Neurodiversity and Inclusion in the Workplace
At my previous job, when work meetings would go on for more than 2 hours, I would usually be quiet most of the time, occasionally suppressing the urge to interrupt the speaker. But when my turn to speak came, I would have already forgotten what I thought I would say later. I would also be “zoned out” most of the time. Usually, at my job, I would keep delaying work that I found boring, or start very last minute, which would often result in missing multiple deadlines. In the annual appraisal, my manager used to tell me that I should be more proactive, and speak more confidently and professionally. For the funder presentations, my colleague would accompany my manager instead of me, even though I had done most of the work. I kept feeling that I was not fit for this job and had already started looking for another job, which would be 5ᵗʰ in the 6 years of my career.
When one of my jobs ended on such a bad note, the despair finally took me to the psychologist, ultimately leading to my diagnosis of anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As I spoke more about it with the psychologist at my present office, the feelings of not being enough, the guilt of being lazy, and the worry of being jobless started disappearing. After thinking for a long time, I added a new word to my Twitter bio- neurodivergent. I followed accounts that talk about their ‘neurodiversity’ and give tips about how I should navigate this at the workplace.
So the question is, what is neurodiversity? Neurodiversity is the difference in the ways our brain functions and processes information. It consists of Neurotypicality - people think, learn and behave as per the set societal norms, and Neurodivergence - people experience and interact in ways that are not abnormal but different than the typical. [i]
The word neurodiversity is often used in the context of neurological or developmental conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD, learning disabilities, Tourette’s Syndrome, Anxiety Disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Depression, and Schizophrenia. There are certain personality characteristics that are commonly seen among neurodivergent people, such as sensitivity to noise, touch, smell, etc as well as challenges in attention, inadequate social skills, or an inability to communicate clearly.
For neurodivergent people, finding a job suited to their skillset can be an immense challenge because of some of these traits. So far, most organizations have avoided hiring people with neurodiversity, typically thinking that they are a “poor fit” for their culture or norms. Yet, in recent times the occupational narrative about neurodiverse individuals is changing from finding and working on ‘bits that are broken’, to polishing the ‘diamond in the rough’, which is - neurodiverse employees resembling thwarted geniuses, who would be able to succeed given the right support, environment or tools. [ii]
Neurodiversity can be a key asset to an organization as it also offers a wide range of perspectives and talents, high sensitivity, and high determination. For example, people with ASD have greater attention to detail, high levels of concentration, punctuality, and strong long-term memory. [iii], [iv] Similarly people with ADHD tend to have hyperfocus, resilience, creativity, and spontaneity. [v]
According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, skills such as analytical thinking and innovation, critical thinking, and problem-solving will be most in demand by the year 2025. [vi] Neurodivergent people with their high sensitivity and empathy, emotional intelligence, and a higher level of cognitive functioning, comprehension, and creativity can be more suitable for the jobs that require innovative thinking and detailed observation, such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). [vii] Pausing and observing- a characteristic trait of highly sensitive individuals helps them pick up on environmental cues and recognize mistakes that neurotypical people might not. [viii] Neurodivergent people can also be better managers who look at individual needs, and communicate better - use less abstract language, shorter sentences, and more specific instructions. This will benefit everyone in the organization and not just the neurodivergent employees.
With an increased awareness of what neurodiversity is, it is also crucial for workplaces to understand how neurodivergent people can deliver measurable benefits to the organization - financially, and in terms of workplace culture, and what cultural and physical adjustments may be required to include neurodivergent people into a mainstream workplace. Appropriate workplace accommodations can make significant differences in the productivity of neurodivergent employees. These don’t require lowering performance standards or removing essential job functions, but modifying the work environment or the way of performing tasks. [ix]
Some of the basic amendments an organization can implement to ensure inclusion in the workplace could be:
1. Communicating clear expectations
The job descriptions should be very clear and should explicitly mention the expectations of the role. The workplace etiquette and unwritten rules should be explained in detail, and whether the organization has made adaptations in the work environment to help staff thrive should also be mentioned. These can also be a part of the organizational profile on the website/ social media, if not in the job advert.
2. Revisiting the interview process
Hiring teams should be trained about the challenges faced by different groups of people during the recruitment process, and how they can help with those challenges to find the best candidate. Instead of generic questions, the interview process should focus on the skills required for the role. For example, if the candidate is being interviewed for a role that does not require them to act fast, there should be no requirement to consider that in the interview. Many physical gestures such as a strong handshake or eye contact are quite difficult for neurodivergent individuals. Hiring managers should also share a sample of questions with the candidate in advance, and also check with the candidates if they have any different needs that should be accommodated.
