MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK: THE NEURODIVERSE WORKPLACE
TUESDAY 11TH MAY 2021
Greater understanding of a neurodiverse society is affecting the built environment in terms of public space and housing, while understanding the needs of a neurodiverse workforce is increasingly seen as a key objective for employers as they look to offer the optimal post-pandemic workplace.
Chris Barnes hid his autism for years, fearing that he would never be trusted with responsibility. Today, the senior account manager at Pareto FM sees things very differently and is comfortable in his own skin.
“I love to problem-solve and therefore facilities management is perfect for me. I am extremely focused, and I make rational decisions based on information. I do not just go with my gut. I like to see all the evidence before I make any decision. I have always been very honest and forthcoming in communication and most people like that style of saying how it is.”
Barnes, who was diagnosed with autism relatively late in life, blogged during World Autism Awareness Week about the condition and the importance employers should place on supporting life at work for people with autism. In this, he and Pareto as his service provider employer are putting themselves at the forefront of workplace initiatives to understand and accommodate neurodiversity.
First identified by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s, neurodiversity covers a range of conditions comprising both strengths and challenges (see box 1), with one in seven people classed as neurodivergent. Today, there is growing awareness among larger employers who see neurodiversity as potentially uncovering untapped talent, and are adopting special programmes to recruit and encourage such staff. It’s an investment that’s paying off (see box 2). Maximising the talents of professionals who think differently and encouraging employee diversity is becoming crucial.
In the UK, the British Standards Institution is set to unveil the first guidance for designing the built environment for people who experience sensory and neurological processing difficulties. This will focus on design features that reduce the potential for sensory overload, anxiety or distress. Lighting, acoustics, flooring and décor will feature as sensory design considerations in advice for designers, specifiers, facilities managers and decision-makers on making public places more inclusive.
Meanwhile, research by the British Psychological Society has warned that a lack of the right support from employers can make finding and keeping a job difficult, calling on employers to adopt working practices in support of neurodiverse people, such as minimising sensory overload like noise and light in busy, open-plan office spaces and use of clearly printed, simple documentation.
Variation and volume
“THERE IS A WORKING ASSUMPTION IN THE DESIGN WORLD THAT PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE, THAT THEY ARE ALL THE SAME,” SAYS ANDREW MAWSON, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF ADVANCED WORKPLACE ASSOCIATES (AWA).
“This is far from the truth. As well as a gender difference there are many other differences such as height, anatomical measurement, sensitivities to noise, to light, to temperature, different levels of ‘ability’ or disability, different lifestyle needs and domestic circumstances – and that’s even before we look at the various roles that different people perform and the different task needs they have within them.
The first stage is to recognise the workplace user as a ‘consumer’ in the same way a retailer would. Through research and discussion establish the parameters of variation and volume that you need to cater for. Then, and only then, start designing the workplace and its supporting services, he adds.
“The design needs to provide a rich palette of places and enable workplace consumers to use them and modify them to suit their preferences and needs with services and experiences that are ‘frictionless’ – they place no burden on the human brain.”
So what are the benefits to employees? The “frictionless” approach advocated by Mawson gives people “the places they need without stress and fuss and without placing demands on their brains”.
“When we’re too hot or cold our brains are working in the background to make us sweat or create a shiver to conserve heat, if we’re distracted by too much noise our brains have to work overtime to blank it out. By reducing friction we can enable people to contribute more of their energy to the important roles they have to perform without dissipating their energy.”
Where should a workplace manager start on neurodiversity? First, there is value in introducing it into the facilities service team.
Kerrie White, diversity and inclusion lead for the Goodwin Development Trust, urges any facilities team that does not already host and welcome neurodivergent thinkers to prioritise this now. She recommends that workplace managers should ask the ‘five Ws’ (see box 3).
“Facilities management has often been described as the quiet revolution and in speaking with emerging neurodivergent job-seekers, many of whom would be ideal for your roles, they are often unsure as to where you fit in the list of prioritised sectors,” she adds. “This needs to change.”
Indeed. Neurodiverse staff cite communication as one of the biggest barriers, complaining that many managers have little knowledge of their conditions. The first hurdle is a lack of awareness followed by an absence of training to support people with neurodiverse needs.
“THE KEY IS TO RAISE AWARENESS OF HOW TO EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATE WITH A NEURODIVERSE WORKFORCE” SAYS BARNES.
