A lack of understanding about neurodiverse conditions like ADHD sometimes means managers fall short of allowing employees to fulfil their potential at work. Dr Niraj Arora explains how HR can support managers to be more inclusive and celebrate neurodiversity.
Awareness months for conditions such as ADHD, which took place in October, help to bring forward the conversation around neurodiversity in the workplace. With D&I now a top priority for organisations, it’s vital that managers not only understand neurodivergence, but that they are also equipped with the tools to support and champion neurodiverse employees.
In the UK today an estimated 3-4% of the adult population have ADHD – that’s between 1-1.4 million working people. And yet, whilst dialogue around mental health more broadly has moved on considerably over the past five years, the reality is that, within many organisations, neurodiversity is still a relatively unknown concept.
ADHD is just one of a number of conditions on the neurodiverse spectrum, which also includes dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism. In recent times we have seen successful leaders in business speaking out about their own neurodiverse conditions, including Sir Richard Branson, who gave a rare interview in July in which he opened up about his dyslexia, boldly naming it his “superpower”.
The truth is, companies that embrace neurodiversity gain competitive advantage both in terms of productivity and innovation as well as culture and talent retention. In fact, a report by JP Morgan Chase revealed that professionals from its Autism at Work programme made fewer mistakes and were between 90-140% more productive than employees without a neurodiverse condition.
Employees with ADHD
So how can HR professionals support organisations to best champion the skills and strengths of employees with ADHD?
Get to know your people
Employees are more often than not hired based on their experience and skills, so championing their strengths from the outset is fundamental to realising their potential. That said, it’s important to spend time getting to know your employees individually, what interests them and makes them tick. Don’t assume that someone who is highly experienced in design doesn’t also have an interest in more analytical tasks. By allowing employees room to try new things, you are not only improving their skills base but also nurturing a more fulfilled and happier workforce. The link between happiness and productivity in the workplace is now widely understood, with research by Warwick University in 2021 showing that happiness made people around 12% more productive at work.
Spending time getting to know employees will also enable a better understanding of what they may find difficult and the circumstances in which they feel less comfortable. Not everyone will enjoy raucous office parties or wish to partake in team bonding activities. Be sensitive to different perspectives and allow space for individual experiences.
The simple, most effective way to get to know your people is through open and honest dialogue, but make sure managers understand they mustn’t come across as being too prying and intimate. There’s a fine balance between giving employees time and attention while maintaining the right level of professionalism.
Create a culture of psychological safety
Whilst employees may have been offered their job based on required skills, once they start in that role mutual expectations are not always what they thought they would be. Managers need to understand how to build a culture of psychological safety, which requires both trust and communication in equal measure. If an employee looks like they may be struggling with the job at hand, it’s important to understand why that is and if it has to do with their own neurodiversity.
What’s also required is a subtle reframing in the language used. Take time to ask what a happy work-life looks like to them, rather than how they can perform at a certain level.”
HR professionals must encourage managers to talk to team members in an open and humble manner, asking them to talk about how they may be struggling and how they might be able to help. On a human level, it’s about curiosity and a genuine trust that the people you work with are good at their jobs. If there is an area in which they aren’t performing to the best of their ability, don’t label them with negative behaviour but try to understand it. Managers must allow their team the bandwidth to feel they can put up their hand if they find something difficult. Have open conversations to make the most of their skillset and find ways to work through any challenges.
Discuss expectations and goals
No matter what position someone holds in an organisation, having a clearly defined set of goals is a crucial driver in realising their potential. HR should support managers by equipping them with the tools and confidence to hold open discussions with their team members where they can talk freely about what they want to achieve and what their expectations are of the job.
Right from the outset, both the employees and their managers must be on the same page about expectations. Help them to understand what the role entails, what the expectations are for performance and – crucially – what support is on offer to help them reach these goals. Never assume employees inherently know what is expected of them.
What’s also required is a subtle reframing in the language used. Take time to ask what a happy work-life looks like to them, rather than how they can perform at a certain level. This is about a deeper understanding of the nuances around neurodiversity, which could be as simple as “are you OK?”, versus “what’s wrong?”.
Finally, it’s important to remember that we are all humans navigating our way through life, learning and adapting to the circumstances around us. We are all trying to interact with one another in a way that is harmonious, but this will be more difficult for some than for others. Embracing neurodiversity undoubtedly provides organisations with a competitive advantage, but managers must be given the necessary support and training to enable them to champion neurodiversity in all its forms.