Navigating Neurodivergence in the Workplace
When I first entered the workplace, I was terrified to disclose that I was dyslexic. I tried very hard to hide it from my employers but instead found myself in trouble for frequent grammar mistakes and administrative errors. My colleagues would be frustrated that I couldn’t grasp certain tasks as quickly as my peers. I would be disappointed with myself for not getting things right. I eventually shared that my dyslexia was causing my mistakes. I wasn’t trying to drive my managers up the wall! I felt relieved to finally share ‘my terrible secret’ and hoped I would now get the support I needed.
Back then, my condition left me feeling very alone. That’s why the United Kingdom’s National Inclusion Week is so important to me. The event aims to highlight the importance of embracing diversity in the workplace, sharing insights and resources with both neuro-typical and neuro-diverse people on navigating differences and building a positive environment.
‘Neurodivergence’ refers to someone who thinks differently than the majority, who would classify as ‘neurotypical’. Recognized types of neurodivergence include autism, Asperger’s syndrome, epilepsy, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette syndrome.
I’m sharing my personal story of living with dyslexia to highlight the different challenges of being neurodivergent in the workplace. Dyslexia is a learning difficulty affecting a person’s ability to process information. This can manifest in many ways, from literacy to organisation skills.
I hope to stress the importance of creating an inclusive workplace, not just as a ‘nice-to-have' but as an essential. I would also like to give hope to anyone in my position that with the right support and environment, you can flourish in your chosen career.
I was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of five. Most people know dyslexia as a learning difficulty that impacts a person’s ability to read, spell and write; however, it can impact a lot more than that, for example, short-term memory. This explains why I can often find myself wandering into the kitchen five times a day, opening the refrigerator and then realising that I got up to complete a totally different task.
It’s important to remember that all neurodivergent people experience different struggles and that most of these divergencies are on a spectrum. Like most people with dyslexia, school and university were a challenge for me, and unfortunately the workplace was no walk in the park either.
Dyslexia and Mental Health
After I first told my colleagues about my dyslexia, the support provided initially didn’t fit my needs, so I continued experiencing the same challenges. I fell into deep despair and felt like I had nowhere to go and no way out. My confidence plummeted. I suffered through periods of depression with severe anxiety, which would cause me to make even more mistakes.
This experience is not unique to me; neurodivergent individuals are more likely to experience low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and stress in the workplace due to stigma, shame and misguided support.
Finding the Correct Support
I think the reason most workplaces do not offer the right support to their neurodiverse employees is because managers and colleagues lack the correct education and understanding for navigating such differences.
It was several years into previous roles before someone in HR took the time to research how to help me get the support I really needed. They reached out to the British Dyslexia Association (BDA), which arranged an assessment for my workplace needs. The assessment output was a list of workplace adjustments that could help make my work life easier.
We started with a one-on-one session with a company BDA recommended to distinguish exactly where I was not coping. This session was a game-changer. Not only did it help me come up with useful coping strategies, but it also taught me how my brain worked. This helped me be less critical of myself and focus on my strengths.
It was also the first time I’d ever met another woman with dyslexia in the workplace. It was so great to see representation of other neurodivergent individuals, as I could relate to their experience and see that it was possible to still thrive in your career. I was also introduced to the Disability and Equality Act and began to understand my rights.
Here is how I think brands and companies should support their neurodivergent colleagues:
- Internal education: There should be annual training to ensure that staff understand what it means to be neurodivergent and how that can impact their workplace.
- External awareness: Brands have a huge opportunity to normalise neurodiversity through awareness, knowledge-sharing and representation.
- Managerial training: Ensure managers and HR staff understand the correct protocol for anyone who needs support or training.
- A safe space: Nurture a safe workplace where all employees feel that they can be themselves, speak freely, make mistakes and find support.
Feeling Comfortable in My Own Skin
It has taken me a very long time to feel comfortable in my skin and be open about being neurodiverse in the workplace. I know I’ll make mistakes from time to time, but that’s okay. I may never win a spelling bee, but I think I can live with that.
Here at WE, we are on a journey towards building a more inclusive workplace for neurodivergent employees. To build awareness around the subject, last year we partnered with Exceptional Individuals to deliver a workshop to all our team to help understand what neurodiversity is and how that impacts work. This September, Exceptional Individuals will host another workshop to help expand our work to support our neurodivergent colleagues in practice. Last National Inclusion Week, we had Alex Annable share her experience of ADHD and autism spectrum disorder in the workplace. This year we welcome Ellie Middleton, autism and ADHD activist and a voice for the neurodivergent community, to share her experience.
Neurodiverse employees should never have to endure the same struggles I did. They should never have to feel ashamed of their differences and unable to ask for help. Neurodivergent people deserve to join the workforce and build their careers feeling empowered. We should never feel that we are defined by something we can’t change. By simply educating colleagues and managers on neurodiversity and the correct process for helping these employees, we can really help our neurodiverse talent grow. Let’s celebrate all our team’s strengths, rather than focus on their weaknesses. In the words of Tom Rath, “If you focus on people’s weaknesses, they lose confidence.”
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