5 Hallmarks of a Neurodivergent-Inclusive Workplace
The road to dismantling workplace stigmas around invisible disabilities is a long one, but companies can and should foster inclusion to support and develop neurodivergent employees.
Smart and strategic workplaces today know that inclusion is good business. Candidates and employees are increasingly demanding inclusion in the workplace, including policies designed to support and develop neurodivergent employees and workers with invisible disabilities (i.e., physical, mental, and/or neurological conditions that aren’t readily apparent). According to a 2021 survey by Gallup, inclusion in the workplace is among job seekers’ top priorities when deciding whether to join a company.1
The road to dismantling stigmas surrounding different abilities is long, but there is plenty that companies can do right now — from shifting perspectives to changing workplace policies — to support neurodivergent employees and those with invisible differences.
What Does an Inclusive Workplace Look Like?
1. Education Efforts are Ongoing
Just how many employees have invisible disabilities? Formal research on this topic is scarce, but an astonishing 73% of the 850 individuals I recently surveyed say they have been diagnosed with or identify as having an invisible disability.2 Given the number of people potentially living and working with unseen differences, it’s imperative that workplaces strive to understand invisible disabilities.
Neurodivergence doesn’t have a single look. Autistic individuals and/or those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) fall under the umbrella of neurodivergence, as do individuals diagnosed with conditions including the following:
- depression and mood disorders
- learning differences (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia)
- sensory processing differences
The symptoms of these conditions are seldom obvious as such, and they affect individuals in myriad ways. What’s more, physical conditions — from autoimmune conditions like celiac disease and lupus to complex diagnoses like chronic pain and diabetes — also produce hidden symptoms that affect daily functioning.
Companies must take proactive steps to ensure that all employees understand neurodivergence and what it means to have an invisible disability. This holistic approach to education may help the many employees out there who don’t realize that their conditions are legally supported — or those who may be afraid to ask for support.
A Note on Masking
Neurodivergence and invisible differences are inextricably linked to “masking” — or hiding behaviors and identifiers that may make one’s condition or differences apparent. Masking saps energy; an individual who masks is constantly scanning their surroundings, policing their own behaviors, and/or overcompensating for symptoms. Masking exacts a high cost on employees and employers, as it impedes actual work and causes burnout, absenteeism, turnover, and productivity loss.
2. Flexibility Is Built-In
All employees benefit when a company embraces multiple methods and processes for getting things done. Whether it’s allowing employee-set schedules, remote work, or non-disruptive changes to the office environment, flexibility can make or break an employee’s experience. A company culture built on flexibility can allow neurodivergent employees, especially, to really shine and get work done without battling standards that don’t consider the non-neurotypical experience.
3. Transparency Is Normalized
It’s a powerful sign of allyship when employees — especially managers and executives — are open about the relationship between mental health and career fulfilment. It’s important when employees share, for example, that they are taking a day off to reset — and that they actually follow through on it. Transparency contributes to a workplace culture of safety and belonging.
4. Access to Productivity Tools Is Streamlined
Companies should make it easy for employees to request and receive tools, adjustments, and other supports that aid productivity — and without the need for disclosure. Proactively communicating available modifications and practices — like encouraging employees to wear headphones to promote focus, for example — also goes a long way.
Accommodations need not require copious time, money, or effort to implement. The following are a few examples of low-cost workplace accommodations that can make a big difference:
- lighting changes
- access to private and quiet workspaces
- flexible schedules
- pre-meeting agendas and meeting notes
- distraction-free stretches of work (e.g., minimizing marginal functions and required meetings)
- clear performance expectations
- mentorship programs
5. Belonging Is Prioritized
Acceptance of people of all abilities builds a psychologically safe and thriving workplace. Allyship is key to fostering a sense of belonging for stigmatized individuals. It can help break down the misconception that neurodivergent individuals and those with health conditions are frail or incompetent. Allyship is a form of advocacy, which is so important for these individuals who often have trouble with self-advocacy due to fear of prejudice and discrimination. Seeking and truly valuing feedback from employees on workplace practices is one of many ways that companies can build an accepting and supportive workplace.
Additional Resources for Neurodivergent Employees and Those with Invisible Disabilities
Inclusion in the Workplace: Next Steps
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “‘Invisible’ Disabilities at Work: How to Foster Neurodivergent Advocacy and Acceptance” [Video Replay & Podcast #443] with Jessica Hicksted, Ph.D., which was broadcast on February 23, 2023.
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View Article Sources
1 Wigert, B. (Feb. 21, 2022) The top 6 things employees want in their next job. Gallup. Retrieved via https://www.gallup.com/workplace/389807/top-things-employees-next-job.aspx
2 Hicksted, J. L. (2023). Stigma Associated with Invisible Disabilities and Its Effect on Intended Disclosure in the Workplace. Available from Dissertations & Theses @ Walden University; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global; ProQuest One Academic. (2809302666). https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/stigma-associated-with-invisible-disabilities/docview/2809302666/se-2