- Between 10% and 30% of the population in the US are neurodivergent, yet unemployment amongst this group remains staggeringly high.
- Employers may need to redesign workspaces, overhaul their recruitment practices and redefine DE&I policies to attract and retain neurodivergent job seekers.
- Last year a record 47.4 million Americans quit their jobs – so why aren’t employers pursuing this untapped pool of talent?
Who is neurodivergent and how are they doing in the labor market?
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that covers conditions such as autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder and dyslexia. Neurodivergent individuals possess unique traits that can be perceived as both strengths and challenges. We all have differences in terms of how we process sensory information and think about the world around us; however, some people experience these processes more profoundly.
Neurodivergent people are far from being a homogenous group given that there are many differences between people who fall into this category. Many neurodivergent individuals also possess hidden traits.
The disparate nature of this group and their often-concealed difficulties can make it more challenging for companies to ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) policies comprehensively support neurodiversity – but this is no excuse for companies to ignore neurodivergent job seekers.
Regardless of their differences, neurodiverse people have one thing in common – they remain overlooked as a group within the labor market.
One would think that the continuing aftermath of the pandemic, ongoing labor shortages and a declining birth rate would be enough to compel companies to attract a much wider pool of job seekers. The current statistics, however, do not seem to support this argument.
As of October 2021, there were 10.4 million job openings in the US. Even if all the vacant positions were filled tomorrow, there would still be many jobs available. A recent article by Deloitte highlights the startling fact that approximately 85% of autistic individuals in the US are currently un(or under)employed. Contrast that figure with 4.2% unemployment across the overall population.
Between 10% and 30% of the population has some degree of neurodiversity – so why aren’t employers doing more to actively recruit and retain this cohort?
Each year 50,000 young people on the autistic spectrum reach their 18th birthday. 44% of them will study further and prepare to enter the job market, yet it is reported that over 80% will remain unemployed. Half of those who do find work are underemployed (their full range of skills is not utilized). By excluding this group, employers are missing out on a unique pool of talent (with potentially exceptional skills ranging from problem-solving to pattern recognition and recall).
Some employees have almost zero awareness. A UK survey revealed that fewer than 20% of employers had heard of the term “neurodiversity” even though 1 in 5 young people in the UK (16-24) identify as being neurodivergent. This is significant because, by comparison, only 1 in 30 adults over the age of 40 identify as neurodivergent. Outside of the workplace, neurodiversity is being increasingly recognized, accepted and understood, and the labor market is falling behind.
In the US, intermediary agencies with the primary mission of supporting a neurodiverse workforce are starting to make an impact. Programs that actively recruit and support autistic employees have also been developed in companies such as Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase and the software giant, SAP. These programs support individuals to transform their natural abilities into marketable skills and help them to navigate the social dynamics that some neurodivergent individuals grapple with at work.
What should companies do to reach out to neurodivergent individuals?
Companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft have already reformed their recruitment processes to provide opportunities for neurodivergent job seekers. The programs have thus far been positive – with both companies reporting success in terms of positive employee engagement.
To access neurodivergent job candidates, businesses must first identify hidden communities. Many job seekers might have neurodiversity that is not initially evident. Employers need to reach out to these potential employees and provide them with opportunities to access the recruitment process in a fair and supportive manner.
Companies should also consider their use of language and overall approach to neurodiversity. This entails an evaluation of screening criteria (checking for algorithmic bias, for instance), re-imagining the interview process and expanding the type of roles available to potential neurodivergent employees.
The application and interview process must enable candidates to showcase their entire range of talents. Employers need to redirect their focus on the perceived weaknesses of neurodivergent individuals to their unique strengths and potential.
It isn’t simply a matter of attracting and hiring
Merely hiring neurodivergent employees is not enough. Employers need to create accessible and welcoming workplaces that offer ongoing support in an inclusive, friendly and above all, genuine manner. Companies need to provide support for the psychological well-being of all employees but it is important to acknowledge the specific well-being needs of neurodivergent individuals in the workplace.
Mentorship might need to be offered, in addition to all-staff training on neurodiversity. Companies also need to recognize their unconscious bias (as many now do with other diversity characteristics). There should be clear respect for and acceptance of difference in terms of approaches to working, interacting with others and diversity of thought.
Organizational policies need to be re-written to specify what they will offer neurodivergent employees. Employers must be willing to make adjustments and commit to any changes.
According to David O’Coimin, founder and CEO of DO Company and Nook Wellness Pods, designing inclusive workspaces is about designing for all individuals.
We all possess neurodivergent traits in one form or another and every one of us is different in terms of how we prefer to work. The open-plan office is falling out of favour due to being less inclusive and accommodating of the needs of a diverse workforce. The best workplace designs are those that offer a more individualized work experience (quiet pods, for instance), as opposed to a one-size-fits-all design.
Here are some approaches that businesses could adopt to empower neurodivergent employees:
- Design flexible workspaces to suit the needs of neurodivergent employees (do your research first and ask all employees what they need to thrive at work)
- Offer flexible work schedules and enable employees to work remotely (job permitting). The hybrid model of work may suit neurodivergent individuals who find social situations challenging and prefer to work from home
- Provide appropriate sensory equipment and build structures that avoid auditory overload and visual overstimulation (headphones, quiet pods, green spaces, suitable lighting etc)
- Train managers to promote the strengths of neurodivergent employees and recognize atypical communication styles
- Create awareness amongst staff on how everyone can help to foster a work environment that is safe, supportive and accepting of all neurodiversity
- Ensure that the hiring process (especially the interview) is “neurodivergent-friendly” – even if that entails a complete overhaul
- Seek out neurodivergent champions (internal and/or external to the company) who would be willing to support employees
- Display genuine commitment – this should not be a tick box or a “pat-on-the-back” exercise
Could neurodivergent employees fill the huge gaps left by the Great Resignation?
Despite a record 47.4 million employees quitting their jobs in 2021, many companies continue to overlook this huge pool of untapped talent. Employment rates for this group remain stagnant, regardless of the huge gaps that have appeared in the labor market.
Neurodiversity and neurodivergent individuals are often misunderstood by society. Only when attitudes change and certain barriers collapse, will we then (hopefully) witness the rise of a workforce that is fully inclusive of neurodivergent employees.
Studies have shown that neurodivergent employees can have double the retention rate and on-task time of their neurotypical peers, yet ongoing stigma, discrimination, a lack of understanding and poor opportunities prevent this group from advancing in the workplace.
Businesses that fail to embrace neurodiversity might struggle to thrive in the future. The reported rise in the diagnosis of children means that understanding and meeting the needs of neurodivergent employees will be unavoidable. This will require changes to sourcing and screening job candidates through to continuous training and career development.
Every type of job in the future needs to become available to neurodivergent job seekers – not just those in the tech industry. Reports indicate that by 2030, 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will be unfilled. Will these jobs be attractive enough for neurodivergent job seekers? Additionally, at that time, 75% of the US workforce will be comprised of millennials (who typically prefer companies that value inclusivity when seeking a new role).
The employees of the future (including Gen Z) will want and expect a neurodiverse approach to be integral to all aspects of work. Work provides us all with intrinsic value. We all seek meaning and purpose in life and our work should contribute to this objective. Why should it be any different for neurodivergent individuals? The Great Resignation offers a huge opportunity but without investment from employers, this opportunity could be lost.