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Reasonable Adjustments Are Beneficial for Neurodivergent Employees, but True Inclusion Requires a Culture Shift
In the last few years alone there has been a huge shift in terms of awareness and discussion happening around the topic of neurodiversity. Given that one in five of us is said to be neurodivergent, and only 29% of autistic people are in employment in the UK, I’d like to think it’s beginning to dawn on businesses that they cannot afford to exclude such a significant demographic of people at work.
Not only that but there is a business case for diversity: it’s been shown that diverse teams are more innovative, arrive at less biased decisions, and problem-solve more efficiently than teams who aren’t diverse.
Slowly but surely, there are signs that employers are taking it seriously. Many of the big organizations like JP Morgan, EY, and HSBC UK have created programs specifically designed to help and support their neurodivergent employees.
But there’s still a long way to go. Recently, a survey found that 70% of neurodivergent employees experience mental health issues, which shows that something just isn’t working!
And while there are a lot of articles out there about how to accommodate neurodivergent people, they all seem to have the same thing in common: they tend to focus on the easiest thing employers can do.
It tends to be based on reasonable adjustments – dimming the office lighting, or enabling employees to wear noise-canceling headphones – and I find it really interesting that the conversation stays at this surface level and doesn’t dig deeper.
Reasonable adjustments are important, but they’re not the be-all and end-all. In fact, they're actually the bare minimum employers are obliged to do for their employees.
About the Author
I’m Mollie Pittaway. I live in a small town called Petersfield in the UK and I’m an #actuallyautistic freelance copywriter and neurodiversity advocate. Last year, I was at a crossroads and felt frustrated that I wasn’t getting to where I wanted to be in life. I was working in a customer service role which wasn’t for me, I felt stressed ALL the time. In the end, I quit for my mental health. That’s when I decided that I wanted to become a freelance copywriter. I wrote a post about being autistic in January which to my complete surprise went viral 🤯 I work with purpose-led organizations by growing their awareness and talk on LinkedIn about neurodiversity!
Why reasonable adjustments aren’t enough
Reasonable adjustments are so important and really go a long way to help to make an individual feel comfortable at work.
But oftentimes, when I’m scrolling on social media, I’m not seeing a lot of neurodivergent people talking about how their employer isn’t agreeing to their reasonable adjustments (only rarely!).
I’m seeing them talk about how they’re being bullied by their co-workers. I’m seeing posts where they’re sick with anxiety about going to work the day after they’ve crossed wires with a not-so-supportive manager. I’m seeing posts where they’re burned out from masking all the time.
To truly accommodate neurodivergent people requires BIG cultural changes, and not every business is prepared for that. It requires recognizing that there are fundamental issues and acting on them.
Donella Meadows, a famous American environmental scientist, once argued that when trying to create system change, small tweaks that are easy to implement won’t produce that shift, rather the changes that have significant potential to bring about real transformation are the ones difficult to carry out. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
What would create the most meaningful impact (and therefore, what we should be talking about)
1. Upskilling line managers
I would love to see more conversations about upskilling line managers when it comes to both neurodiversity and mental health. Line managers are not only the first port of call for any employee when they're experiencing difficulties, but also a great source of encouragement too, particularly for anxious neurodivergent employees.
I've been lucky enough to have worked in organizations with caring managers in the third sector. But I know this isn't the case for everyone, and it really varies from industry to industry. It takes more than just a one-hour training session to train managers on the nuances of what would help neurodivergent employees and hone these skills to bring out the best in them.
For instance, I asked on Twitter what workplaces can do to help neurodivergent employees. Most people answered that clear instruction would really help them, so this could be part of the training. This is also where neurodiversity consultancies are invaluable, as they can equip businesses with the tools they need to help their neurodivergent staff flourish.
Action Item for Managers: Seek external line manager training from specialists in neurodiversity, such as a local charity or a neurodiversity consultancy.
2. Neurodiversity training/coaching
Whether an employee has dyslexia, is on the autism spectrum, faces mental health challenges, or is adversely affected by another comorbidity, neurodiversity training and/or coaching provision can really help organizations accommodate neurodivergent individuals such as more work flexibility.
It’s definitely being widely talked about, yet I think there needs to be more emphasis on how a one-hour training session alone isn’t enough to truly understand this topic. Too often, organizations can be tempted to cut corners to reduce costs but that doesn’t reap long-term benefits.
It takes commitment to implement long-lasting changes that are going to help neurodivergent employees and bridge the gap between neurodivergent and neurotypical cultures. It’s not something that can happen overnight.
Job coaching also tends to be pretty underrated, from what I’ve seen. It has the potential to really help equip neurodivergent individuals with the practical tools they need to face challenges at work head-on, which could significantly improve mental health in the long term.
Coaching enhances employment success by ensuring greater job satisfaction, increased productivity, and in the long term, greater employee retention.
Action Item for Managers:
Set up ongoing job coaching and neurodiversity training/coaching, open to all employees.
What this could look like:
Group training centred around neurodiversity.
1-to-1 mentor/mentee relationships, where neurodivergent employees might be assigned a “buddy” particularly at the beginning of their employment to help them with navigating the workplace, its unwritten rules, etc.
Asking a Workplace Needs Assessor to help the individual to figure out what adjustments would help them be more effective in their role.
3. Taking steps to build a psychologically safe work environment
Last but not least, you can't truly accommodate neurodivergent employees without building a psychologically safe work environment. This is the most important point of all. You could implement the previous two suggestions, and still not achieve results without this fundamental bedrock.
By psychologically safe, what I mean is the ability to share one’s thoughts and feelings without the risk of damaging one’s reputation or standing. In teams, this means team members believe that they can take risks without being shamed by other team members.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone neurodivergent, who has been conditioned to feel as though they are "not enough", usually starting at school. Now, imagine two different work environments.
In the first one, you're a neurodivergent employee who works with a toxic line manager who constantly belittles you and mocks you, and your colleagues are too scared to say anything.
There's no clear pathway to raise concerns because it has to go through your line manager or HR, which risks making things worse. You're doing the bare minimum, or maybe even "quiet quitting", just to survive.
Or imagine one where you feel confident to be yourself around your colleagues and your line manager, enough to voice how you feel. If there are any concerns, you know they will confidently be dealt with and your voice will be heard.
In which one would you thrive, and reach your potential?
Action Item for Managers: Take steps to create a psychologically safe work environment.
STEPS TO CONSIDER:
Survey your employees anonymously. Ask them direct questions about how psychologically safe they feel, like how comfortable they feel speaking up in teams, and provide a box for them to elaborate on their answers. This will help you work out what areas to improve on.
Get everyone to fill out their own Manual of Me. If you haven’t heard of it already, it’s a document that helps you and your team communicate your working preferences, motivations, and needs, so teams know how best to work together.
Seek external help. Nothing beats training and workshops (see a recurring theme here?) as it’s no easy feat trying to do this all by yourself. It’s a bit like baking a cake, you might have all the tools and ingredients, but without the instructions, it’s difficult to do!
Neurodivergents no longer make up a minority group. With that in mind, it's no longer enough to pay lip service to commit to employing a certain number of neurodivergent people or to think reasonable adjustments on their own are enough.
At the heart of it, accommodating neurodivergent people requires an inclusive working environment, one in which they feel safe to voice their opinions and allow them to dare greatly and come up with different solutions. Not only would it benefit neurodivergent staff, but it would also benefit everyone working in that organization too.
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