We recently talked to award-winning barrister Sally Penni MBE to hear her thoughts on diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace and what the future holds. She explained how now, more than ever, diversity needs to be embedded into the culture of the workplace, particularly following the BLM movement.
Sally also believes that neurodiversity will be the next big focus for inclusivity. Here, she explains more about this complex issue and the ramifications it will have for a host of organisations. This includes details around how the economic benefits of neurodiverse inclusion are considerable and can offer firms a competitive advantage and greater profitability.
What are classed as neurodiverse conditions?
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term covering a number of neurodevelopmental conditions.
All of these conditions are neurodevelopmental, which means individuals are born with them and they don't go away, although neurodiverse people may well get better at coping with their condition(s). That's a key difference between a neurodiverse condition and a mental health issue. Mental illnesses can fluctuate a great deal and it is possible to recover from them. But neurodiverse differences are lifelong.
There are no reliable statistics on how many people have a neurodiverse condition, but most people will have several neurodiverse people in their workplace, social circle and family. Diagnosis rates vary between countries, as do diagnostic criteria. Women and girls are much less likely to be diagnosed, particularly with autism and ADHD. Race can play a part too, with black people less likely to get an accurate diagnosis. Some people don't find out until quite late in life that they have a neurodiverse condition, and some never discover it at all.
Is neurodiversity a disability?
People with neurodiverse conditions are usually classified as disabled and they do fall under the legal definition of disability as defined in the Equality Act. Neurodivergents - people with neurodiverse conditions - are also categorised as having special needs, learning difficulties or disorders. Some individuals identify with these labels and others do not. Many subscribe to the social model of disability. All neurodiverse people have individual needs and most will require reasonable adjustments at work.
It's possible to have more than one neurodiverse diagnosis and it's also possible to have additional conditions, such as learning difficulties or a physical disability. All neurodivergents have challenges with executive dysfunction, which means they have trouble doing tasks, activities or projects which most neurotypical (normal) people would not find challenging.
The following characteristics are very common in neurodiverse individuals, regardless of what specific condition they have:
Good at solving problems
Mental health issues
Difficult early experiences
Difficulty fitting in
At risk of manipulation
Masking (concealing neurodiverse traits in order to fit in)
Differences in processing/understanding information
Variations within neurodiversity
Every neurodiverse individual is different and the conditions can vary a lot from person to person. While the conditions are present all the time, the symptoms can vary depending on support, coping strategies and other factors, such as stress or life changes. A person with a neurodiverse condition will always have the defining characteristic of that condition, but other characteristics may be stronger or weaker. Some neurodiverse people won't disclose their conditions and others may be unaware that they have a condition. This tends to be more common the older the person is.
Neurodiversity and mental health
Everyone's neurotype, the presence or absence of neurodiverse conditions, will be influenced by other experiences; for example, one's upbringing, family background, how one was taught and treated at school, social experiences and so on.
About half of people with dyslexia, ADHD or autism have depression and/or anxiety. Negative experiences because of these conditions are almost universal, so almost all neurodiverse people will be carrying emotional “baggage”, even if they don't have a defined mental illness.
Many neurodiverse people who have not disclosed their condition, or don't know they have one, will take steps to avoid situations where their condition may be apparent. This could involve avoiding specific tasks, masking (trying to copy others to fit in), attempting to cope, taking longer over tasks, and anxiety. This can be very stressful which can then worsen symptoms and/or mental health conditions.
Neurodiversity in the workplace
The economic benefits of neurodiverse inclusion are enormous as they can offer firms a competitive advantage.
This is because neurodiverse employees are a staggering 30% to 50% more productive than neurotypical people (Harvard Business Review, JPMorgan). This is partly due to the ability of neurodiverse people to learn very quickly. The high productivity is also down to neurodiverse people being unusually creative and insightful. They are also quick to spot patterns, come up with myriad ideas and have incredible problem-solving skills.
The biggest advantage of understanding neurodiversity is that having a variety of people in your workplace who understand and play to each other's strengths multiplies the individual advantages. And that extends to neurotypical people too. Inclusive, diverse teams collaborate more effectively and ultimately make the company more profitable.
Hiring neurodiverse employees
A hiring process needs to be inclusive in order to enable neurodiverse individuals to apply for employment. This means offering alternatives to the traditional application form and interview process. These alternatives must be offered to all potential employees, not just the neurodiverse applicants.
Once hired, an employer needs to put a plan in place to ensure the neurodiverse employee(s) are adequately supported, have any reasonable adjustments made and any changes to their situation are communicated effectively. Avoiding litigation means open and honest communication, a culture of trust and understanding and recognising that neurodiverse employees are as valued as any other member of staff.
A comprehensive policy needs to be put into place to ensure both new and existing neurodiverse staff are not discriminated against. Staff need to be trained in neurodiversity awareness and workplace audits may also be needed.
Cost of neurodiverse employment
In order to be inclusive to neurodiverse employees, reasonable adjustments may be required.
Sometimes companies fear that employing a neurodiverse person might be difficult and expensive. They may also fear that the adaptations the neurodiverse employee requires will have a negative effect on the rest of the workplace. But actually, research shows that the reverse is true. Inclusive workplaces have lower staff absence and improved performance (Harvard Business Review, 2019).
When you make an accommodation for one individual, the entire workplace benefits. Being inclusive towards neurodiverse people doesn't have to be expensive. And others benefit from adaptations which may be introduced for neurodiverse people; for example, allowing staff to work flexibly benefits all kinds of people, such as working parents or those with physical disabilities, not just the neurodiverse.
In fact, 59% of adaptations that are made for neurodiverse employees cost nothing at all (US Job Accommodation Network). Many of the remainder are low cost and easy to implement. These might include providing noise-cancelling headphones or offering screen reading software. A neurodiverse employee's tasks might be adjusted, not just to allow them to avoid stressful situations, but also to enable them to work to their strengths.
While I don’t have any neurodiverse conditions, I feel strongly that now is the time to welcome neurodiverse people on board. Neurodiverse individuals have an immense array of strengths along with their challenges. Accessibility is important, but inclusion goes further than that.
Being accessible is opening the door, which means removing the barriers that prevent neurodiverse people from working or interacting with you. Inclusion means inviting them in, giving them a seat at the table and listening to their voices.
The benefits of being inclusive towards neurodiverse people extend far beyond bringing in an individual who is creative, insightful and much more productive than average. Inclusion brings better collaboration, improved perceptions of the company and increased revenue. Ultimately, being inclusive to neurodiverse people allows your entire workplace to thrive.
Sally Penni is an award-winning practicing barrister who received her MBE for services to workplace diversity, social mobility and law.
She is a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and a Bencher of Gray’s Inn.
She is the founder of women's not-for-profit networking organisation Women in the Law UK, as well as hosting the Talking Law podcast, which has over 45,000 listeners and profiles senior and prominent members of the legal profession