Dyslexic employees face particular challenges and often experience work-related
stress. Nancy Doyle, a psychologist looks at effective workplace adjustments to
support staff with the condition.
As a chartered occupational psychologist, I have worked for over a decade with adults who are dyslexic, dyspraxic or have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A key diagnostic criteria for many of these “neuro-differences” is a poor working memory. The trouble with working memory is that we need it for lots of day-to-day things that would not automatically be associated with dyslexic difficulty. The diagram below shows three typical working memory issues. These are items from the Working Memory Rating Scale (Alloway et al, 2008) adapted for adult use by a British Psychological Society (BPS) working group:
Working memory difficulties are prevalent in the day-to-day communication of most job roles and yet they come with strategies for compensation, some of which are easy to implement.
What is working memory?
Working memory is not all memory (Baddeley, 2000). Dyslexics often have amazing long-term memories, or memories for specific events or meanings. Working memory is the amount you can hold in your focused attention before things start dropping out – a bit like the number of screens you can have open on your computer before the whole thing slows down to a snail’s pace. Difficulties in working memory affect most dyslexics, dyspraxics and people with ADHD. It can also be troublesome for people with multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke survivors, people with neurological trauma and other long-term health conditions.
There is a lack of general awareness about working memory, both for the dyslexics themselves and the people they work with. You will not have employees coming to you saying: “I’m finding the new office layout difficult because of my working memory deficit, I’d like to try using headphones to block out background noise when I’m writing reports.” No, they will tell you that they are stressed.
How will I recognise it at work?
Typically, employees try many things to compensate before they get to the bottom of the issue. Many come into work early or stay late in order to work when it is quiet. They might rely on a few colleagues to remind them over again how to complete a new procedure until it has sunk in. Others over prepare and over work in order to reach the same standard as their peers. Working memory difficulties have a big impact on team colleagues, leading to conflict. This can be hard to resolve because the dyslexic employee knows they are trying their best and feels it is unfair to have their communication or performance questioned. We notice the following flashpoints:
How can we make reasonable adjustments for working memory?
My company, Genius Within, receives around 75 referrals for coaching per month as part of a package of reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. Unlike literacy difficulties, there is no easy technology box that can be ticked to solve memory difficulties; however, a coaching programme can be successful. Recent research illustrated in the table below) showed statistically significant improvements for memory, stress, organisational skills, time management and literacy from both the employee’s and the line manager’s perspectives.
|Client before||Manager before||Client after||Manager after||% improvement overall|
|*All p values < .01, all d values > 0.5|
A coaching programme typically consists of around five two-hour sessions and is delivered at the workplace, where a line manager can be invited to drop in and liaise on key issues. A coaching report is produced documenting all the strategies that have been devised. These strategies make up the reasonable adjustments for the dyslexic employee and it is essential that they are devised in collaboration with line managers, who must then support them. An Institute of Leadership Management (ILM) endorsement certificate, following internal and external verification of the coaching reports, is possible for many clients.
Barriers to identifying dyslexic difficulties
Identifying dyslexic difficulty and implementing reasonable adjustments is not simple. The following factors are examples of what gets in the way:
The employee chooses not to disclose their dyslexia when performance management becomes an issue
Many dyslexics feel shame or embarrassment. They might not want to reveal their diagnosis for fear of prejudice or open discrimination. Victimisation still happens on a regular basis for many clients.
They may also be unaware that the issue is related to their dyslexia and, like many people, associate dyslexia with literacy issues only. Therefore, they may not make the link between their diagnosis and their current stumbling blocks. Meanwhile, the performance management process marches on until, at the point of capability assessment or dismissal, they announce they are dyslexic. Unfortunately, by this point relationships will have suffered. Performance management processes are time consuming and stressful for all involved. Co-coaching and/or team awareness training can help all parties think positively and constructively.
Dyslexia is not diagnosed.
Many people come for diagnosis in their adult years and not all dyslexia is picked up at school. The graph, right, shows a “spiky profile”, which is the pattern of strengths and weaknesses that psychologists use as part of a diagnosis. The scores can be anywhere in the range, the important part is the amount of difference between the highs and lows. When someone has very high peaks, or if all the spikes are over a certain level of ability, an individual can progress quite far in life without having any problems.
