Supporting neurodiverse employees in the workplace

Study shows many neurodivergent conditions – such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia – increasingly prevalent among employees

Supporting neurodiverse employees in the workplace

More than a third (38%) of people between 16 and 24 years old identify as neurodivergent, according to a study by Cypher Learning.

The study also found that neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD, autism and dyslexia are increasingly prevalent among the incoming workforce. And more than 21% of those who are neurodivergent feel that their workplace training doesn’t meet their specific needs.

Ultimately, the findings suggest the need for an overhaul of current ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches to workplace training.  

So what can HR teams do to better support neurodivergent employees in the workplace?

Neurodivergence in the workplace

There has been an increase in the number of people diagnosed with neurodivergence in adulthood over the past decade, both in New Zealand and internationally, and around 8% of adults around the world could have a form of neurodivergence, according to Dougal Sutherland, clinical psychologist at the Victoria University of Wellington.

The umbrella term neurodivergence typically encompasses attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and specific learning disorders (SLD), he said in a recent article.  

“The rise in these diagnoses when people are already in the workforce presents a challenge for employers,” Sutherland said. “Business owners can be left wondering how they can support neurodivergent employees without causing issues for the wider business.”

Speaking to HRD New Zealand, Sutherland said the rise in diagnoses among adults can also be attributed to the reduction of the stigma around mental health and psychology in general, “in that people are much more open about acknowledging when they might find things difficult,” he said.

“Also, our experience is that often, not always, [the reason why] adults that come into this diagnosis or this area of neurodivergence is because they have a child who's been identified. And they say, ‘Oh that was like me as a kid and I'm just like them’; so they see themselves. And because there's more availability for children to get recognised now, it's a bit of a penny drop moment for many people as they say, ‘Oh, I struggled with exactly the same problems, maybe this is an issue for me as well’.”  

Another reason is the increase in understanding of neurodivergence, Sutherland said.

“The whole neurodivergence movement is about ‘different not disabled’,” he said. “People being comfortable about saying, ‘I'm just wired differently – it doesn't mean there's anything wrong with me necessarily. And there are some things that don't quite work for me in the workplace’.”

Supporting neurodivergent employees

The key step for employers to support employees with neurodivergence is, at a basic level, being informed and educated, Sutherland said.

“You are likely to have some humans who have some levels of neurodiversity out of pure statistical chance,” he said. “We've noticed a lot of organisations coming to us saying, ‘We don't even know what neurodiversity is’. And so it's a really good reminder for HR teams and organisations to upskill themselves on what this is.”

Another step is not to assume anything about an employee. While some may be self-identifying with their neurodivergence and reach out to HR to determine what support services are available, others may not.

“It's quite possible that you're neurodivergent and there aren't any problems with your work at all,” Sutherland said. And therefore, those employees may not need any extra help.  

“A problem is only a problem if it causes a problem is a way of thinking about that,” he said. “And my suggestion would be just approach it initially on that basis, not assuming anything.”

If HR is approaching an employee, presumably it’s related to an issue in the workplace (such as consistently missing deadlines) and Sutherland suggested that that could be the basis of a conversation about any support they may need. However, he warned against jumping to conclusions about potential neurodivergence.

“I wouldn't be jumping to that, that might be something that just comes out in the course of a conversation,” he said. “And if it comes up and the employee is open to it, then maybe looking at what the organisation can do to support that person. If they haven't had an official assessment, and they're interested, maybe that's something the workplace can support them with.”

Psychological safety at work

There are a range of benefits for employers who understand neurodivergence in the workforce.

“It might allow you to recognise and unearth talents that are there,” Sutherland said. “If you and the employee have got some good advice and support that might actually help them to be more productive, [it] then would help the business be more productive.

“At a bit of a broader level, having a workforce that is diverse and where people are comfortable expressing their diversity helps create what we call a psychologically safe workspace. And psychological safety is a really key ingredient in a high-performing team. And so if a business wants to maximise the ability to thrive, part of that comes from understanding the diversity and the skills that people bring. And if you if you're not aware of that, you're probably potentially missing out.”

Recent articles & video

New Zealand jobs likely to be 'more exposed' to AI's impact: report

Merck expands fertility benefits to New Zealand employees

Should CEOs denounce political violence?

Amazon Prime Day 'major cause of injury' for warehouse staff: report

Most Read Articles

Immigration NZ employees put on leave after inappropriate conversation on Teams: reports

Domino's Pizza franchise owner given home detention for exploiting staff

The Warehouse Group to lay off head office employees: report