How can HR leaders build a more neurodiversity-friendly workplace?

Arron Hutchinson explores some simple adjustments businesses can make to support a more inclusive environment

Arron Hutchinson

An inclusive workforce can be great for business, driving innovation, fresh ways of thinking and opening up new opportunities. But for individuals who are neurodiverse – for example, those who are autistic or have ADHD – the workplace environment and traditional ways of working can prove challenging.

Some employees will navigate this by hiding signs of their neurodiversity or by using their own coping strategies. However, masking or camouflaging different thinking can be exhausting, placing immense pressure on mental and physical health. This waste of energy is also a waste of talent and resources.

What has been great to see in recent years is an explosion in awareness for this issue among businesses, with companies actively seeking ways to better support team members to thrive and add value. Indeed, here at the  ADHD Foundation we are providing training on this topic for around 20 employers a month, as well as hundreds of schools every year.

Education is always the first step – including looking at ways to encourage an open dialogue with employees – along with developing an understanding for different types of adjustments that might be made to help nurture a more neurodiversity-friendly workspace.

A key point here is that these adjustments should be open to all employees and not single out individuals. As someone who has ADHD, I wanted to share three examples of simple adjustments that I have found to be beneficial.

1.     Use standing desks

What may appear on the surface to be a simple enough action to perform – sitting still – can actually be very difficult for individuals with ADHD, autism and other neurodiverse conditions. That’s because they are associated with something called hyperactivity, which is linked to a deregulation of dopamine in the brain. Physical movement can help with this, leading to better focus, concentration and comfort. So, rather than constantly fighting the urge to move, individuals can instead focus on the task at hand.

Having the option to use a standing desk, both in the office and when working remotely, can be transformational. I certainly found it to be. And if I am delivering training, I will always be standing. 

2.     Allow employees to wear headphones

Managing distractions can be a challenge, especially within open-plan offices. Whether it’s the noise of phones ringing and chairs scraping the floor, bright artificial lighting, lack of space between desks, or that it’s too hot or too cold, it can quickly become a sensory overload. Allowing employees to wear headphones, not only to drown out sound but to listen to music, is another simple step you can take. In my case, I find listening to white noise can help reduce the distractions around me, again supporting me to concentrate better.

Introducing a choice for employees over where they work can be really helpful too; for example, having quiet areas designed for focused work and higher-stimuli settings for group work or socialising. This flexibility of where to work, combined with greater flexibility around when that work takes place, can all help aid inclusivity.

3.     Keep cameras off

One of the lasting legacies of the pandemic is that many employees now have the option of hybrid or remote working, meaning they are increasingly using online conferencing tools to communicate.

Both internal and external business meetings are being carried out via video call and we know from our work with employees who are neurodiverse that this can be a source of stress and anxiety. By introducing a ‘cameras off’ option for all attendees this pressure can be eased. For myself, it means I am free to stand up and pace around as I wish, without that being visible to others on the call.

What is important to understand about neurodiversity is that the cues we are taught to associate with concentration can be flipped on their head. Maybe someone is doodling in a meeting, playing with a fidget spinner, not giving eye contact or pacing about. These are all strategies that might be seen as negative signals but are actually a coping strategy for someone who is neurodiverse.

Arron Hutchinson is a trainer at the ADHD Foundation