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ADHD and the enterprise workplace - supporting people with tech solutions

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 22, 2024
Summary:
In the second of this two-part series on ADHD, the focus is on exploring what employers can do to support their employees most effectively for the benefit of all.

Image of a brain
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

All too many neurodivergent employees are failing to receive the support needed from their employers to help them perform at their best, according to research.

Workplace qualifications provider City & Guilds’ latest annual Neurodiversity Index revealed that a full 50% of respondents had taken time off work last year due to issues related to their condition. This is a five percent rise on the previous year and has a direct impact on productivity. 

Some 36% of those questioned also said they had received no help or guidance from their organization in terms of workplace adjustments. Just under a fifth (18%) were unclear where to go for such help, while 20% were still waiting for it following a request. The study was jointly produced with Do-IT, a provider of neurodiversity training courses and screening tools.

So, what can employers do to ensure they support their neurodiverse employees in the most effective way possible, particularly those with ADHD? 

A key thing to remember is that ADHD may be considered a disability in the UK under the 2010 Equality Act if the impact on an individual is significant. On the other hand, the Americans with Disabilities Act covers all people with ADHD.

As a result, once a potential and current employee has disclosed their condition, employers have a responsibility to protect them both from discrimination and harassment. They must also make reasonable adjustments to help them do their jobs.

According to the Scottish ADHD Coalition, such adjustments include demonstrating a “reasonable degree of flexibility” in relation to the difficulties an individual may face. One example entails agreeing a 15-minute start and finish time window rather than a rigid start time with sanctions if people are late. 

Another involves allowing employees to delegate non-core aspects of the job they find particularly difficult, such as completing paperwork or timesheets, as they may make the entire job unachievable.

How to support people with ADHD

Karen Blake is joint CEO of the Tech Talent Charter, an industry-led membership group that promotes diversity and inclusion. As she points out:

It’s important to respect people’s autonomy around their working styles. ADHD can have an element of hyperactivity, so allowing people to take walking breaks, or stand, can help scratch a sensory itch. Simple things like ensuring there are breaks between meetings can make a real difference and are actually general good practice as back-to-back meetings are bad for everyone. It’s about thinking how the environment works and looking after people’s wellbeing.

This includes managers undertaking regular check-ins and focusing on the contribution each individual can make rather than simply the challenges they face. Blake explains:

If you start with an empathetic, human-centric approach, it makes a big difference. It doesn’t mean to say you can’t address any concerns you have with someone’s performance but deal with any issues with kindness. It doesn’t cost a lot. People worry that making accommodations will cost a fortune, but it’s often more about training, coaching and mentoring.

Other things that can help in wellbeing terms include the creation of dedicated Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and employee assistance programmes where people can obtain confidential support and advice.

Technology has a role to play too. Tools for diary management and applications, such as Trello boards, are useful here. As Trello boards can be used to display tasks and deadlines, they are helpful in supporting people undertake time-bound tasks and projects. Blake explains:

Often people with ADHD are looking for a dopamine hit, which they can receive if they’re given targets and quick wins. So, blocking out time for those hyper-driven projects and providing clear guidance on the task will help them thrive. If they aren’t provided with the right environment though, people can end with neurodiversity burnout, which can be more difficult to come back from than it is for neurotypical people.

How to encourage ADHD disclosure

Before they can put any of these individual support mechanisms in place though, employers need to be aware of whether their employees actually have ADHD. This means creating a psychologically safe enough environment for people to choose to disclose. 

Kirsty Cook, who has ADHD herself, is Global Director of Neuro-inclusion Services at auticon, a specialist neurodiverse IT consultancy. She explains:

A general lack of organizational understanding of what ADHD is and isn’t and what it means in the workplace specifically will prevent someone from disclosing in case they face discrimination or judgement – although getting no response from your manager is as bad as getting a negative reaction. Then, there’s the possibility of having to help managers understand your condition – if they’re willing. If no-one ever talks about neurodiversity, you’ve got no idea of what’s going to happen and that’s daunting, particularly as people have often faced bullying and discrimination in school or other workplaces.

As a result, if employers are to ease the path towards disclosure, it is important they think carefully about the kind of questions they ask employees. This means making them “open but not too open”, says Blake. As she points out:

Best practice is offering multiple opportunities for disclosure so people can decide to do so at what they feel is an appropriate time. Also be clear about why you’re collecting this information, who will have access to it, what will be done with it and why. Another important but often overlooked consideration is to create an employee passport that can go with people as they move managers or departments. Otherwise, if someone has informally told their line manager they have ADHD and it’s not recorded, that information will be lost. So formal processes are required, and the more you can do to streamline them the better.

How to create an inclusive culture

Once disclosure has taken place, the next step is for managers, HR professionals and the individual concerned to work together on what adjustments may be required. Leanne Maskell is an ADHD coach who has the condition herself. She is also author of ADHD Works at Work. She says:

People who are neurodiverse often have no idea of what they need, but it’s the first question they’re asked. So, it’s important for everyone to work together here. It’s also useful to have clear written documents and examples of what can be done.

A current big challenge though is the lack of neurodiversity education being provided to those who need it most. The City & Guilds’ Index indicates that a huge 72% of organizations offered general awareness training last year. 

But only 28% of managers received specific neurodiversity training, with 35% having received none at all. Among senior executives, training levels rose to 33%, but among HR and diversity, equity and inclusion specialists, the figure dropped to a mere 21%. 

This situation would imply that a majority of those in authority are either ill-equipped to understand different forms of neurodiversity or to hold the sensitive conversations that may be required. As Maskell says:

Managers usually don’t have enough support themselves so, even if they have the best intentions, they may not have the understanding and feel scared to talk about neurodiversity with their employees. The result is that a lot of companies create great ERGs and advocates but still struggle as they don’t have the necessary policies in place and managers don’t know how to handle issues when they come up.

This means that for many companies, it is about generating cultural change to create a human-centric and inclusive environment for all, believes Cook. She explains some of the key steps they can take to get there:

As a starting point, you need to do an in-depth audit of how neuro-inclusive the organization is, so what does it do well, what doesn’t it do well, and undertake a gap analysis. Look at infrastructure, processes, the behaviour of senior leaders and people’s lived experience at all levels of the business. Work with your neurodiverse employees on a program of change and evaluate what the immediate, high impact wins might be. Also make people aware that you’re on a journey – it might not be done in six or even 12 months but at least it’s a starting point to build up trust.

My take

ADHD is a misunderstood and all too often ignored condition in the workplace, with most of the focus in neurodiversity terms today tending to be concentrated on autism. But if employers are able to create a more inclusive and psychologically-safe environment for one, it should translate into a more inclusive and psychologically-safe environment for all.

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