“Facilities managers and all other staff need to provide plenty of processing time for people with autism and make sure you give clear instructions. This should be followed up with written confirmation of the requirements to ensure there is no room for misinterpretation. But most important of all is to talk openly and ask questions about how the workplace can help their colleagues.”
White agrees that the pandemic has highlighted how “things can be done diversely and differently”, a message advocated by the neurodiverse community and its supporters for years.
“The push for organisations to become more people-centric and consider overall employee wellbeing has led them to asking more encouraging questions beyond the why. It even has propelled leadership teams to hold more open conversations, which has resulted in prioritised ‘team time’ for ensuring that staff as individuals are all provided with a responsive listening environment.
“ONCE WE ACCEPT THAT WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT, EACH WITH OUR OWN STRENGTHS AND CHALLENGES, PERSPECTIVES CHANGE. AWARENESS IS NOT ENOUGH. ACCEPTANCE IS THE END GOAL.”
At a glance
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Symptoms include a short attention span, fidgeting and acting without thinking, but the condition is also associated with creativity, passion and hyper-focus but also affects the brain’s ability to control impulses and self-regulation.
Autism spectrum: Autistic people face problems with communication, social interaction, sensory processing and can experience overload. They can also be hyper-focused on details and patterns while having strong long-term memories.
Dyslexia: Dyslexics face problems processing sounds and putting things in order but often have well-developed visual skills and higher creativity.
Dyspraxia: A brain-based motor disorder that disrupts movement and coordination but dyspraxics also have advanced verbal and adaptability skills.
Dyscalculia: Often dubbed ‘number dyslexia’; people with the condition often have advanced reading and writing skills and long-term memory.
Tourette Syndrome: Characterised by involuntary tics or sounds, but people with the condition can also hyper-focus and are highly empathic.
Business benefits from neurodiversity
Amazon, Google, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft and EY are among the major companies with neurodiversity programmes. According to research published by Science Daily in 2012, people with autism process information better than their neurotypical counterparts to detect critical information, excel at pattern recognition and irregularities. The UK’s GCHQ, the Australia’s Department of Defence and Israel’s Defence Forces specially recruit neurodiverse people particularly those with autism. JP Morgan Chase reports that professionals in its autism at work initiative make fewer errors and are 90 per cent to 140 per cent more productive than neurotypical employees. The four largest US autism recruitment programmes – run by SAP,
JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft and EY – report retention rates of more than 90 per cent. Meanwhile, 86 per cent of employers surveyed by the Institute for Corporate Productivity rated employees with neurodiverse conditions as either good or very good in dependability, motivation, engagement and peer integration.
Leading professional services firm EY’s neurodiversity programme, launched in 2016, included a recruitment drive that prioritised performance-based tasks such as analysing data sets and producing reports over interviews. The company has so far recruited 100 people with cognitive challenges, many of them excelling at working with data and software, problem-solving, attention to detail, creativity and lateral thinking.
“Companies that embrace neurodiversity in the workplace can gain competitive advantages in many areas – productivity, innovation, organisational culture and talent retention,” says EY forensic and integrity services principal Nathalie Hofman. “But many organisations fail to hire people with neurocognitive challenges or to support them in the workplace.”
The 5 Ws
What workplace managers should do
The 5 Ws that Kerrie White says facilities managers should ask are:
Who – is about you and your organisation, get to know your neurodiverse employees and seek out neurodiversity community champions and or specialists.
Why – is about purpose and understanding the needs of your organisation and opening the recruitment process to ensure it is fair and accessible for all. Liaise and listen to employees and community champions to help guide the necessary changes.
What – is about your goal or target, increase awareness, educate, and evaluate the numbers of neurodiverse employees you have and want. White says managers should stay curious and ask people what they want.
Where – White said this applies to anywhere, especially as the past year has shown people can work effectively from home. For those required on-site, reasonable adjustments may include staggered start times and or breaks.
When – Open your invitations for engagement at all levels, recruitment, staff and training events, work experience, and even consider how teams could champion neurodiversity in the community and even allow them to do some volunteering or mentoring.
Chris Barnes’ story
“I was diagnosed late in life, but we always knew there was something slightly different about how I see and interact with the world around me. So it was always only a matter of time before the diagnosis came along.”
“I have come to realise how my coping strategies and how I plan my working week plus each day have helped me loads over my career in FM. I now know that I should start telling more people about my journey and hopefully encourage more people to be open about who they really are. Plus get support to have a career in FM or any industry.