3. Providing clear, concise, and specific onboarding instructions
Managers should give clear instructions about how to carry out each task. They should also ensure whether the new joinee has clearly understood these instructions. Support and guidance should be continued beyond the recruitment process in the form of manuals and videos.
4. Providing coaching and monitoring
The manager, colleagues, or a mentor can provide continued coaching and structured monitoring to individuals, formally or informally.
5. Ensure the work environment is pro-neurodiversity
When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower. Employers, especially senior management should be made aware of neurodiversity and should be willing to accommodate neurodivergent individuals. Organizations should openly discuss their neurodiversity policies internally as well in external networks, making it a regular part of their employment. A neurodiversity inclusion checklist for the organization should be made for a successful and scalable program to recruit, hire, retain and advance neurodivergent employees. [x]
Due to high sensitivity to external stimuli such as sounds or smells, these individuals might struggle with challenges such as attention regulation, irritability, and self-regulation of work. Providing accommodations such as noise-canceling headphones, fragrance-free environments, privacy rooms, or flexible work days/hours as per their peak focus will help employees to be most productive.
Managers should work with neurodiverse employees to prioritise and organize their tasks into a structured timetable and break larger tasks into smaller activities while allowing them adequate flexibility. At my job, my manager lets me decide my own timelines and when I will work on them, but she has also suggested that I communicate the deadlines to everyone involved in the tasks. This helps me maintain the motivation for completing these tasks.
Written or recorded instructions work better in most cases as they can be accessed later as well. Creating image-based task lists or calendars to mark project plans or milestones is a quicker way to remember timelines and decide the pace of work for all the employees.
6. Reviewing the performance regularly
Regular short one-on-one meetings should be scheduled to review performance, discuss challenges and find solutions together. Most neurodivergent people are also sensitive to criticism and rejection. Giving precise and positive feedback, explaining areas of development, and future steps clearly is more helpful.
7. Reassuring in stressful situations and planning for change
One of the key steps in ensuring an inclusive workplace is to be compassionate towards the mental health challenges faced by neurodivergent employees. A work buddy system where I can talk to a colleague whenever I am or they are stressed, anxious or confused has always been helpful for both of us.
Any changes to the workplace or tasks should be informed well in advance. For example, when I know the place and food menu of the office retreats, the agenda for the general staff meeting, or who is attending my appraisal meeting, I feel less stressed and can concentrate more on the technical aspects.
Employees should be reassured that their employment will not be affected by inevitable situations such as delays in starting the meeting due to network issues, or not reaching the office in time due to traffic, and backup plans should be in place. This will eliminate additional stressors and employees can focus on work.
8. What employees need to know
Please do not expect your neurodivergent colleagues to engage in small talk or office banter. Remember that everyone is different and ensure that you do not discriminate against any of your neurodivergent colleagues. Try to initiate social interactions yourself such as a warm “Good morning”, or asking how they are doing.
In the end, we all need to understand that there is no standard brain, rather all brains are unique. A strengths-based workplace is a place where all sorts of labels come together as equals to form a unique working environment. As Captain America says in Avengers Endgame - “Be Careful. Look out for each other. We are going to win this! Whatever it takes.”
[i] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-neurodiversity-202111232645 [ii] Doyle N, Patton E, Fung L et al. Diamond in the rough? Neurodiversity inclusion in practice In: Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Annual Conference. Bowling Green, OH: American Psychological Association, 2020 [iii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6546643/ [iv] Courchesne V, Langlois V, Gregoire P, St-Denis A, Bouvet L, Ostrolenk A and Mottron L (2020) Interests and Strengths in Autism, Useful but Misunderstood: A Pragmatic Case-Study. Front. Psychol. 11:569339. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.569339 [v] Sedgwick, J.A., Merwood, A. & Asherson, P. The positive aspects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a qualitative investigation of successful adults with ADHD. ADHD Atten Def Hyp Disord 11, 241–253 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12402-018-0277-6 [vi] https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2020/in-full/chapter-2-forecasts-for-labour-market-evolution-in-2020-2025#2-3-emerging-and-declining-skills [vii] Doyle N. Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. Br Med Bull. 2020;135(1):108-125. doi:10.1093/bmb/ldaa021 [viii] Aron, E. N., & Aron, A. (1997). Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(2), 345–368. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1245 [ix] https://askjan.org/disabilities/Autism-Spectrum.cfm [x] https://production-askearn-org.s3.amazonaws.com/EARN_2021_Checklist_Neurodiversity_Inclusion_554271ecee.pdf