Mindful Mix: Harnessing the Power of Neurodiversity at Work
Merlin Chacko

Mindful Mix: Harnessing the Power of Neurodiversity at Work

Neurodivergent employees do not have to fit in. Companies need to shed the stigma and step up to ensure that enough provisions are created to accommodate neuro-inclusivity at workplaces.

In today’s organisational setting, profit margins are not the only indicators of success and employee performance can no longer be measured by a one-size-fits-all formula. A great leader recognizes that creating an inclusive environment at the workplace is detrimental to the long-term growth of their business.

When it comes to inclusive workplace policies, neurodivergent employees often find themselves at a disadvantage. Most organisations are designed to cater to a largely neurotypical workforce, not taking into account the unique perspectives, creativity, and extraordinary intelligence that neurodivergent employees can bring to the table - as long as they get to work in an environment conducive to bringing out their true potential.

Neurodiversity is a spectrum

Neurodiversity is not a fad or trend. It is simply a neurological condition where our brains work differently than what is considered “normal”. And this is more common than people think. An estimated 15-20% of the population is neurodivergent, but these statistics have definitely spiked since the pandemic. 

Neurodivergent population includes people with autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and other neurological conditions. Individuals diagnosed for any of these conditions can fall into a spectrum, where their symptoms and its severity can vary greatly.

Some might hyperfocus on one task while others prefer multitasking. Many might prefer quieter remote working environments to be productive while others work best when social.

The spectrum is quite broad and the only way to be inclusive is listening to your employees.

Success stories as case studies

There are many successful neurodivergent leaders, creatives, entertainers, and entrepreneurs, who shattered the stereotype and excelled in their respective fields. Here are three examples:

Richard Branson, Founder of the Virgin Group: Billionaire Richard Branson, a dyslexic dropout at 16, emphasises how dyslexia shaped his unique thinking. He founded Virgin Records and expanded into over 400 companies across diverse sectors under the Virgin Group umbrella. Read his candid blog here.

Barbara Corcoran, Celebrity Investor at Shark Tank: As a self-made millionaire and celebrity investor on ABC's Shark Tank, she transformed $1,000 into a $5 billion real estate business. Despite being labelled 'the dumb kid in school,' she credits her success, creativity, and competitiveness to dyslexia.

Ingvar Kampraid, Founder of IKEA: IKEA's Swedish billionaire founder, neurodivergent, created a unique brand strategy by associating products with creative names instead of codes, a practice that endures today.

Their success stories underscore the fact that by allowing creative freedom and an accommodating work set-up, neurodivergent individuals can come up with ideas and strategies that far exceed other people’s expectations - taking businesses to new heights.

Wired differently - for better and ‘not’ for worse

Kirsten WestHolter, the UAE Country Chair for G100, believes, “Neurodiverse employees offer a distinct array of skills and perspectives, enriching the organisation's problem-solving capacity and innovative potential. They often have unconventional thinking patterns, which can lead to innovative solutions that may not emerge in a more homogenous work environment. Their ability to focus on details and think critically can also be a valuable asset when it comes to troubleshooting, quality control, or complex analysis.”

According to a survey conducted by Texthelp with 500 neurodivergent people, 44% were worried that talking about their condition at work would negatively impact their career.

The stigma surrounding neurological conditions and the pressure of competing with their neurotypical counterparts prevents them from speaking up about the provisions that can make their life easier in the workplace.

“Approx. 20% of the population are neurodivergent and 50% of these people don’t actually know that they are neurodivergent”, says Hester Grainger, Co-Founder of Perfectly Autistic. “Even if someone has a diagnosis, it can still take up to two years for them to disclose their diagnosis at work, even if they feel supported, which is worth bearing in mind.”

This prompts the question: Is your workplace a safe environment where employees can be their most authentic selves without fear of judgement? If not, that is the first goal that you should work towards.

How can organisations become more neuro-inclusive? 

Asmara Nomani, Founder of ANC Global and Global Co-Chair of Coca-Cola Women in STEM (CWIS) is spot-on as she says, “Neurodiversity isn't a challenge to overcome. It's not about 'thinking outside the box' but recognizing that the box was never the right shape for everyone to begin with”.

Neurodivergent employees do not have to fit in. Instead, companies should have environments that accept cognitive diversity, celebrate their uniqueness, and provide accommodations that can make them thrive in the workplace.

Here are 5 actionable ways to begin building a more inclusive workplace for your neurodiverse workforce:

1. Invest in training programs for employees and managers on how to better support and empower their neurodiverse colleagues in the workplace.

2. Make the recruitment process more accessible and inclusive. This means creating comprehensive job descriptions, flexible and personalised interview processes, and alternative assessments.

3. Be flexible about remote and in-office work options. Let employees decide how they would like to work and what ticks their productivity.

4. Be mindful of their sensory triggers. Provide noise-cancelling headphones for individuals who are sensitive and easily distracted with noise. In fact, go an extra step by keeping a stack of fidget devices for stimming.

5. Be understanding. Use different metrics to compare the performance of neurotypical versus neurodiverse employees. Unless the deadlines are urgent, let them take enough breaks or spend extra time on tasks. This will assure that their creativity is at its peak and their performance will reflect that.