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Neurodiversity will become a critical part of employers’ people strategies

Health and Benefits|Inclusion and Diversity|Talent|Wellbeing
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By Rebecca Warnken | June 8, 2022

Though neurodiverse individuals face hurdles in today’s workplace, companies can better meet their needs and improve business performance by making the workplace more accessible and flexible for all.

Neurodiversity – the natural variation in the brain that results in different ways of thinking, learning, socializing and communicating – is a relatively new term that was first coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s amid the sharp rise in autism diagnosis rates in children. Over the last 20 years, we have acquired a broad understanding of the differences in brain functioning and processing for a range of neurocognitive conditions, including autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and other learning differences.

These conditions can bring challenges in navigating everyday life, but some employers, such as Microsoft, are recognizing the unique strengths of neurodivergent people including creative problem solving, pattern recognition, unique expertise, and empathy. As more organizations appreciate the skills and talents that neurodiverse individuals bring, addressing neurodiversity will become a key part of employers’ people strategies.

This isn’t necessarily uncharted territory for employers, but there are a few reasons for the acceleration of this priority:

  1. 01

    The affected population is large

    All of the children diagnosed with neurocognitive conditions over the last 15 to 20 years are becoming adults and entering the workforce. Eighty-five percent of autistic college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they are not working in jobs that match their education and skills. There are also adults who may have missed identification in childhood but are receiving a diagnosis now as awareness increases. The latest studies suggest one in seven adults is neurodivergent, and some populations such as women, Black and Hispanic people are more likely to experience a delayed or misdiagnosis.

    Also, beyond developmental conditions, individuals with an injury or illness may also experience long-term neurocognitive challenges – including individuals who have been infected with COVID-19 and may be experiencing ongoing sensory and neurocognitive issues, classified as long COVID.

  2. 02

    Demand for skilled labor is high

    In a tight labor market, employers are challenged to fill key roles and skills. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a top business priority, and diversity of thinking drives innovation and business performance. For example, WTW’s Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey indicates that one in five companies has identified neurodiversity as an important consideration in attracting and retaining talent over the next two years. Neurodiverse talent may excel in roles that align with the future of work.

    That said, neurodivergent individuals are not thriving in the workplace. The physical workplace (such as open floor plan) can be difficult to navigate for individuals with sensory sensitivities, difficulty concentrating or anxiety in social situations. Disclosure is another challenge, even as employers are required to make accommodations available under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many individuals with neurocognitive differences are not comfortable disclosing their conditions or accessing support due to stigma. These challenges are taking their toll: WTW’s Global Benefits Attitudes Survey indicates that 71% of neurodivergent individuals suffer from anxiety or depression, and almost half are experiencing burnout at work.

  3. 03

    The pandemic has transformed work

    As employers rethink where, when and how we work – the tools, technology and knowledge are available to transform the workplace and benefit offerings to be more accessible, flexible and accommodating of all neurocognitive needs, to the benefit of all employees. Companies that figure this out will have a competitive advantage in the future.

How can your organization better support neurocognitive differences in the workplace?

  • Incorporate neurodiversity (different ways of thinking, communicating, learning) into company DEI goals.
  • Change the way you recruit and hire by tapping into different talent pools, modifying interview formats and rethinking the onboarding process for neurodivergent talent.
  • Position employees with neurocognitive conditions for success by offering job coaching opportunities, manager training, flexibility in the performance management process and clear pathways to change roles based on strengths and interests.
  • Reduce the stigma and provide social support via employee resource groups, ally training and unconscious bias training. Respect and celebrate differences in cognitive, communication and social preferences and needs of all employees, and normalize the use of accommodations.
  • Ask employees how the company can best support preferred workstyle and communication needs through pulse surveys, virtual focus groups and other employee listening strategies.
  • Adapt benefits to be more accessible and flexible for diverse needs.

Organizations today need to seek all available sources of talent in a competitive market. Neurodiverse individuals have much to offer, not only in terms of their skills but also in helping to increase organizational diversity and resilience. Attracting, serving and retaining neurodiverse individuals will be a key part of employers’ people strategies going forward.

Author

Senior Director, Health and Benefits

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