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Posted 21 Mar 2023

Two thirds of UK neurodivergent employees fear discrimination at work, research finds

A range of “barriers” have been discovered to disclosing neurodivergence at work, as two thirds (65 per cent) of neurodivergent employees fear discrimination from management, research has found.

The research – conducted by Birkbeck, University of London’s Centre for Neurodiversity Research at Work and commissioned by Neurodiversity in Business – revealed that neurodivergent employees feared discrimination from more than half (55 per cent) of colleagues. 

The research team surveyed 127 employers and 990 neurodivergent employees, and found two fifths (40 per cent) felt there were not enough knowledgeable staff at work to support neurodivergent workers.

Employers also said there were barriers to helping employees, as three fifths (65 per cent) of managers said they did not have enough knowledge to support workers, and a third (30 per cent) of employers admitted they had “little faith” in workplace adjustments.

Katie Allen, EDI specialist and executive coach, called on companies to create open spaces for discussion to tackle the stigma around neurodiversity. “Employers can ask for feedback and suggestions for improvements, and then, most importantly, listen to the answer,” said Allen. 

“If they have access to an employee resource group or forum, this can be an excellent source of insight for ways to make a workplace more neuro-inclusive. But gathering feedback does rely heavily on having a culture of psychological safety, where employees will feel able and willing to speak up about their experiences, without fear of repercussions.”

Jacqui Barrett, co-founder and managing director of Wider Thinking, said there should be “awareness” of what neurodiversity really was and how “varied” it was. “Training and educating your teams is the only way to give everyone the tools to excel as a diverse workforce. It allows everyone, not just leadership, to understand the positive impact of diversity on the company and community,” she said. 

Barrett added that building trust and fairness within your organisation rested with leadership displaying “openness and humility”. 

“Keep asking how to improve, keep evolving. Fostering a company culture where every voice is welcome, heard and respected needs to be strategic rather than organic,” she said.

Nadia Nagamootoo, Founder and Chief Executive of Avenir, outlined the role HR could play in raising workplace awareness about neurodiversity. “Creating a resource bank with articles, podcasts, TedTalks and books can help signpost people to self educate,” she suggested. “Secondly, it is important to get the conversation going on neurodiversity. [HR teams] can run events to highlight national neurodiversity week, bring in speakers who can share their stories and encourage employees to participate.”

HR could also add “integrated modules” about neurodiversity in leadership programmes undertaken by managers, Nagamootoo added.

According to the survey, hyperfocus (80 per cent), creativity (78 per cent) and innovative thinking (75 per cent) were among the most positive aspects of neurodivergence that employers and employees identified.

Hannah Brice, founder and managing director of Upmarketry, urged businesses to review their policies to ensure such qualities were not wasted. “While there are laws protecting people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities, these measures alone are not enough to create a truly accommodating environment,” she said. 

“Neurodiverse employees bring a wealth of creativity, skills and perspectives that can add immense value to any company. To make sure everyone feels like they belong and can express themselves without fear of discrimination, employers need to start changing their policies, processes and culture.”

Brice said employers could create a neuro-friendly working environment by incorporating tools such as “speech-to-text software to accommodate different communication styles” or “adjusting onsite training programmes to fit different learning strategies”.