Neurodiversity is powerful in a workplace that recognizes and values the unique strengths and abilities of people with neurological differences. As HR leaders, embracing neurodiversity in the workplace is not just about compliance and risk management; it’s about realizing the untapped potential of your employees.
In this guide, we’ll first explore why supporting neurodiverse employees is crucial. Then, we offer actionable strategies that empower you to create an inclusive workplace – and employee benefits program – that truly harnesses the power of neurodiversity for your business.
Table of Contents
- Understanding and Embracing Neurodiversity at Work
- What is Neurodiversity?
- Consequences of Not Supporting Neurodiversity at Work
- Benefits of Celebrating Neurodiversity at Work
- How to Create a Neurodiverse-Inclusive Workplace
- Educate Your Workforce About Neurodiversity
- Neurodiverse-Friendly Workplace Infrastructure
- Social Structures Optimized for Neurodiversity at Work
- Benefits Programs for Neurodiverse Employees
- Enhanced Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
- Curated Mental Health Coverage
- Smarter Medication Coverage
- Flexible Leave Policies
- Career Development Programs
- Measuring Success of Pro-Neurodiversity Initiatives
Understanding and Embracing Neurodiversity at Work
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is a concept that recognizes and celebrates the natural variation in human neurological circumstances. While neurodiversity typically includes a range of mental conditions – such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and more – it emphasizes that these are not disorders to be cured or normalized but are instead part of the wealth of human diversity.
There’s no formal medical definition of neurodiversity and it’s not a one-size-fits-all concept. In fact, two people with similar characteristics, thoughts, behaviours, and even diagnoses may feel very differently about being called neurodiverse. However, generally speaking, neurodiverse people have a brain that works differently from the average “neurotypical” person. These differences may be in executive functions such as working memory, time management, attention, and self-control, as well as social interaction, communication, learning, and perception of the environment.
Consequences of Not Supporting Neurodiversity at Work
Failing to embrace and support neurodiversity may present risks and costs for employers. If an employee is struggling, long wait times for assessment and diagnosis could mean your neurodiverse employee is less productive and more susceptible to going on an extended medical leave of absence. This can cost the company thousands of dollars… or in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars when including necessary disability reserve funding.
Once a neurodiverse employee receives a diagnosis, their doctor will typically adopt a “guess and test” approach to selecting type and dosage of medication, despite the availability of pharmacogenomic (also known as pharmacogenetic) testing that can more accurately guide medication decisions. It can be many months before an employee is fully supported with a medication that works well for them. Once again, employers must deal with lower productivity and more absenteeism while their employee is taking brave steps to get the help they need.
Workplaces that aren’t supportive of neurodiverse employees may also find they deal with higher rates of voluntary and involuntary turnover. Just like workplaces that don’t cultivate a culture of diversity fail to attract and/or retain diverse candidates (such as women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+), neurodiverse employees who have a lot to offer may not stay or be able to perform well at companies where they are forced to operate in more neurotypical ways.
Benefits of Celebrating Neurodiversity at Work
Society’s understanding of the human mental and emotional experience is broadening. Celebrating neurodiversity in your workforce isn’t just about social responsibility; it’s a strategic move.
For one, employers who value neurodiversity at work tap into a pool of talents that traditional workplaces might overlook. What might be considered a nuisance or negative quality in one workplace can be valued in another. Neurodiverse employees often possess remarkable attention to detail, problem-solving skills, and creativity. Many neurodiverse individuals are exceptionally productive, especially when their focus is on a task or project that interests them. Employers can choose to adopt an approach that embraces the different ways that people think, feel and act, leveraging each employee’s unique strengths for the benefit of all. By embracing the abilities (some might call superpowers) of neurodiverse employees, you foster a culture of innovation and boost overall productivity.
If employers can embrace diversity of thought, they can reap many benefits by avoiding financial risk and cultivating a more productive workforce.
How to Create a Neurodiverse-Inclusive Workplace
While neurodiverse people possess many positive traits that contribute to a top-performing workplace, they also might require intentional support to reach their full potential.
Employers can take specific actions to create a workplace that is intentionally crafted to embrace neurodiversity at work, including:
Educate Your Workforce About Neurodiversity
Begin by educating your teams about neurodiversity. Awareness leads to empathy, which is the cornerstone of an inclusive workplace. Continue by offering training sessions on understanding and working effectively with neurodiverse colleagues. Rather than single out the neurodiverse from the neurotypical, some workplaces employ personality testing for everyone, such as DiSC profiling. This can help build cohesive teams that appreciate the full spectrum of individual differences.
