Supporting neurodiverse workers with hidden disabilities
According to a poll by the CIPD, around 10% of employers would say neurodiversity is a consideration in their organisation’s people management practices. But with some conditions and disabilities hidden, how can employers support their neurodivergent employees in the workplace?
Neurodiversity at work
Neurodiversity refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information. It highlights that people naturally think about things differently. Most people are neurotypical, meaning that the brain functions and processes information in the way society expects. It is estimated that around 15% of people in the UK are neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions and processes information differently. Typical neurodivergent conditions include Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia.
Of course, neurodivergent workers are not always known to employers. Whilst increasingly aware of the risks of failing to support staff with mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, many employers fail to grasp their legal responsibilities to neurodivergent workers and how they might tackle the challenges they face in workplaces structured around neurotypical people.
The protections in place for neurodivergent workers
The Equality Act 2020 defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a worker’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Whether the neurodivergent worker’s ability to undertake day-to-day activities is affected – and therefore it is categorised as a disability – will depend on their individual circumstance. Their situation may also not be immediately apparent to their employers or colleagues, which can be known as a hidden disability.
Please note that whether hidden or not, a disability is still a disability, and should be treated as such. Employers need to be appreciative of the legal obligations that could arise as a consequence, such as the duty to make reasonable adjustments to remove or minimise any disadvantages.
For this reason, it’s much better for employers to take a proactive approach to neurodiverse inclusion in their business, instead of waiting for a neurodivergent worker to join their business. After all, they may already be a part of your workforce.
How to support neurodivergent employees
To support neurodivergent workers and tackle the risks associated with hidden disabilities, employers can:
- Actively hire a diverse range of employees and make adjustments to the recruitment process to allow neurodivergent workers to perform well. For example, a formal interview might not always be appropriate, and employers could think about other ways to test an applicant’s ability to carry out required tasks (such as a written exercise).
- Adapt the workplace to include quiet areas, or fixed desk spaces for neurodivergent workers (particularly if the office adopts a hotdesk system).
- Give people access to a range of IT equipment to support them in their work, depending on their requirements.
- Consider requests to work exclusively in one location (i.e. home or office) where there is a policy of hybrid working.
- Ensure that neurodivergent workers are not placed at a disadvantage during any disciplinary, grievance or redundancy process.
- Provide regular training for all staff, particularly managers, on different neurological conditions, and how they can play a key role in supporting neurodivergent workers.
- Listening empathetically to neurodivergent workers as to how they can be supported better in the workplace and maintain open dialogue.
Stephanie is an Employment Law Advisor who works on Moorepay’s HR Advice Line. Here’s what she had to say about autism.
‘I wasn’t taught about neurodivergent conditions when I was growing up, and I was in my early 20s before I’d even heard of autism. Like many females, I masked my symptoms – particularly in public – so things went undetected. This was exhausting for me and it probably explains why my favourite hobby was taking a nap! At 26, I was finally diagnosed with autism.
For me, autism impacts my life in many ways, and I’m still discovering new things that affect me. For instance, I know that I prefer to sit on the outskirts of the office, to avoid distractions and noise. I like routine and structure. And when receiving feedback, I prefer face to face meetings, rather than emails, so I don’t misinterpret any information.
The key thing to remember is that everyone’s experience of autism is unique.
It’s a spectrum, so something might impact one person but not another, or it could affect them in a different way. That’s why is so important to speak to people to understand their preferences, rather than make assumptions and accidentally get it wrong.’
Why you need a neurodiverse workforce
Mitigating the risks of a tribunal claim aside, typical strengths associated with neurodivergent workers can include problem solving and analytical thinking, an ability to concentrate for lengthy periods of time and to assimilate and retain detailed information.
On 21 March 2022, Neurodiversity in Business was launched as a forum to share industry good practice on all matters concerning neurodiversity. Its members – including Natwest, KPMG, Talk-Talk, O2 and Unilever – recognise that reasonable and often very simple modifications can enable and support neurodiversity in the workplace leading to improved recruitment, retention and empowerment. Furthermore, with that approach in mind, the risk of ending up on the wrong side of a tribunal judgment can also be mitigated.
Employers can learn more about neurodiversity, the benefits for their organisation, and how they can support neurodivergent workers to be comfortable and successful at work by accessing Neurodiversity at Work, the CIPD’s own guidance on the subject. You can also read more about recruiting neurodiverse staff in our article here.