By Tim Steele
Feelings of shame and inadequacy, the perception of being judged, ‘the embarrassment of being in need’. These are some of the hurdles neurodivergent individuals may have to overcome as they look to communicate their condition to employers and colleagues in the workplace.
A subject area that remains poorly understood - if not an outright taboo – neurodiversity, in the words of the UK’s Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), “refers to the natural range of difference in human brain function, but in a workplace context”, and as such encompasses a range of alternative thinking styles, including but not limited to Dyslexia, Autism, ADHD and Dyspraxia.
As the CIPD goes on to note, “these can have unique strengths, ranging from data-driven thinking to sustained focus over long periods, an ability to spot patterns and trends, and the capacity to process information at extraordinary speeds”. The CIPD notes that it is estimated that at least 10% of the UK population is neurodivergent, although other sources put that figure as high as 20%.1
At a neurodiversity awareness event held recently at our London offices, Capco managing principal Helen Needham led a discussion on the theme of ‘Bridging the Gap through Effective Conversations’ with the support of guest speakers Professor Amanda Kirby, CEO of Do-IT Solutions and a leading campaigner for neurodiversity, and Dr Alex Cutting, professor of psychology and physiology at the University of Notre Dame.
As Helen noted in her opening remarks, neurodiversity has a central place within Capco’s wider diversity and inclusion programme via a mix of internal initiatives and external engagement. These include the creation of a dedicated steering group tasked with driving further change within the organization and the planned circulation of a neurodiversity booklet for employees.
Neurodiversity was also included as a section within Capco’s most recent workplace survey, and Helen was joined on stage by Neil Hunsworth, UK HR Lead at Capco, who provided an overview of its findings. In line with the CIPD’s figure, one in 10 Capco employees identified as neurodivergent, Neil noted.
Neurodivergent individuals are significantly more likely to suffer from mental health issues at work. While a Business In The Community survey found only 13% of employees to be comfortable talking about mental health at work, at Capco that figure is 58%. “While there is still a way to go, it is clear that we are making real progress in terms of creating an environment where our employees are willing to talk about their concerns and issues,” he said.
As Helen added: “It is very difficult for people to open up if they don’t feel they will be respected”, hence the importance of “bringing neurodiversity out of the shadows”. To this end Capco has funded a number of workplace assessment and will shortly be piloting the Neurodiversity Workplace + Profiler (W+P) tool developed by Professor Kirby and her team at Do-IT Solutions.
Highlighting the importance of “seeing through different lenses”, Professor Kirby stressed the value of building neuro-complementary teams. But that requires employers and workmates to “respect people’s stories” if they are also to understand the challenges their neurodivergent colleagues face.
“Wellbeing has to be at the heart of this,” Professor Kirby continued. The W+P tool provides screening assessments for Dyslexia, working memory and other conditions, as well as goal-setting tools to help review any implementation programmes. A ‘Work With Me’ passport captures an array of salient information to create an easily accessible profile of the neurodivergent individual. The passport also incorporates personalized guidance, wellbeing strategies (including time and stress management), and a tool for starting informed conversations with others.
The passport “outlines an individual’s conditions and preferences, not least their preferred methods of interaction”, said Professor Kirby, adding that the Neurodiversity Workplace tools have been successfully trialed with groups as diverse as people working in insurance ,police and prison sectors: “Neurodiversity is person-centered and so individual to that person in the context of their lives and workplace. Context is all."
Dr Alex Cutting then took to the stage to underline “the importance of talking if we are to achieve meaningful change”. However, as she noted, opening those dialogues is in practice often much harder than it seems. “The question is often ‘how?’” she said. “The first step is often hard to take due to fears about disclosure and of being judged, feelings of shame and inadequacy, and the embarrassment of being in need.”
“Asking for help is hard,” Dr Cutting noted. “It can take more strength to ask for help than to soldier on, even though that can often escalate stress, cause misery and make you less effective.” There is also an onus on the listener (often an employee’s manager) not to ‘get it wrong’ when interacting with a neurodivergent individual. Fear is again an overriding emotion, leading to uncertainty, panic and doubt, she added.
Comfortable disclosure is key – while it may seem obvious, “no one can help you with anything if they don’t know about it”. Dr Cutting’s advice is not to delay (“things are harder the longer you wait”) and to plan ahead, “to write down what you want to say and to think carefully about what you need to be your best”.
When it comes to organizing that critical conversation, pick a time and place that is comfortable for you. Dr Cutting emphasized the value of face-to-face engagement: “You are thirty times more likely to get the help you want if you ask directly rather than indirectly, for instance by email.” And her final exhortation to her audience: “Be brave - courage is contagious”.