Neurodiverse-Friendly Workplace Infrastructure
Neurodiverse people may be more likely to thrive in environments where they can manage sensory inputs. Consider offering flexible hours or remote work options for anyone who needs it, as working from a preferred, personalized work environment may be more conducive to productivity. In the workplace itself, design workspaces that can accommodate sensory sensitivities. Dimmable lighting and providing noise-cancelling headphones or quiet areas can significantly improve the comfort and capability of neurodiverse employees.
Social Structures Optimized for Neurodiversity at Work
Just like a wheelchair ramp can be used by anyone and so benefits all, many supports for neurodiverse people may help everyone better perform in their roles. Structured communication is one example: clear and concise communication with visual aids and written instructions can make tasks more manageable and achievable for neurodiverse and neurotypical employees alike.
Managers play a key role in ensuring the success of neurodiverse employees in the workplace. Without understanding neurodiversity, many managers dealing with neurodiverse employees may get frustrated by disconnected communication, conflict, and inconsistent effort. Manager training combined with individualized support plans is a powerful recipe for embracing neurodiversity at work. Managers should proactively collaborate with employees to create support plans tailored to their needs, and then regularly check in (in a structured way) about performance and environment. It may be helpful for managers to understand that some neurodiverse people are hypersensitive to critical feedback (known as rejection sensitive dysphoria), so building trust, providing regular balanced feedback, and providing reassurance and encouragement will go a long way towards collaboratively working together with the goal of continuous improvement.
Larger organizations with a more mature neurodiversity-friendly culture may consider establishing employee resource groups. These are affinity groups where neurodiverse employees can connect, share experiences, and offer mutual support.
Benefits Programs for Neurodiverse Employees
When it comes to supporting neurodiversity at work, a one-size-fits-all approach to employee benefits falls short. Tailoring benefits plans to meet the unique needs of neurodiverse employees can benefit both employees and the business.
Enhanced Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
Choosing an enhanced EAP program may cost a little more than a basic one, but the benefits offered by enhanced EAPs may go a long way to supporting neurodiversity at work. For instance, many enhanced EAPs offer manager training for supporting neurodiverse employees, and an enhanced EAP with targeted counseling, strategies, and resources may be more helpful for newly diagnosed employees navigating their new understanding of themselves and their world.
Curated Mental Health Coverage
Benefits programs that are optimized for neurodiverse employees prioritize mental health coverage, including therapy and counseling services that cater to the specific needs of neurodiverse employees. Consider also including coverage for diagnosis, as virtual care options like Frida for ADHD assessment can cost-effectively fast-track assessment and help employees avoid long wait times from the public healthcare system. Don’t forget to map out the entire benefits program, including how employees can access services, to ensure your benefits program is useful to employees in their time of need.
Smarter Medication Coverage
Drug coverage can be optimized for neurodiverse employees as well. Some neurodiverse employees require medication to help manage their condition. Employers should work with their benefits advisor and insurance carrier to evaluate their medication coverage for prescription drugs and ensure it includes medications commonly used by neurodiverse employees.
Offering neurodiverse employees coverage for pharmacogenetic/pharmacogenomic testing after they’ve received a diagnosis can potentially help reduce the risks and costs associated with a long trial and error approach to medication management. Pharmacogenomic testing assesses variations in genes that may be responsible for medication effectiveness and side effects, and it can help guide healthcare providers in prescribing medication. While research is mixed on the effectiveness of pharmacogenomic testing for some conditions (such as depression), interestingly, many insurance carriers will opt for this testing when a disability claim is made. If the insurance carrier invests in this testing to help an employee return to work faster, how much more could an employer save by proactively covering the testing and preventing the leave in the first place?
Flexible Leave Policies
Neurodiverse employees may need more breaks during the workday for medical appointments or to deal with sensory overload or overwhelm. Employers can accommodate these differences by adopting flexible hours or leave policies and moving to goal-oriented rather than time-oriented success measures.
Career Development Programs
Remember, many neurodiverse people have powerful, unique traits that can supercharge their work, but their managers – and even they – might not be aware of those traits or how best to harness them. When offering training and career development programs, consider choosing ones that accommodate the learning styles of neurodiverse individuals. And it may be beneficial to offer specific training programs for neurodiverse employees.
Measuring Success of Pro-Neurodiversity Initiatives
It’s important to set measurable goals for your neurodiversity inclusion initiatives. Employee engagement surveys, feedback mechanisms, and metrics such as retention rates can provide insights into the effectiveness of your strategies.
Supporting neurodiversity at work isn’t just a feel-good initiative; it’s a powerful tool for organizational growth and innovation. By fostering an inclusive environment where every employee can thrive, you’re not only transforming the lives of your employees but also setting your business on a fast track to success.