As leaders shape the culture, ways of working and policies of their businesses, they must keep in mind that every employee is unique, writes Sarah Henson, Senior Behavioural Scientist at CoachHub.

Frequently, neurodivergent employees have struggled to fit into a workplace that is all too often designed by and for neurotypical employees. I know this first-hand, as I discovered later in my career that I had ADHD, so I see and engage with the world differently. I have different needs that require additional support if I am to realise the best version of me at work.

More than half of neurodivergent employees fear discrimination or ridicule in the workplace, and may choose not to share their perspective, or simply downplay their diagnosis. Others may experience gaslighting, bullying,  isolation or ridicule as a result of not fitting in with peers. In addition, they may try to hide their neurodivergence in a bid to be accepted, which over time could result in burnout or feeling worthless and disengaged.

Now more than ever, with employees struggling as a result of the economic downturn, creating a culture of inclusion should be at the forefront of leaders’ minds. When encouraged and supported, neurodivergent individuals can be enabled to share their unique set of gifts, capacity for imaginative problem solving, creativity and focus that can be an enormous asset to any workplace.

Diversity is key

To really comprehend what employees may be experiencing on a daily basis and what support systems should be in place, it is important to clarify what it means to be neurodivergent. A neurodivergent person is simply an individual that may learn, behave or view the world in a way that may not be considered ‘’typical’’. In my case that refers to ADHD, but for others it can range from Autism to Dyslexia, Dyspraxia or a combination of multiple neurocognitive differences. This is who you are, not some ailment that can be “fixed” with a tablet.  Managers must keep in mind that each of these conditions require distinct adjustments to ensure all employees can realise their full potential in the workplace.

This begins with the recruitment process. Leaders should ensure they are promoting a diverse workforce by using positive and inclusive language in job postings, emphasising that they are open to applications from people from all different backgrounds and ability levels. When searching for new team members, managers need to challenge their assumptions, show flexibility and create space for neurodivergent employees to flourish.

When new team members are brought on board, managers should seek to learn about each new employee’s individual differences as early as possible in the onboarding process in order to embrace their strengths, make reasonable adjustments and deliver the support they need to perform their job effectively. They should also seek to identify and change processes that may encourage unconscious bias, enabling an open flow of communication about neurodiversity. Through the process of building awareness, knowledge and understanding throughout the broader organisation, leaders can build a culture of inclusivity and support for everyone.

Focus on communication and personalised accommodations

Neurodivergent employees may not need or want blanket accommodations, so it is important for managers to ask about their personal requirements and not make assumptions. Clear, concise, direct, inclusive communication benefits everyone in the workplace. Sarcasm, metaphor and turns of phrase in official communications that might be difficult to interpret can be confusing for all employees but particularly for neurodiverse individuals who may prefer direct, literal communication.

Managers can also consider providing ‘’quiet zones’’ within offices, to help with those who may need a break from the sensory overload that typically occurs in shared office spaces. With phones ringing, fluorescent lighting, notifications pinging and side conversations occurring – shared workspaces can be a place for inspiration, but might easily become distracting for those who require a calm environment. Quiet zones should be provided, but always considered optional. Similarly, managers should normalise the need for sensory and focus breaks, in addition to offering noise cancelling headphones for employees that need them if possible.

Learning and development as a tool for building a culture of inclusion

Businesses, as well as society overall, are now thankfully beginning to move towards an acceptance of the benefits neurodivergence can bring to the workplace, but there is still a long way to go. Managers must demonstrate empathy and flexibility when managing neurodivergent employees, making a true effort to provide them with what they need to develop. This involves providing the necessary tools for employees to receive personalised support in their career development, including coaching.

Personally, digital coaching has been an extraordinarily powerful part of my journey. It has provided me with a dedicated space to work through unique experiences of the workplace with my coach. Coaching can be hugely valuable both in helping the manager understand the support that their employees need, as well as allowing neurodivergent people to work through how they explore and flex their unique gifts. All workplaces can truly benefit from the individual perspectives and talents that can be provided by those who may view and experience the world differently.

Embracing individuality

Research conducted by McKinsey has proved that truly diverse businesses, where everyone can do their best work, have higher levels of employee engagement, better retention and higher revenues, meaning everyone wins. In reality, there is no ‘’normal’’ way to think or behave, we are all unique individuals with distinct ways that we observe and engage with the world. Whether neurodivergent or neurotypical, we can all benefit from a workplace that celebrates diversity of all types.