Supporting and protecting the mental health of neurodiverse colleagues

The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day was ‘mental health is a universal human right’, and with this, it’s vital that businesses not only highlight mental health in the workplace but focus on ways they’re supporting employees.

A big part of mental health inclusivity is supporting employees of all backgrounds in the workplace. Neurodiversity is one area that is gathering more attention in the workplace but as such, employers need to ensure stigma is tackled and provisions are in place to create neurodiverse inclusive workplaces.

Neurodiversity describes people who experience the world differently from others in social, education and workplace environments. It can include people with autism, dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia, amongst other conditions.

It is estimated that around 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent, meaning many businesses already have neurodiverse employees. Neurodivergent colleagues can bring new insights and ways of looking at things to a workplace, given that the way they think is different to that of neurotypical employees. Solving complex problems, bringing a flair of creativity, a keen eye for detail and identifying patterns are just some of the skillsets that neurodivergent people excel in.

In fact, according to Drexel University’s National Autism Indicators Report, 51% of workers on the spectrum have skills higher than what their job requires. Meanwhile, fewer than one in six adults with autism even have full-time employment. However, in Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has a team staffed primarily with people on the spectrum, as they tend to see patterns in data that others cannot. And in Australia, the Defence Department is borrowing assessment methods from the IDF to develop a neurodiversity program in cybersecurity.

Acknowledging the needs of individual employees is crucial to ensuring the workplace is a productive one, with engaged employees.

Despite strides being made towards mental health in the workplace, neurodiversity is still being overlooked in many workplaces. Blanket mental health support won’t always be adequate for those with autism, attention deficit disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders or dyslexia and dyspraxia, for instance.

Different people have different requirements of their workplace and it’s important that business leaders and employers are equipped with an understanding of neurodiversity and how to effectively manage and support neurodivergent employees.

Adjustments also need to be considered when hiring neurodiverse employees to ensure that the workplace is as inclusive, accommodating, and supportive to them as possible. This extends to physical environments and office space too. Noise and light could cause sensitivities, therefore considering where neurodiverse employees are situated in the workplace can help.

Flexible working schedules can also help neurodivergent employees, enabling them to manage their energy and focus.

Training should also be conducted for managers to provide an understanding of neurodivergence across all teams and ways to support neurodivergent colleagues Working styles differ, depending on the individual, but it’s important that all colleagues understand each other and their ways of working. Positive language should also be promoted. Employers should consider language used when talking about or to neurodivergent colleagues and avoid words such as ‘struggle’ or ‘suffer’ which can reinforce negative connotations and stigma. Ultimately, using negative language is a breeding ground for stigma and a lack of inclusivity. There’s an ongoing concern around talking openly about conditions and the stigma that comes with this. The TELUS mental health index found that more than half (55%) of Britons believe that people with mental health conditions are treated differently, showing the necessity of nurturing an open and honest working environment.

The hiring process is critical when it comes to supporting a neurodiverse workforce. There are many outdated check lists of what makes a good candidate- and often people with eccentricities are perceived as not fitting the mould of the ‘ideal candidate; for example, if they are clearly uncomfortable in social situations or have a hard time holding eye contact and carrying a conversation, their skill sets could be unfairly misjudged.

By accommodating neurodiverse candidates, companies can ensure they’re not losing out potential excellent talent.

Also, boasting an impressive neurodiversity policy is a great way to prove to prospective employees that your workforce is an inclusive and supportive one. This will not only mean that you will attract a roster of highly skilled employees, but it will also encourage those neurodiverse individuals who are looking for work that their eccentricities or learning difficulties will not set them back.

Many companies have an ED&I policy that is continually updated, so building and implementing neurodiversity into those policies should be a priority.

Each and every workplace should recognise, understand and nurture the specific needs and skillset of each individual. By doing so, it means that companies are consciously creating an inclusive and positive company culture – workplaces that don’t won’t only fall short of ED&I practices but lose out on swathes of talent.