“I hid my autism for years and would mask my coping strategies for fear of being treated differently. I worried I would not be trusted to take on responsibility. Only in the last three years have I realised that being myself and being open by bringing my whole self to work means I can give 100 per cent of me to my role.
“People still feel it’s OK to joke about these topics, but this is when discrimination is at its worst. It happened to me a long time ago; large companies had so-called ‘D&I networks’ but never actually lived by what they said. Fast-forward to today and I’m happily working in a truly diverse and supportive team in Pareto.
“Getting the diagnosis helped me realise how I see the world around me, and more importantly how others see me. I became aware of how I was acting and this has helped me with how I manage people and problems.
“I still have coping strategies. I use the Flare ‘Calmer’ in-ear device that reduces stress from noise around me. This is absolutely key when travelling on the train or very busy/noisy areas. It helps me process what’s going on and keep my mind on track.
“I plan ahead loads too. I plan journeys as much as I can. I use Street View all the time, so I know and I am familiar if going somewhere I’ve never been before. I often get asked, how can you plan when every day in FM is so different? Well, that’s actually what makes it work; the constant is that every day in FM is different. Problems always happen, things always need fixing and we deliver a robust PPM schedule. When you’ve been up and down the country looking after clients/buildings/teams for 25 years it’s all very familiar, and ultimately comforting.
“Clients change but the way I support, problem-solve and build client relationships stays the same. Buildings change, but how I plan PPMs daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly is the same and I strive to improve every time on how we can make this better next time.
“All anyone wants is the opportunity to be themselves, to be the best version of themselves, and that never changes. FM is just one big puzzle that needs putting into place over and over again. I like puzzles. That’s what gets me to my happy place.
“Recently, I attended a lunch-and-learn workshop organised by ‘Ambitious about Autism’. That’s when the penny dropped that so many people are still not in full-time employment. Plus, that we need to do so much more to encourage and build truly diverse teams by recognising the benefits of employing people with autism. Therefore, I’m putting myself out there
as a mentor.”
BUILT ENVIRONMENT STRATEGIES
Design approaches for neurodivergent staff
The design, architecture, engineering and planning firm HOK has spearheaded design strategies for neurodivergent staff. It advises workplace managers, HR and real estate teams to carry out special assessments when planning a new space or overhauling an existing one. Key design features include:
A wide variety of spaces, some for socialising with others for semi-private or private concentration including dedicated quiet rooms.
Create active zones and space that encourage movement.
Place work stations in low-movement areas.
Use dividers in appropriate areas to block and reduce noise.
Design acoustically sensitive environments that generate white noise, while using acoustic dampening materials around loud equipment or noisy areas.
Provide work spaces with adjustable lighting levels.
Avoid fluorescent lighting and poor-quality LED to reduce flickering.
Ensure access to daylight.
Incorporate natural elements into spaces to create a calming effect.
Provide well-ventilated work spaces.
Create non-stimulating colour schemes intermixed with areas of high stimulation.
Mitigate stress by avoiding chaotic patterns in work areas.
Prevent sensory overload by creating an ‘ecosystem’ with different micro-environments that enable people to find the right level of stimulation – visual, auditory or physical. For those who are under-stimulated, provide spaces with hands-on tactile elements and sensations that help with focusing.
Design space that is intuitive and easy to navigate while using colour strategically to help with orientation.
The wider built environment issue
Beyond the workplace, an understanding of what’s needed to remove restrictions on life choices and house the neurodiverse is also developing. Kim Swallowe, an architect in Cherwell District Council’s Build! Team, recently worked on a joint project with Oxfordshire County Council to deliver homes in Banbury and Bicester designed for adults with learning disabilities and autism.
“Autism is considered a spectrum because it’s different for every autistic person. Every individual has completely different needs and will process their surroundings differently – one person may have sensitivity to certain lighting conditions and smells, another may find discomfort with spatial proximity and noise, says Swallowe.
“All this needed to be reflected when developing our blueprint – homes designed to be low-stimulus from day one but that are ‘super adaptable’ and can be altered according to an individual’s unique set of needs. This requires a different mindset to that of conventional housing where the focus is for standardisation across the board. That approach just doesn’t work when it comes to providing homes for neurodiversity.”
Appointing external design consultants experienced in supported housing was hard. This put a huge strain on in-house specialists to produce specifications and design proposals. “Neurodivergency is now a growing field; at the time there were few organisations that we could reach out to with experience in delivering such schemes,” says Swallowe.
More online • Chris Barnes comment • Neurodiversity in the workplace resources
Illustrations credit | Zara Picken