Managing neurodiversity in the workplace

01 February 2023

More than one in ten people in the UK are thought to be neurodivergent, or experience symptoms of neurodiversity: an umbrella term that includes a variety of different conditions, such as autism, dyslexia, and Tourette's syndrome.

They are extremely capable and can make a very valuable contribution in the workplace. However, to maximise the potential of the neurodivergent people in their workforces, employers could consider the working environment to help them reach their potential.

To help companies achieve this, here's our five-minute guide to managing neurodiversity in the workplace - from legislative requirements to ways to help them feel part of the team.

Did you know

Research suggests that having neurodivergent professionals in some roles can boost productivity by 30%.1

What are the benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce?

Each neurodivergent person is unique and will bring different capabilities to the table. But common strengths within the neurodivergent community include:

  • Fresh perspective
  • Attention to detail
  • Creativity
  • Loyalty
  • Originality
  • Honesty
  • Visual thinking
  • Pattern recognition

That's why studies suggest that having a neurodiverse workforce can help a business to outperform its rivals in lots of ways.

As consultancy Deloitte said in a recent report on embracing neurodiversity in the workplace:

"One big benefit of an inclusive work culture is that it fosters diversity of thought, different approaches to work, innovation, and creativity. Inclusion and integration of neurodivergent professionals can also boost team morale."

Is neurodiversity a protected characteristic?

Not all neurodivergent workers consider themselves to be disabled.

As disability is a protected characteristic, this provides them with important rights to reasonable adjustments within the workplace, and protection against discrimination, harassment, and victimisation.

It also protects workers against "discrimination by association", for example because they have a dependent such as a parent or a child with a neurodivergent condition.

Did you know?

Under the Equality Act 2010, neurodivergent workers are likely to meet the legal definition of disability.2

According to the government guidance on the act, a "disability can arise from a wide range of impairments which can be developmental, such as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), dyslexia and dyspraxia."

However, to amount to a disability, a condition must be a "physical or mental impairment" that "has a substantial and long-term adverse effect" on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

What adjustments can you make to allow neurodivergent employees to reach their full potential?

There are numerous steps employers can take to ensure neurodivergent individuals can perform to the best of their abilities.

Inclusive technology, for example, can be a big help; as many neurodivergent people are sensitive to light, bright colours, or busy patterns, they often appreciate programmes that allow them to work with colour filters or dark modes.

Expectations regarding participation in team-building activities may need to be adjusted to account for the fact many neurodivergent individuals find social events difficult due to social anxiety or a need for routine.

On a day-to-day level, flexibility around communication techniques is also critical.

While some neurodiverse people find it easier to understand written instructions, others may need a verbal explanation of the tasks they are being asked to perform.

To assist with all such measures, Deloitte recommends putting in place a system of workplace mentors - or buddies - who can help colleagues to accept and understand the different needs and preferences of neurodivergent individuals on the team.

"Mentors provide much-needed support to all workers' careers, but they are perhaps even more important for the development of the neurodivergent workforce," it said.

Know your numbers

Organisations that provide mentors to professionals with a disability reported a 16% increase in profitability, 18% in productivity, and 12% in customer loyalty.3

Are there certain roles that suit people with different neurodiverse characteristics?

The roles that are best suited to a neurodivergent individual will depend heavily on their condition and the related symptoms of that.

People with autism, for example, are often good at work that requires deep concentration and keen observational skills.

Career paths that can prove a good fit therefore include computer programming, accountancy, and actuarial work.

People with ADHD, on the other hand, may be more suited to being a chef, a journalist, or a teacher, while those with dyslexia often find jobs in the hospitality, visual arts, or sports sectors.

Whatever the role, organisations keen to help neurodiverse people thrive may also need to consider how they manage career progression for these individuals.

While some may aspire to a management position, for others, success is simply defined by performing well in a role they like.

Do certain shift patterns suit neurodiverse people better?

Not everyone's ideal working hours are nine to five; some people are more productive in the evening, while others get the most done early in the morning.

This is true of everyone, neurodivergent or not. However, flexible working hours can be especially important for neurodivergent individuals.

A work-from-home arrangement, for example, can be ideal for someone who find it stressful travelling to work or being in a social office setting.

And for those who have regular therapy sessions, flexible hours will make it easier to get the support they need.3

However, while flexible schedules are desirable for some neurodivergent individuals, for others, routine is a vital part of performing well at work.

As one individual interviewed as part of the Deloitte study offered feedback from a neurodivergent worker explained:

"What I need to do to put in that eight-hour day is I need to go home, I need to have my routine, I need to have my time, so I'm best at what I do."