Making the most of our brains at work
How Employers Can Help Their Neurodiverse Employees Thrive
Lauren McNally is a senior copywriter with 15 years of experience in the advertising industry. She has expertise in the pharma/healthcare and luxury markets.
Disorganized. Aloof. Scatterbrained. Daydreamer. Sound familiar? These unflattering terms can often describe highly creative personalities—those whose brains are wired in a way that they don’t meet the standard definition of “normal.” Nowadays, many of these folks can be referred to as “neurodiverse” and are often extremely intelligent, creative, empathetic, and innovative. Yet, they often struggle to operate by society’s basic rules, like punctuality, linear organization, and attention to detail. It’s all around you, but chances are, if you don’t personally know someone with a brain difference, you haven’t considered just how many people experience them.
Approximately 20 percent of the adult population is considered neurodiverse. That’s one in five people.
While their gifts may outweigh their perceived flaws, they often have a hard time functioning in society and in the workplace. Yet with the right support systems, they can flourish, thrive, and make incredible contributions. Decorated olympians Simone Biles and Michael Phelps both grapple with ADHD. Richard Branson? Dyslexic. Jennifer Aniston? Dyslexic. I, too, have struggled with ADHD for as long as I can remember and well before I knew it was a diagnosable condition. We are all part of the 20 percent.
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If one in five adults are neurodiverse, you can safely draw the conclusion that companies employ a large number of neurodiverse people—but what does that ultimately mean? Neurodiverse employees, like any diverse group, need support to thrive.
As an organization, it could be an opportunity to more clearly define and articulate your values—to your employees, your clients, and to the general public. You can’t hope to engage people around a compelling story or brand if you don’t embrace the same principles with your own team and vice versa. Your employees don’t just run your business operations, they are also your most important audience.
“Neurodiversity” is a term coined in 1997 by sociologist Judy Singer, initially referring to people on the autism spectrum. It has since broadened to become more inclusive of ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, depression, and other cognitive differences. These are brain functions that veer from traits of mainstream, or neurotypical, society. If you are neurodiverse, your brain is wired differently. The upsides of these differences can be myriad: out-of-the-box thinking, prolific big-picture ideas, enormous empathy for others. The downsides, however, can conflict with parameters most often measured and rewarded by employers, such as focus, organization, punctuality, and linear thinking.
Your employees don’t just run your business operations, they are also your most important audience.
Traits and skills that neurodivergent people present (and which, in turn, can be critical to business innovation) are not often the most valued or even sought-after soft skills in most employment situations. Given that neurodiverse individuals represent such a large percentage of the adult population, business employers are actively losing out on their employees’ best work by not understanding and adapting workflows to be inclusive of the neurodivergent experience.
A personal neurodivergent journey: learning to love my scattered brain
I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 19 years old. Nowadays, that’s pretty late in life. At the time, we were just starting to understand attention disorders, but when I was in elementary school in the 1980s, the diagnosis usually only applied to little boys. “Hyper” little girls were simply troublemakers, and those of us with ADD/ADHD were often labeled as “aloof,” “scattered,” “disorganized” and “daydreamers.” None of those labels have positive connotations. All of them have lifelong implications for the recipient.
Now in my early 40s, some days I still don’t know how I got to where I am. I attended an elite college where I struggled IMMENSELY without the structure of my pre-university life. I felt trapped by failure and a sense that I was never going to make it in the “real world.”
I decided to see a psychologist who specialized in attention issues, and he armed me with the vocabulary to identify my precise battles. I am what many psychologists might call a classic ADHD case. Attention to detail, impulse control, organization, and order of operations are really difficult for me, and they absorb all of my energy to execute. I have a really difficult time processing information audibly, so I have to take copious notes to retain any sort of lecture or presentation. I hyperfocus (which can actually be a good thing!), which means I’ll go deep into tangential thought on a subject that interests me, but this may manifest as detachment or aloofness. On the positive side, that rapid tangential thought allows me to see angles and connect things that many other people do not see. I have a ton of energy, and if I’m excited about something, I will make you excited about it as well.
How employers can support neurodivergent employees.
