How to support neurodiverse employees during coronavirus and other periods of change

01 June 2020

Neurodivergent people are said to now represent more than 10 per cent of the population. This can encompass those with;

  • Dyslexia – a condition that affects information processing
  • Autism – a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.
  • ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can include difficulty staying focused and paying attention, difficulty controlling behaviour, and hyperactivity (over-activity).

This is far from an exhaustive outline, but these are some of the forms of neurodiversity that you are most likely to encounter amongst your teams and diverse work colleagues, all of whom bring valuable skills and perspectives to the table.

In the workforce, research has indicated that only 16 per cent of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid work and only 32 per cent are in some kind of paid work (full and part-time combined). Understanding how you can support these individuals – and those with other forms of neurodiversity – especially during a time of change brought about by the current coronavirus pandemic, is important. Having a greater awareness of the neurodiverse workforce, their potential, their impact and their skills is imperative to driving the progression and success of the business.

Why might neurodiverse individuals be particularly vulnerable now?

Within the workplace, it can be the case that workspace design, access to support programmes and the construction of the working day are made with neurotypicals in mind, removing neurodiverse employees from the equation. This should not be the case, especially when thrown into times of uncertainty and confusion. It is this notion of uncertainty that resonates so strongly within many corners of the neurodiverse community, propelling feelings of vulnerability, which need to be minimised and managed in order to ensure you are supporting neurodiverse employees effectively.

In the time of a crisis, it is imperative that inclusion and engagement are at the core of a business’s talent management strategy. With this in mind, failure to recognise the needs of neurodivergent workers alongside other diverse and minority groups through times of change and support them appropriately could be detrimental to regular business functions.

Change of work structure and routine

For those in employment, the Covid-19 pandemic will have meant a complete disruption to working life. As businesses across the globe operate remotely, employees are working in different locations and without their usual comforts of a daily office routine and face-to-face interactions with colleagues. This approach to business is now forming what may be considered the ‘new normal’ as we look to the future of work post-pandemic. This can be a daunting reality for the neurodivergent workforce. Even if individuals are able to establish their own new routines, they may be working closely with those who haven’t or those who thrive in the flexibility of a less rigid environment. This can remove the structure, certainty, and feeling of control some individuals have on the working day and undermine any attempts they make establish a predictable daily routine and expectation. Not only this but the inevitable blurring between home and work life can impact anyone who may struggle with ‘putting work down’ and dealing with the stress of knowing that tasks are sitting nearby uncompleted. This can push some people to working longer and more pressured hours than they should do when previously they would have walked out of the office and left it behind for tomorrow.

There should therefore be a clear focus on ensuring that work schedules are manageable during a period of change or uncertainty and that all team members are able to separate work time from personal time. In creating an open flow of communication, regularly checking in on your team and setting clear, yet manageable, expectations, you can support your team to succeed.

Equally here, it is imperative to remove any barriers to understanding expectations, such as lack of strategic direction, too many tasks in a schedule, and misunderstanding on what the priorities of the business are. This will provide individuals with the guidance and clarity needed to remain engaged, productive and in turn, meet the needs of the business.

Communication, guidance and feedback

It is important to remember that each person is an individual – neurodiverse, or not! No blanket measures can satisfy every need, but it’s important that every person in your organisation is accommodated as far as possible. This should be recognised when informing internal communications, guidance and feedback with neurodiverse employees; in particular when the current situation means that virtual connectivity is the only channel in which this can be delivered.

There should be an evident increase in the contact made with staff when working remotely, including more regular communication through phone calls and video conferencing. This can take the form of a virtual coffee morning, regular scheduled catchups, one-to-ones or larger, team-based activities.

Line managers should be supporting their employees as they would within an office environment too. This should also include spotting individuals within the team who are not engaging regularly, missing voluntary team catch-ups or appear disconnected, as this will require additional support from senior members of the team. Transitioning this to a virtual environment can be tricky, but this guidance is necessary to reassure the neurodivergent workforce, and the wider team too.

Some employees may benefit from agreeing specific times for internal calls and meetings, enabling them to plan out their day and be as productive and engaged as possible. The role of an employer to enhance communication and provide guidance and feedback during the current pandemic to support employees and be understanding in this ongoing adaptation of working lives.

Businesses need to celebrate the strengths and successes of the neurodivergent workforce, whilst also accommodating their needs and providing a series of support mechanism in which to reassure and guide them through a time of continued uncertainty.