The above-described flash points or difficulties in personal life can suddenly put a dyslexic on the back foot, unable to progress further without support. We see many referrals for newly promoted managers, or people working in professions where the paperwork aspect of their role has steadily increased since they started, such as nursing, police work and social work. The dyslexic’s natural talents for verbal communication and 3D visual spatial thinking become swamped by a need for detail-conscious, fast-processing tasks in modern workplaces.
A diagnostic assessment with a chartered psychologist can be arranged very quickly to put minds at rest and identify the individual’s ability profile. This can be followed by a workplace needs assessment to piece together the different reasonable adjustments needed to improve productivity and reduce stress. Access to Work, a grant-payment scheme that is part of the Department for Work and Pensions, can perform a workplace needs assessment on request by the employee. Access to Work provides this service for free and a diagnostic report is not required to obtain access, only an initial screening. The British Dyslexia Association and other national charities have such screening tools available on their websites. It is a useful first step whatever you decide to do next.
Reasonable adjustments are not given time to embed
Learning anything new places an additional load on our working memory, even memory strategies themselves. We need to make sure that employees are given time and support during the learning process. An HR director once told one of my coaches that she expected to see a 15% improvement in call-handling targets after each two-hour session. Improvements are made, as the table above demonstrates, but we measure success two to three months after completing the coaching to make sure that it has embedded and will sustain without our support, and because it takes a little while to change your habits. During the learning process, performance might actually decrease for a short time.
How much of reported stress is really dyslexia?
The following is a quote from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’s Postnote: dyslexia and discalculia: “Estimates of dyslexia prevalence vary from 2% to 15% of the population. This is because different studies identify cases based on different cut-off points on the continuum between mild and severe dyslexia.”
We can be quite confident in asserting that a reasonable percentage of your stressed employees will also be dyslexic. A survey conducted by the BPS’s Enabling Workplace working group highlighted the following statistics regarding stress and dyslexia:
How to identify when there is a problem that could be linked to dyslexia
In order to support neuro-different employees to work at their best, use the following checklist when faced with reports of stress or performance difficulties:
- Has stress or performance always been an issue, or is there a good service record in the history?
- Has anything changed recently – line manager, job role, location or new process to follow?
- Does the employee report difficulties in concentrating, listening, remembering or following instructions?
- Does the employee show a preference for working where it is quiet, for example at home, or by coming in early or leaving late?
- Is the employee experiencing non-work stress that will impact on available “space” for coping strategies?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it might be worth asking the employee if they are dyslexic or have any health problem that might affect their memory. You can use the national charities’ websites for a quick screening, which can be done with the employee or they can do it alone. The results will give you a good idea whether or not to progress things further. Below is a flowchart of the steps to take:
The diagnostic assessment can be a cathartic process, allowing an individual to come to conclusions about their career choices and expectations. Some have set the bar far too low. With the right reasonable adjustments and employer support, stress can be overcome. This will lead to an increase in productivity and creativity, allowing the employee to achieve success at the level of their peaks rather than their troughs.
Alloway TP, Gathercole SE, Kirkwood H (2008). The Working Memory Rating Scale. London: Pearson Assessment.
Baddeley AD (2000). “The episodic buffer: A new component of working memory?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences,vol.4, issue 11, pp.417-423.
The British Dyslexia Association. Dyslexia Research Information.
Doyle NE (in press). “Coaching adults with dyslexia to improve performance at work”. Journal of Occupational Psychology, Employment and Disability for the Department for Work and Pensions.
Health and Safety Executive (2013). Stress and Psychological Disorders in Great Britain 2013.
Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (2004). Postnote: dyslexia and dyscalculia – number 226.
British Dyslexia Association (BDA) definition of dyslexia for employers
The following description is quoted in the BDA Code of Practice for Employers:
“Dyslexia is a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process in one or more of reading, spelling and writing. It is a persistent condition.
“Accompanying weaknesses may be identified in areas of speed of processing, short-term memory, organisation, sequencing, spoken language and motor skills. There may be difficulties with auditory and/or visual perception. It is particularly related to mastering and using written language, which may include alphabetic, numeric and musical notation.
“Dyslexia can occur despite normal intellectual ability and teaching. It is constitutional in origin, part of one’s makeup and independent of socioeconomic or language background.
“Some learners have very well-developed creative skills and/or interpersonal skills, others have strong oral skills. Some have no outstanding talents. All have strengths.”