Mental Health Training

Neurodiversity in the Workplace: a blind spot for employers, by Jane McNeice

Posted by on 2 May, 2023 in Mental Health |

Neurodiversity in the Workplace: a blind spot for employers, by Jane McNeice

The scale of the issue

Given what we now know about neurodiversity, it would be reasonable to say that all workplaces will have a neurodiverse workforce, many workers being neurotypical (the majority brain type or neurotype in our society) and a lesser number being neurodivergent (those whose neurotype differs from the majority).

The challenge is knowing what the exact profile looks like in a particular workplace and the value of knowing this.
If we were to simply take the 1 in 7 (Local Government Association) statistic of how many are diagnosed neurodivergent and of the differing types, we could make assumptions as to what a workplace neurodiversity profile should be expected to look like; or for example, 1.57% of society is diagnosed Autistic (National Autistic Society), and therefore the same could be expected in our workplaces. But what if we consider that just 21.7% of Autistic people are employed? 1.57% doesn’t then reflect so well the actual presentation in a workplace.

In reality, our businesses are unlikely to reflect the general societal presentation of neurodiversity, especially in specific demographics. For example, we are aware of a considerable proportion of middle-aged women, many of whom have been missed and live undiagnosed neurodivergent, so we and they do not know they are Autistic or ADHD, for example. Add to that that certain industries and occupation types may attract certain neurotypes; then we may find that some businesses have a disproportionate number of neurodivergent or particular neurotypes, such as ADHD or Dyslexia, for example.

If we take the STEM industries as an example: science, technology, engineering, and maths, there is a greater possibility that these industries employ equal to, or more, neurodivergent than neurotypicals. I think we will also find a disproportionately higher number of Autistics in the ‘helping’ industries; these attract empaths and super-empathic Autistics. And do all people who are neurodivergent know through self-identification or diagnosis that they are, in fact, neurodivergent?

When we look at all the issues surrounding identification and diagnosis, there is likely to be a greater population of undiagnosed neurodivergents than actually diagnosed in our society (and workplaces). I also surmise that ableist attitudes towards neurodivergence create a blind spot in that we fail to recognise the ‘high achievers’ who are neurodivergent, so they too slip through the net (unless suffering becomes apparent, such as mental illness). If they do get diagnosed, it will likely be later in life. These considerations in mind, it can leave many blind spots in the workplace around neurodiversity.

Increasing focus on all aspects of mental health and neurodiversity

I have worked in mental health and employment since 2008. In the last fifteen years, mental health has gone from being ‘the elephant in the room’ to something high on most workplace agendas. There are exceptions, of course, but the general trend of interest and action has been increasing positively. My company delivers mental health training, and the increasing demand seen since its inception in 2015 illustrates both the incline seen in business start-ups and our clients’ accelerated interest in supporting employee wellbeing. What would rarely have been conversed about or might have been conversing about in hushed tones in the past is viewed differently and talked about more freely nowadays. The case for employing and supporting people with mental health difficulties is recognised. That said, we still have much to do to reduce the stigma and discrimination; we are most certainly a long way from eradicating it.

I have watched cultural and business changes in the field of mental health, and I am now seeing it happening again – in neurodiversity. I am mindful that my exposure to the literature and the noise in this area may well come down to the circles in which I move, particularly since my own Autism diagnosis at age 45 in 2021, but I also take into account here what my clients are talking about, and what they are requesting from us as a training provider. I am a pattern-spotting Autistic with a high systemising brain, so I notice trends and patterns quickly, but I don’t think you need to be skilled in this to spot the current changing landscape. It is evident in the following:

• High-profile celebrities sharing lived experiences on TV
• Documentaries sharing what it is like to be Autistic
• Magazines sharing lived experience and late diagnosis stories
• Middle-aged women at the forefront of narrative sharing (because they were most often missed).

