Is your neuroinclusion strategy working for everyone?

(12th December 2023) - Jo Faragher, D&I Leaders

Originally published on June 16th by D&I Leaders, a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR professionals, this article dives into the dynamics of neuroinclusion in the workplace. D&I Leaders and Texthelp provide valuable insights into bridging the gap between perceived support and the real-life experiences of neurodivergent employees.

Stay tuned to explore effective strategies for fostering truly inclusive workplaces.

Around 15 to 20% of the population is neurodivergent, yet the experiences of neurodivergent workers suggests that employers are not doing enough to support them.

According to research from inclusive technology specialist Texthelp, although three-quarters of people say their organization offers support for neurodivergent employees, 64% feel they could do more. More than half (52%) of neurotypical workers also felt more support could be offered. There’s clearly a gap between perception and reality here, so how can businesses ensure they are covering all bases when it comes to neuroinclusion?

Strategies for fostering inclusion and empowering neurodivergent employees

Seek feedback and encourage open conversations

A good start is to proactively ask employees what they want and need at work – honest conversations can help to ensure the environment is inclusive of everyone. “We actively listen to our employees and we survey them regularly, not to target solely people who are neurodivergent but to find out about everyone’s experiences at Texthelp and what we could do better and how we might be able to accommodate them differently,” says Cathy Donnelly, Chief People Officer at Texthelp.

“And we show that we are acting on their feedback by regularly publishing updates on actions we have taken based on survey feedback. In the surveys, we also focus on what employees’ views are in terms of how we’re executing on our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategy.” Making the surveys anonymous could help employees feel more comfortable being honest about their needs, she adds. It can also build trust: “For me community is an important aspect in inclusion. A community needs to be built on trust. It needs to be built on mutual respect and dignity,” she says.

“It’s really about creating that sense of belonging and that people feel that the environment is psychologically safe. Employees can bring their full selves to work and they’re going to be accepted.”

Provide tools and training

There are a number of practical ways organizations can enhance neuroinclusion at work. In Texthelp’s survey, 31% of respondents said they would benefit from specialist tools to support reading, writing and research. Small things like being able to choose which format to send and receive information can also make a difference. Almost a quarter (24%) suggested neurodiversity awareness training for colleagues, while 17% felt they would benefit from dedicated support networks or a buddy/mentor system. 16% said quiet spaces would help them feel comfortable, and other suggestions included more empathy from managers and colleagues, and a more proactive approach to support.

“A crucial part of our strategic priority focusing on DEI has been to create our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)”, Cathy adds. “These groups are led by employees, and employees who take part share common identity, values, interests or perspectives. We also welcome allies to join and participate in these groups. Our goal is to use the ERGs to offer opportunities for supporting one another, creating a community and sense of belonging.” ERG members also play a vital role in raising awareness of issues and trends affecting members, helping the company to address concerns and create a positive and inclusive experience at work.

Martin McKay, the Founder and CEO of Texthelp, believes that these and other measures help to create a workplace that is “more supportive and inclusive”, but insists there are always ways to learn and improve. “We all need to prioritise learning and educating ourselves about issues faced by underrepresented groups,” he adds.

"The workplace in general still has alarming statistics regarding inclusion and bias. By learning from diverse groups, we can expand our horizons and develop empathy and understanding for others. This helps us recruit and support an employee base that reflects society."

Empower individual strengths

Marketing agency, 21 Degrees Digital, has made an open commitment to supporting neurodiverse employees. Rory Mason, Managing Director, is himself dyslexic and currently undergoing a diagnosis for ADHD. “I felt at times I was completely unemployable – however the longer I’ve been in the workforce and been able to work in a way that’s best for me, this idea has seemed completely ridiculous,” he says. As a manager, Rory can now give opportunities to individuals “who have consistently been underestimated because of their neurodiversity”, adding that “anyone who wants to work hard will always succeed”. There have been a number of benefits to the agency, including finding the best way to communicate with individual clients based on employees’ particular strengths. “As an agency we don’t niche ourselves to one demographic or one industry, and so having a team that is diverse reflects the diversity of our clientele and their audiences which allows us to think like them and create marketing solutions that convert,” says Director Zac Evans.

From a practical perspective, the agency has introduced a number of measures to support neurodivergent staff – “bio sheets” that describe individuals’ preferred working styles and how best to communicate with them; adapting management styles to employees after discussing what works with them; and dividing work by skills rather than fitting people into roles that don’t work.

Disability campaign organization, Valuable 500, takes a similar approach. “A great example that we have seen within our own organization is an accessible document which is provided by the new employer prior to them starting,” says Ryan Curtis-Johnson, Director of Communications. “Having an open dialogue prior to them starting helps to prepare everything in advance and put things into place right away from the offset. Being inclusive from the start allows it to carry on through the individual’s working time with you and allows you to have best practice put into place.”

Some organizations have developed “neurodiversity passports”, explains Mandy Dennison, UK ICF Board Director, a coach trainer, coach mentor and coach. These help employees construct ways of working with HR and line managers that support their needs, such as specific deadlines, individual desks or flexible hours. Another small measure is an addition to an email signature that explains why someone cannot reply immediately or prefers to respond at certain times. But crucially, the culture needs to be there for neurodivergent employees to feel comfortable sharing their needs. “The organization needs to be a psychologically safe space to start off with, as in some workplaces there can be a feeling that if you speak out, this puts a ceiling on your potential,” Mandy adds. This can be a particular issue when it comes to adult diagnoses, where an employee may build up a fear of losing out on a promotion or feeling their career stall because they have declared a certain condition.

Introduce coaching conversations

Through coaching-led conversations managers can overcome their own assumptions and become more inclusive. Mandy explains: “If someone feels they struggle with spreadsheets they might be worried they’ll get work taken away from them, so it’s important to make those conversations more open. Often through coaching we discover people cycle through different strategies – one week they might find lists useful, another week it’s something else. They also create a space where someone feels comfortable saying ‘I’m really struggling today’.”

Processes and systems in the organization could also inadvertently be blocking neuroinclusion, such as rigid forms of performance management. Even simple things can be overlooked: company fonts may not be dyslexia friendly; IT teams can block out functions such as the ability to change the colour of type; completing timesheets on time. A clean desk policy may not support someone who needs lots of notes and lists to support them, for example.

When looking at neuroinclusion, it’s important to consider all aspects of the employee lifecycle. Around a third (34%) of respondents to Texthelp’s survey have experienced difficulty during interview and recruitment processes. 32% have experienced difficulty progressing their career. Using Universal Design principles can ensure all systems and processes are comfortable for the most diverse range of people. Martin McKay adds:

“When you have this mindset, the workplace can be a great place where great things happen to everybody. That’s because it helps us to create a workplace that is usable to the most diverse range of people. We can use this framework to create working environments where employees have what they need, and are able to achieve more, and to encourage different ways of working. In practice, that means thinking about what we can do to make systems and processes better and easier. And it doesn’t mean accessible, it just means better for everyone.”

Gain more insights...

Martin McKay, Founder and CEO of Texthelp and Jill Houghton, President and CEO of Disability:IN, explore further why neurodiversity must be included in your diversity and inclusion agenda.

Discover more expert insights and tips on improving neuroinclusion in your organization and empowering a neurodiverse team.