How Companies Can Help Their Neurodiverse Employees Thrive
I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 19 years old. Nowadays, that's pretty late in life. At the time, we were just starting to understand attention disorders, but when I was in elementary school in the 1980s, the diagnosis usually only applied to little boys. "Hyper" little girls were simply troublemakers, and those of us with ADD/ADHD were often labeled as aloof, scattered, disorganized and daydreamers. None of those labels have positive connotations. All of them have lifelong implications for the recipient.
Approximately 20 percent of the adult population is considered neurodiverse. That's one in five people. "Neurodiversity" is a term coined in 1997 by sociologist Judy Singer, initially referring to people on the autism spectrum. It has since broadened to become more inclusive of ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, depression and other cognitive differences. These are brain functions that veer from traits of mainstream or neurotypical society. Given that neurodiverse individuals represent such a large percentage of the adult population, employers are actively losing out on their employees' best work by not adapting workflows to be inclusive of the neurodivergent experience.
If you are neurodiverse, your brain is wired differently. The upsides of these differences can be out-of-the-box thinking, prolific big-picture ideas, enormous empathy for others—all beneficial attributes in creative, business development and leadership roles. The downsides, however, can conflict with parameters most often measured and rewarded by employers, such as focus, organization, punctuality and linear thinking. Neurodivergent traits and skills are often misunderstood in the workplace.
In my case, I am what many psychologists might call a classic ADHD case. Attention to detail, impulse control, organization and order of operations are difficult for me and absorb all of my energy to execute. I have a really difficult time processing information audibly, so I have to take copious notes to retain any sort of lecture or presentation. I hyperfocus, which means I'll go deep into tangential thought on a subject that interests me, but this may manifest as detachment or aloofness. Rapid tangential thoughts allow me to see angles and connect things that many other people do not see. The "real world" problem is that perception is often reality, so I had to find ways to work around my limitations and let the good stuff shine.
How employers can support neurodivergent employees.
It stands to reason that as workplaces continue to understand differences in their employees, whether in background, culture, sexual orientation, or neurological, they can all benefit from gaining a clearer picture of the individual as a whole. A more thorough understanding of brain differences in particular could really benefit employers, contributing to higher productivity, greater employee satisfaction and a more flexible swath of skills that employers can apply across disciplines.
Employers should understand that the neurodivergent experience can be incredibly lonely and difficult to articulate. While the ADA legally requires employers to provide accommodations for those who are neurodivergent, there isn’t much precedent for exploring how to help employees come forward about their brain differences or even what accommodations might look like. In fact, as we were working on this article, both myself and my editor disclosed to one another that we were neurodivergent. We confessed that we have never had a conversation with an employer or manager about what we needed to feel more supported in the workplace.
Below are some recommendations to employers—especially those who employ creatives—on how to support their neurodivergent employees.
- Start by helping your employees discuss their brain differences with their managers. As a company, start with offering open conversations for all staff. How can you foster the difficult first conversations with managers, and can those start before you even hire someone? How can it safely be raised in a recruitment or interview process?
- Support and train managers on the range of brain differences and how to work with them. We can't assume that everyone knows everything (or anything!) about every brain difference out there, so it's important to educate all employees about the differences between neurotypical and neurodivergent brains. The more educated management is, the more doors open for employees to feel comfortable discussing their brain differences, and more productive conversations can happen around the best way to get work done and measure individual performances.
- Hire a neuropsychologist as a performance coach. While recognizing that not every workplace can keep a Wendy Rhoades on staff, bringing in a professional even on a consultative basis can help all employees—both neurodiverse and neurotypical—have more productive conversations about different working styles. Employees benefit from both individual therapy sessions and group working sessions where they can learn about techniques for working with others.
- Consider recalibrating performance metrics to be more neuro-inclusive. No two brains are alike, so why are we still measuring performance by the same standards? A focus on the positive things that an employee brings to their position and the company is more productive for everyone involved, and areas where they fall short should be met with support, not admonishment. This could mean a performance plan that leverages strengths and figures out workarounds for challenges, like dedicated meeting-free focus time on my calendar, or feedback captured in writing rather than just through a meeting.
- Implement accommodations for neurodiverse employees. We have an opportunity to start implementing accommodations for neurodiverse employees as we rebuild what the post-pandemic workplace looks like. Perhaps a return-to-office planning could include a screening or questionnaire to create an opportunity for neurodiverse employees to have conversations with their employers and implement subsequent accommodations. For example, many of us with sensory issues struggled in an open office environment pre-pandemic, so perhaps we would benefit from a more dedicated physical office space where someone can shut a door.
Neurodiverse employees, like any diverse group, are assets to an organization and need support to thrive. As an organization, it could be an opportunity to more clearly define and articulate values—to employees, clients and the public. You can't hope to engage people around a compelling story or brand if you don’t embrace the same principles with your own team and vice versa. Your employees don't just run your business operations, they are also your most important audience.