My business and neurotype allow me to pick up on these things earlier than most. Now, let us say I wasn’t working for my own company but instead was employed by another business. My ability to pattern spot trends could be of real benefit to them, but they would only know this if they understood my neurotype and my Autistic profile (not all Autistics have a high systemising brain, some are high on the empath scale, for example). Would you get my full potential if you didn’t know my ability here? Jobs tease out our strengths and skills from the start, thorough recruitment processes do this, as does observing the way people work and how they apply themselves to problems, it’s happening all the time if you watch carefully. The challenge is that in many cases, we may not know the strengths lie (in part) in the fact that the person is neurodivergent, and we may not be capitalising on this in the best way.

Many neurodivergents do not know they are neurodivergent for lots of reasons, and some will be awaiting assessment. This itself is a lengthy process under statutory services in the UK. In both cases, some will have, and still go, unsupported in terms of the challenges that can coincide with the strengths. For example, my pattern-seeking ability is poor when I am experiencing high social anxiety with my Autism. Challenges and difficulties are common for neurodivergents – we live in a world built by and for neurotypicals, not for neurodivergents – and such challenges can manifest in mental and physical illness, amongst other areas that portray our suffering.

If we simply take the statistic ‘80% of Autistics experience a mental health issue during their lives’ (Autistica), then a business employing a lot of diagnosed, or undiagnosed Autistics, will likely employ many people who are trying to live with and manage mental and physical illness. The presence of illness in their business will not necessarily tell us about what they are or are not doing to support it, but rather that they employ people carrying a more significant statistical risk factor for mental illness. Please don’t misinterpret this to mean we should not employ neurodivergent people (or any other ‘at risk’ group), there are a lot of ‘at risk’ themes, and each and every one of us will harbour both risk and protective factors which will increase or decrease our statistical likelihood of mental and physical illness, and some of them can change over time. For example, a sudden unpredicted bereavement could put us immediately at a greater statistical risk of mental illness.

The potential benefits of neurodivergent staff

What I am highlighting is that there are strengths and challenges in the neurodivergent. If we can support the challenges, we can capitalise on the strengths. Industries need them more than ever because what neurodivergents offer will help the economy and communities to thrive:

• Ability to see a problem from a unique perspective.
• High visual skills and ability to see in 3D.
• Pattern-spotting.
• Attention to detail.
• Hyper-focus.
• Perseverance.
• Excellent memory recall for facts and wonderful long-term memory.
• Passion for equality, social justice, and fairness, often being free of judgement.
• Ability to absorb copious amounts of information.
• Exceptional memory recall for facts.
• Creativity, imagination, and innovation.

What can employers do?

We cannot entirely remove the blind spots in neurodiversity, but that would be no different to any other area of diversity which is less visible. And even the visible signs of diversity can still be misinterpreted and misunderstood. For ethical reasons, we could never make all employees undertake screening for their neurotype. However, there are a lot of other workplace psychometric tests that notice neurodivergence in diverse ways but categorise them otherwise, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, for example.
What we can consider, however, is opportunities for employers to improve the clarity of neurodiversity in their workplace. It is no secret that the NHS waiting times for Autism and ADHD assessment do not meet the recommendations in the UK NICE guidelines, where there are guidelines that is (these are vaguer for ADHD than Autism), and that people face numerous hurdles to even get on an NHS waiting list. Some will be years before they are assessed or even diagnosed. This leaves a blind spot for employers that could be removed (or reduced in time length).

Many clients that we work with at Mind Matters are looking at whether they can circumvent such waiting issues by supporting assessment where an employee feels one is warranted and/or is experiencing barriers from clinical professionals in terms of the referral or is waiting on an NHS waiting list. Considering the negative impact this has on those sitting in this ‘limbo’ state – mentally and physically – it is in the employer’s and employees’ interests to have answers sooner rather than later and supporting an assessment can be a helpful way of assisting the employee’s mental health. Such a demonstration of support is excellent workplace practice and can facilitate more discussion between the employer and employee about the neurotype – the strengths, the challenges and to be able to support proactively. Supported employees tend to have better mental health, which allows employers to get the best performance from them (and their neurotype). This also improves our understanding of the neurodiversity landscape within our workplace, as the workplace gradually sees a clearer picture and moves closer to the truth, just as the individual does.