Supporting Neurodiverse Staff Whilst we are Working Differently
Neurodiversity refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information. It highlights that people naturally think about things differently. People have different interests and motivations, and are naturally better at some things and poorer at others.
Most people are neurotypical, meaning that the brain functions and processes information in the way society expects.
However it is estimated that around 1 in 7 people (more than 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently. Neurodivergence includes Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia.
Most forms of neurodivergence are experienced along a 'spectrum'. Each form of neurodivergence (such as dyslexia and autism) has a range of associated characteristics although there are some overlaps and common features between different forms. However these characteristics can vary from individual to individual. For example, the effects of dyspraxia on one person can be different to another person who also has dyspraxia. The effects on the individual can also change over time.
Additionally, an individual will often have the characteristics of more than one type of neurodivergence.
It is important to understand how the working environment can affect neurodivergent employees and making the workplace more accommodating and supportive can reduce much of the stress those who are neurodivergent often experience.
The uncertainty we all face in the current climate, and coping with the changes it has brought, can be particularly challenging for people who are neurodivergent.
This guidance covers the ways in which we have been working differently as a result of these changes, whether that is where staff are working from home or where they are starting to return to campus, recognising this may feel very different to the pre-Covid working environment.
One example of the way we are all working differently is that it has become common practice now for meetings to take place via video call. This becomes all the more challenging with large numbers of attendees wanting to be heard, often at the same time. These challenges may be further heightened for some neurodivergent employees. Consideration should therefore be given to whether a different approach would be welcome and more appropriate or whether a conversation with the attendees ahead of time, setting out expectations and etiquette – essentially setting the ground rules for the meeting – would be enough to allay any fears and anxieties.
Maintaining Regular Contact
Being away from their normal work environment can result in your team members not having the same access to their regular support network. This can happen if staff are working from home, or even when they start to return to campus as their broader network of colleagues may not be as accessible as they were before. This can make your team members feel isolated.
In addition, staff may feel anxious about the ongoing changes presented by the situation nationally, as well as the measures that have been introduced on campus which may present some challenges. Some neurodivergent people may struggle to adapt to guidelines that disrupt typical behavioural routines, display conflicting advice/information, or situations where others are not adhering to the rules, for example in shops or public transport.
Managers can support their teams by maintaining regular and informal contact, and checking in with team members on a one to one basis via phone, web chat or video call. Use whichever media works best for your team member.
Clearly, everyone is an individual – whether neurodivergent or not – and that needs to be the starting point. Ask them how they are coping with the situation, whether they are managing their workload or if they are experiencing any issues with their working environment.
It‘s important to note that these check-in’s should be made to assess the wellbeing of your team members and to offer any support that you can offer. Don’t use them as an opportunity to chase work or add unnecessary pressure.
For those staff who had reasonable adjustments in the workplace pre covid-19, including those who are neurodivergent, it’s important to find out whether those existing measures are still suitable each time their working arrangements alter, for example, when working at home, when returning to campus, or when working in different locations on campus, as a change of environment or working arrangements may mean other adjustments need considering.
Through supportive conversations other staff may also newly disclose circumstances of their own which may need some accommodation.
|Guidance for Managers||
Have a Supportive Conversation
It can be difficult and stressful for an employee to talk to their manager about their neurodivergence.
Supportive conversations with staff may help a neurodivergent team member to feel safe and empowered enough to talk about how they could be better accommodated whilst working differently or could enable staff to disclose their neurodivergence for the first time.
To make it easier for the employee to talk more about it, a manager should:
When staff are working differently they may have a number of concerns and anxieties, and for neurodivergent staff not having access to regular routines can be especially difficult. Whilst working from home staff may face the challenges of juggling work and family life, they may be feeling a sense of loneliness, or struggling with aspects of work which need to be done in new ways.
Conversely, flexible and remote working practices may mean neurodivergent people are under less personal strain when distanced from workplace/commuting, sensory overload and non-essential social interactions and therefore returning to campus can present some challenges as staff face working in a new environment.
During your conversations, ask how your team member is coping with any of these challenges. Managers are not expected to be an expert on any form of neurodivergence, however they do need to consider whether reasonable adjustments can be made to overcome the barriers a neurodivergent staff member faces. These pages provide guidance to managers and list a number of resources they can signpost staff to for appropriate support.
Everyday Actions That Will Help Neurodivergent Team Members
To support a neurodivergent team member a manager can take some simple everyday actions themselves that will enable issues to be identified early and misunderstandings to be resolved before they escalate. These include:
Identifying What Support is Needed
When considering what actions and support may help, the best place to start is with the team member and the barriers they face, rather than the condition itself. Focus on:
Managers should be confident talking to employees about their challenges. Getting to know the team member and learning how the neurodivergence affects them in the workplace will make it easier to provide appropriate support. It can also make it easier to spot and sensitively resolve issues before they become serious.
However, managers should not pressure team members into talking about it if they do not want to.
Considering What Adjustments Could Be Put In Place
Each individual may be affected differently by their neurodivergence. For that reason it is more important to understand the particular challenges that individual faces rather than those which might be commonly attributed to their particular condition.
Discuss whether they are impacted by their current working environment:
Managers should approach the situation with patience and understanding, and whether the neurodivergence amounts to a disability or not, try to make changes that will help to improve a team members health and well-being.
It is important to understand the barriers experienced by staff in relation to their job as well as the areas of strength. This will help with the consideration of appropriate reasonable adjustments.
Often small, simple changes to working arrangements or responsibilities will be all that are required.
The checks a manager could make might include:
There is an overlap between some of the conditions, strengths, difficulties and therefore the reasonable adjustments that may be appropriate. This factsheet outlines a range of challenges faced by staff who are neurodivergent, and lists some potential measures that may support and enable the individual. It can be used to aid the discussion, and help to identify what challenges are presented in a work context. The team member should also feel free to discuss any other difficulties they face in their job, or to suggest alternative ways of overcoming them.Please refer to the separate guidance on preparing for and holding the meeting to discuss reasonable adjustments.
Once in place, adjustments should be regularly reviewed to check they are still appropriate and/or working as intended. Your HR Adviser can provide more guidance if challenges continue to exist.
Further University guidance on the process for identifying and implementing reasonable adjustments, including within the context of academic career pathways, can be found here:
Staff Helpline and Counselling - provided by Health Assured, this free service is a means for all staff and their immediate families to access practical help, information, advice and support to address and resolve problems and issues they may be facing at home or at work.
Occupational Health - our Occupational Health provider, Health Management Limited, can provide advice and guidance on reasonable adjustments to help you thrive at work.
Specific Learning Difficulties - Raising awareness around specific learning difficulties.
ELTC SpLD Tutorial Service - This service provides 1:1 tutorials for staff members to talk about the strengths and challenges they feel are linked to their learning differences, and to work on strategies for getting around some of the things they find are barriers in the workplace. It does not provide recommendations to managers.
ELTC SpLD Awareness and Inclusion Training - The English Language Training Centre has a series of short interactive online training resources for university staff which are designed to increase awareness of Specific Learning Differences (SpLD). Whilst student focused, it is nonetheless a useful overview for managers.
Further Guidance and Information for Managers
Professor Sarah Rankin - Youtube talk with a dyslexic and dyspraxic scientist, Imperial College
The CODPAST - Interview with a dyslexic landscape designer
Professor Jack Horner - dyslexic paleontologist (The Dyslexic Advantage)