The strength in a neurodiverse workforce

scan of a brain, science museum

Work is a key part of our identity.

In a world that repeatedly declares that ‘we are what we do’, our work affects our confidence, our resources, our social support networks, in fact, our entire lives.

Yet, for many people, the hunt for a job can seem like an impossible quest.

For people with neurodiverse conditions, the struggle to secure employment or gain a promotion at work can be isolating and demoralising. And, it’s not just the employee that’s missing out. A recent Harvard study concluded neurodiversity can give companies an edge. Increasingly, high-profile organisations, such as GCHQ and Microsoft, are embracing neurodiversity as a talent strategy, recognising the strengths neurodiverse people can bring to the workplace.

The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society.  Yet, for many people with ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Tourette Syndrome, Mental Health issues and other Neurodiverse conditions, it is difficult to find a job or get promoted within their chosen profession.

Attitudes in the workplace vary but in my view, having worked with many organisations to support neurodiverse colleagues, the will is often there but there is an awkwardness that both sides find hard to overcome. People with disabilities can be self-conscious about asking for what they need, reluctant to request the sometimes very small adjustments to the workplace that can make their working life tolerable. They feel their requests could be held against them and they strive to ‘just like everyone else’. Employers in their determination to treat disabled staff ‘just like everyone else’ feel uncomfortable about raising issues and often feel they are walking on eggshells, cautious not to offend the individual or risk being accused of discrimination.

It doesn’t help that there are some mixed messages around disability recruitment at the moment. It’s true, we have the government promising to help a million people into the workforce over the next ten years. But we also hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer blaming disabled employees for UK’s poor productivity rates. For a sector of society over-represented among the long-term unemployed, it’s hardly encouraging. Also, our own experience here at Genius Within, where we work with many brilliant, hard-working candidates and employees, has shown us the disabled community has many industrious, loyal, talented people who can be impressively productive, given the opportunity. Our team of occupational and clinical psychologists, coaches and employability professionals have been advising people with neurodiversity and the companies who hire them since 2011. You can see some of what we do on the award-winning TV series Employable Me, currently on its second season on BBC Two.

To help the neurodiverse find work, we’ve found that if we approach each individual’s cognitive issue head on, focusing on their strengths and building confidence and self-awareness, our graduates can apply these learnings throughout their lives and careers. There’s no ‘egg-shell walking’ about the issues faced but there’s a real focus on the skills and talents of each individual rather than their limitations. Psychometric testing can be a useful tool for recruitment and assessment which we also incorporate into our work. However, it’s not always the most appropriate measurement tool when dealing with neurodiversity. Psychometric testing usually sets a standard that people are assessed against, rather than honing in on the individual’s strengths and skills. Often the tests are irrelevant to the job that the person is working on or applying for. For some neurodiverse people, multiple choice questions are difficult, and these tests can mean talented people are excluded from a job or promotion. Unfortunately, I have also worked with those who have not been able to progress solely due to a psychometric testing barrier, despite award-winning service.

The follow up after the testing can also have a very negative impact if not handled well. Neurodiverse people have a lot to offer, though they often, understandably, suffer from self-esteem issues around employment after years of constant rejection and disappointment.

Once the recruitment hurdle is overcome, employers can help their newest recruits by making small adjustments to their work environments. Very often this is about providing some staff training and a few additional resources, such as voice recognition/text-to-speech software for dyslexia/vision impairment, dual screen for enhanced memory retention (sometimes useful after head trauma), quiet areas for stretching/decompressing (can be useful with cerebral palsy, tourette syndrome and autism) and providing materials ahead of meetings in accessible formats. There’s more information about adjustments for neurodiversity in this report that I co-authored for the British Psychological Society.

Once the practicalities of adapting the workplace for a neurodiverse employee are taken care of, everyone can start focusing on the strengths and talents that can so often get overlooked. In Employable Me2, by using positive assessment techniques to undo some of the damage caused by repeated messages of deficit or difficulty, we discovered stroke survivor Andy had perfectly competent verbal understanding even though he finds speech difficult and that Kerie, who is visually impaired, has a memory in the top 1% of the population! These are the skills that any employer would value and more than justify any additional steps or equipment needed to do the job.

The problem isn’t motivation, it’s practical solutions. With support and a two-way conversation between employers and employees, more talented people can bring their expertise, creativity and unique talents to the working world.

Nancy Doyle featuredAbout the author

Nancy Doyle is an occupational psychologist and the CEO of Genius Within, specialising in the workplace support of adults with neuro-differences.

She is featured in the BBC’s series Employable Me, the first episode of which aired on Monday 27 November 2017.

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