Creating a supportive workplace for neurodivergent employees


Creating a supportive workplace for neurodivergent employees

Everyone must have their needs met in order to thrive at work. For some people, simple changes can make a world of difference.

Colette Des Georges

April 5, 2022 | 5 min read


As people become more aware of the range of neurological diversity in humans, we’ve also started to understand why it’s so important that we build workplaces that support everyone equally. The movement toward inclusion for neurodivergent people has been inspiring to see. At the same time, these people often find it difficult or impossible to feel comfortable and do their best work under typical workplace conditions and policies. Happily, there are simple solutions that can make a big difference.

Common challenges for neurodivergent employees

Factors that neurotypical folks take for granted can be extremely problematic for their neurodivergent colleagues, creating physical challenges and/or emotional stress that interferes with their performance—sometimes to the point of not being able to work at all.

Here are a few things that employers should be conscious of:

Loud noises, busy environments

Most people can find it challenging to focus amid bustling activity or when loud noises intrude. Let’s face it: does anybody love an open office? For those with autism, PTSD, ADHD, or Sensory Processing Disorder, the same conditions can easily exceed the level of nuisance and create overwhelming distraction that makes it impossible for them to do their best work.

Hectic visuals

Visual storytelling is a powerful tool, making things more interesting for the audience and the presenter. Nowadays, lively video and animated gifs are at everyone’s fingertips. For neurodivergent people, though, hectic visuals can become disruptive triggers. And the prospect of encountering them at any time without warning can generate constant, low-level stress that interferes with their work and mental health.

Zoom calls

Videoconferencing made it possible for many of us to continue working and learning during the pandemic and, clearly, life without Zoom is a thing of the past. At the same time, Zoom fatigue is a well-documented problem. Meeting via videoconference requires more intense focus to absorb information, while at the same time it’s easier to be distracted–by our surroundings or even our own thoughts–than if we were physically situated in a room with our colleagues. Also exhausting is the feeling of the “constant gaze.” We look at the camera constantly, to show we’re engaged, without the visual breaks that are permissible (and likely unnoticed) when we are all in the same room.

Mildly to moderately challenging for neurotypical people, these factors can be insurmountable for those who naturally process information differently to start with. For instance, prolonged eye contact can be extremely stressful for those with autism.

Ways for employers to create inclusive environments 

The good news is that a few straightforward adjustments in policy and practice can eliminate these kinds of obstacles and create a work environment where everyone can succeed.

Work remotely

Allow neurodivergent employees to work from home where they can control their immediate environments. Accommodating remote workers is easier than ever nowadays, both technologically and culturally, as the pandemic forced many companies to accept the challenges and embrace the benefits of increased logistical flexibility.

Of course, depending on their roles and responsibilities, some employees might need to be present at the office at least part of the time. And even if they don’t, offering remote work as the only accommodation risks turning them into exiles. Mindfully working as a team to create an inclusive environment helps keep fully and largely remote people from feeling excluded.

Re-examine how meetings are used

A recent Momentive survey indicated 32%of people find themselves thinking, “This meeting could have been an email,” all or most of the time and only 56% leave meetings with clear action items all or most of the time. This should tell us there’s a lot of room to make better use of everyone’s time and energy.

Reducing meetings and empowering asynchronous work is a good productivity move in general and can go a long way toward eliminating the extra burden meetings can create for neurodivergent employees.

For those meetings that are needed, a policy of convening on camera at the beginning and then allowing participants to turn off their cameras can make the proceedings less stressful and more productive for everyone while preventing the extra stress virtual meetings can impose on neurodivergent folks.

Update the work landscape, onscreen and off

Embedding videos and nifty gifs into everything can be fun but is it worth it, when we consider how problematic it can be for colleagues? Many companies have standards in place that guide the format and style of presentations. It’s easy to review and update that framework with non-neurotypical staff members in mind, eliminating overwhelming stimuli.

Take a similar approach to the physical work environment–noise levels, lighting, traffic patterns. Where high activity and/or noise cannot be eliminated, create access to quiet areas where people can retreat and focus. Avoid–or at least, offer relief from–harsh lighting.

Inclusivity comes from openness and flexibility

Mental health is a growing concern and supporting it is becoming a major differentiator for employers. Stress is the primary reason people are leaving their jobs. At the same time, eight in ten employees believe the stigma associated with mental health concerns is a barrier to seeking treatment.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution even among neurodivergent people. What is triggering for one person might go unnoticed by another. One thing you can count on is most people being reluctant to speak up if they are neurodivergent or otherwise need special accommodations. That means employers need to create a safe and supportive space to initiate the conversations with employees  without judgment. Rather than mentioning “mental illness or other conditions”, ask “Are there special accommodations you will need, such as X or Y?”

Even neurotypical employees value flexibility. Eighty percent of people want a remote work option and 11% are willing to quit if one isn't offered. So, open communication about the range of needs employees may have, along with flexible policies, shouldn’t be disruptive and likely will foster a happier, more productive workforce across the board.

Being a good employer requires keeping the conversation open. Some people’s needs change, and others may just need more time to understand what works for them. Whether it’s a regular survey, a regular cadence of manager check-ins, or both, when employees know that they have communication channels open to them, they’ll feel better supported. And when employees are supported, they thrive.

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