It stands to reason that as workplaces continue to understand differences in their employees, whether they are differences in background, culture, sexual orientation, or neurological, they can all benefit from gaining a clearer picture of the individual as a whole. A more thorough understanding of brain differences, in particular, could really benefit employers, contributing to higher productivity, greater employee satisfaction, and a more flexible swath of skills that employers can apply across disciplines.
First and foremost, an employer might consider the neurodivergent experience, which can be incredibly lonely and difficult to articulate. While the ADA legally requires employers to provide accommodations for those who are neurodivergent, there isn’t much precedent for exploring how to help employees come forward about their brain differences or even what accommodations might look like. Here’s a perfect on-the-nose example of the potential confusion surrounding accommodations: As we were working on this article, both myself and my editor, having disclosed to one another that we were neurodivergent, also both confessed that we have never had a conversation with an employer or manager about what we needed to feel more supported in the workplace.
While we’ve come a long way as a society in understanding brain differences, I, as an employee, might have to speak up about mine.
While it’s still by no means a widely known practice, lots of companies are formalizing programs to hire and engage neurodiverse workers (IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and Dell, to name a few headline-grabbing Fortune 100’s), recognizing the value in bringing together different ways of thinking to get to a common goal.
Below are some recommendations to employers—especially those who employ creatives—on how to support their neurodivergent employees.
- Start by helping your employees discuss their brain differences with their managers. A lot of us are still pretty shy in talking about our brain differences, and while we may know how to talk about them, we don’t know how to start the conversation with our managers. As a company, start with offering open conversations for all staff. How can you foster the difficult first conversations with managers, and can those start before you even hire someone? Do you rethink the recruitment/interview process altogether?
- Support and train managers on the range of brain differences and how to work with them. We can’t assume that everyone knows everything (or anything!) about every brain difference out there, so it’s important to educate all employees about the differences between neurotypical and neurodivergent brains. The more educated management is, the more doors open for employees to feel comfortable discussing their brain differences, and more productive conversations can happen around the best way to get work done and measure individual performances.
- Hire a neuropsychologist as a performance coach. While recognizing that not every workplace can keep a Wendy Rhoades on staff, bringing in a professional even on a consultative basis can help all employees—both neurodiverse and neurotypical—have more productive conversations about different working styles. Employees can benefit from both individual therapy sessions and group working sessions where they can learn more about themselves and techniques for working with others in a way that allows for all differences to participate.
- Consider recalibrating performance metrics to be more neuroinclusive. No two brains are alike, so why are we still measuring performance by the same standards? A focus on the positive things that an employee brings to their position and the company is more productive for everyone involved, and areas where they fall short should be met with support, not admonishment. For example, someone like me, who presents with classic ADHD, brings a lot of enthusiasm, empathy, and creativity to an organization, but I really struggle with focus, sensory issues, attention to detail, and processing information audibly through mediums such as presentations and verbal feedback. If I started a job from day one having that conversation with my manager, perhaps we could tailor a performance plan that leverages my strengths and figures out workarounds for my challenges, like dedicated meeting-free focus time on my calendar, or feedback captured in writing by a project manager.
- Implement accommodations for neurodiverse employees. In our weird little world of at-home and hybrid work environments, we have an opportunity to start implementing accommodations for neurodiverse employees as we rebuild what the post-pandemic workplace looks like. Perhaps a return-to-office situation could include a screening or questionnaire to create an opportunity for neurodiverse employees to have conversations with their employers and implement subsequent accommodations. For example, many of us with sensory issues struggled in an open office environment pre-pandemic, so perhaps we would benefit from a more dedicated physical office space where someone can shut a door. Employees may also benefit from more flexibility to exercise during the workday, as exercise is a proven therapy for everyone.
Something all employers can agree on — you are only as good as the principles you embrace. If you’re looking for creative thinking and innovation, as most workplaces are, that can come from anyone, but neurodivergent people tend to see things differently to begin with. The key is matching them up with the right role and putting them with the right people. Ping pong tables and beer carts are great perks, but they don’t necessarily foster the kinds of conversations that need to happen to ensure that those with brain differences have the right support systems to be productive. With more open conversations, backed by managers, neurodiverse employees can function to the best of their abilities, and workplaces in turn will benefit from their creative, magnificent, different brains.