding stage.

Too many employees interviewed failed to realise that questions about their neurodiversity would have been legally classified under disability. Others felt that the term ‘disability’ did not reflect the assets or ‘superpowers’ of their condition; for example, strong pattern recognition is associated with autism.

Even if organisations directly ask their new recruits if they have any neurodiverse conditions, they must first prove that their employees have personal incentives to disclose and that this information will be protected.

HR departments should apply data protection laws and offer formal resources of support for neurodiverse employees after their disclosure; for instance, assistive technology such as spellcheck, transcription and reading filters. 

Another challenge will be assuring neurodiverse employees that their disclosure will not harm their future performance appraisals or chances of promotion. The media has perpetuated damaging stereotypes of neurodiverse conditions, linking dyslexia with stupidity and ADHD with laziness.

Significant numbers interviewed reported that they suffered harassment from ignorant managers and colleagues, including unsubstantiated criticism, rumours, threats and jokes all related to their neurodiversity. Subsequently, these employees never raised their neurodiversity in a work setting again. 

Organisations should actively encourage neurodiverse networks as they could be an empowering source of community for neurodiverse employees to collectively face challenges and inspire one another. Networks are especially important considering that neurodiversity is invisible to the naked eye.

Moreover, businesses should enforce formal training in neurodiversity for all employees as awareness of this concept only emerged at the turn of the century. Formal training should include factual and positive information and personal stories about neurodiversity to achieve a truly accurate representation.

It is crucial that managers in particular receive training on how to incorporate neurodiverse needs into their policies to ensure that all their direct reports receive adequate support. 

The most powerful takeaway is that neurodiverse employees would benefit most from unique support plans tailored toward their strengths and needs. Across interviews, the severity and impact of a learning condition varied individually. Interviewees with the same conditions had mixed opinions about preferred physical workspaces and communication styles. Dyslexic employees were divided over whether tasks should be delivered in person to clarify questions instantly or written down to process key details. Meanwhile, employees with ADHD were conflicted over whether to work from home to avoid ‘sensory overload’ from external lights and noise or to work in the office for increased motivation and socialisation.

Above all, managers should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to neurodiversity and continually check what works for individual employees. This personalised approach to management should be extended to all employees as this would create more motivated and productive workforces.

Kaya Sidhu is a human resources and organisations postgraduate student from LSE

Read the CIPD's guide on supporting neurodiversity at work here