The Future of Work is Neurodiverse

Dr. Nancy Doyle Chief Science Officer of Genius, explains the best way to approach neurodivergence in the workplace
Dr. Nancy Doyle
Neurodiverse graphic

An epidemic of neurodivergence! Everyone has a label these days! Waiting lists are a national disgrace! There’s a lot of concern over the exponential increase in employees disclosing and coming forward for neurodiversity assessments and support. We’ve been wringing our hands over whether or not to believe people, whether this is an epidemic caused by social media, toxins etc. It is time to come over the top of this and consider the macro-historical meaning of what is happening, so that we can formulate workplaces policies and practices that meet the moment.

Neurodivergence has always been in our gene pool, but it hasn’t always been disabling. Before the printing press, literacy difficulties weren’t a barrier to careers. Before factories and mass education, sitting still all day wasn’t a requirement. Before industrial levels of housing density and commuting, being highly perceptive in our senses wasn’t overwhelming. Our goal should be to develop a world that is more conducive to human functioning, not to medicalise the variety of human cognition.

Adjustments First

Now to be fair, some people will always be disabled by their cognitive and perception difficulties. We need to remain open to inclusion for all. But there are vast swathes of people who would be coping fine if they could have flexible hours, quiet spaces to concentrate, training to use assistive technology. Critically, these adjustments cost a lot less than an assessment and diagnosis. The whole cost model we’re using now is topsy turvy, inefficient and creating more dependency than is necessary. It isn’t scalable to the numbers coming through and we need to change the entire approach.

Research I conducted with the Centre for Neurodiversity Research at Work last year found that provision of adjustments such as flexible hours and quiet concentration space reduced employee intentions to leave from 75% to less than 30%. Specialist coaching provision leads to managers rating performance 50% higher and employees reporting a 75% improvement in wellbeing. This is where our attention should be – the activities that are bringing measurable results, not finding ways for technology to replace clinicians.

Managers Can Help

Providing the right support is not dependent on diagnostic label, it is dependent on which skills need scaffolding – such as literacy, concentration, memory or verbal communication. Formulating a skills-led assessment for support removes the diagnosis from the process, meaning that more people will feel able to access and managers will be less anxious about initiating. Managers ask me at every talk I give, “how do I raise it with an employee if I think they might be dyslexic?” My answer is always the same – don’t. Focus on what they do well, and what they need to develop, in balance, and be prepared to make adjustments. You can safely discuss the difficulties in reading pace or email communication without turning it into a drama. “I’ve noticed that it takes you quite a while to get through the meeting preparation reports, have you tried assistive technology? Do you want to spend a couple of hours on Thursday working from home if it is easier to concentrate there? How can we support you to work at your best?” These are the conversations to have if you want to encourage positive change.

Signposting to adjustments directly, without passing the golden ticket gateway, you might think would lead to runaway costs, but our research shows that this isn’t the case. In a study with an Occupational Health partner, they compared the medical gateway model to the adjustments first model and found that the cost per person was cut by more than 50%, that more people received a service, but that the overall costs was still 29% lower with adjustments first compared to gateway. From my research over twenty years of practice with thousands of neurodivergent adults, my observation is that adjustments are remarkably predictable and common across the conditions, we’ve been using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and it’s time to learn how to institute common affordances as standard rather than favours that require permission.

Skills for the 21st Century

It’s actually a wonderful opportunity to review our working practices and bring them into line with the internet age. No longer do we need clerks stationed next to filing cabinets – everyone is online. We can personalise workspaces, shrug off the conventions of automation and ‘Jacks of All Trades’ being the ideal employee. We can redesign our workflows to accommodate specialism in creativity, visual thinking, problem solving without forcing everyone through team influencing, line management duties, form filling. The future of work is neurodiverse, it is designed around the natural variations of human neurocognition, which allows more of us to work at our best, more of the time.

Written by
Dr. Nancy Doyle
Written by
April 30, 2024