Fostering an inclusive workplace: neurodiversity

Fostering an inclusive workplace: neurodiversity


Two years ago we published this article outlining what neurodiversity means and how employers can implement changes in the workplace to make it more inclusive for neurodiverse individuals – and, by extension, create a more efficient, productive and happier environment.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term encapsulating any diversity of cognitive functioning, such as autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia and attention deficit conditions. Around 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent. However, the proportion of people with certain neurodivergent profiles in the workplace remains low; for example, the Office for National Statistics estimates that only 29% of autistic adults are in employment. In addition, many neurodivergent workers may not feel comfortable disclosing their neurodiversity to their employers. 

In 2018, the CIPD published a guide to making workplaces more inclusive of neurodiversity, with the aim of improving awareness and inspiring employers to take action to recruit and retain neurodiverse employees, as well as fostering environments in which employees feel they can be open about neurodiversity. This guide remains a useful source but since then there have been a few other interesting updates for employers and HR professionals to be aware of:

  • On 2 April 2023, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced the launch of a new review designed to boost the employment prospects of autistic people, close the employment gap and grow the economy. The Autism Employment Review will focus not just on access to employment, but ways to retain and support the development of autistic employees in the workplace. By talking to businesses, employment organisations and support groups, and in conjunction with the charity Autistica, the review seeks to identify the barriers autistic people face in attaining employment and career progression. We can expect the results of the review to be published later this year.
  • Alongside the DWP review, and following on from a consultation conducted back in July 2019, the Government has also recently published a White Paper setting out proposals to help support people with disabilities and health conditions start or stay in work. From a legal perspective, the key concern for HR and employment professionals is often whether a neurodiverse individual has a condition amounting to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, and whether recruitment and employment practices carry a risk of disability discrimination. It is also important to consider if there is a duty to make reasonable adjustments. Whilst not all neurodiverse conditions will meet the legal test for a disability, the White Paper does discuss particular neurodiverse profiles, such as autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia, and is a useful resource for employees and employers alike looking at making adjustments to working practices to address the particular challenges and opportunities that can arise. Suggested accommodations include the use of dictation and mind-mapping software, noise-cancelling headphones, and quiet rooms or other break-out areas, all of which can be relatively straight-forward to implement but have a significant positive impact for recruiting, retaining and supporting neurodiverse employees by aiding concentration and reducing stressors such as sensory overload. 
  • There has also been an uptick in cases in the Employment Tribunal relating to neurodiversity and disability discrimination. One of the key issues which was illustrated in the recent case of Morgan v Buckinghamshire Council [2022] EAT 160 is whether an employer has actual or constructive knowledge of a disability, which can be complicated where employees do not feel comfortable disclosing their neurodivergence to their employer or have learned behaviours which may “mask” their neurodiversity. In this case the Tribunal found that a statement made by the employer that “the individual withheld her autism through ‘masking’ which potentially put vulnerable children [with whom she worked] at risk” implied that the claimant had been deceitful and had the effect of violating the individual’s dignity such that it constituted harassment. By encouraging open conversations about neurodiversity, what it is, and how experiences can vary, this can help to improve understanding and visibility in the workplace and support employees to disclose any disability or needs without fear of a detrimental impact on their working life and career development.  

Points for employers and HR professionals to consider for fostering an inclusive work environment:

  • Recruitment – consider how application, interview and test formats can be made more accessible to neurodiverse applicants. Psychometric testing, situational interview questions and in person interviews can be more challenging for some neurodiverse applicants who find it harder to read social cues. Job advertisements and interview materials can also be published in different ways to minimise sensory stimuli, including on websites such as Enna.org which are specialist jobsites for neurodiverse jobseekers.
  • Health and safety – does your workplace assessment take into account the specific needs of neurodiverse employees, for example in relation to lighting and sound levels which may affect neurotypical and neurodiverse employees differently?
  • Working practices and culture – do your policies and practices actively support and encourage employees to raise any concerns or reasonable adjustments they may require? Employees may not know what adjustments are available and so it is helpful to encourage a conversation and provide examples of possible adjustments, such as changes to working patterns to allow for more breaks, limiting noise and distraction in the office with the use of quiet areas and setting up mentoring schemes to encourage career development. It is important to keep practices under review to ensure that any adjustments are working and to take account of needs which can change over time.