Creating safe spaces for neurodivergence in the workplace

Companies need to think differently about how they can support employees with autism and ADHD, writes Express Solicitors partner Damian Bradley

Damian Bradley, a partner at Express Solicitors Photo courtesy of Express Solicitors

‘Company culture’ is a hot topic these days. It seems more important than ever to create positive work environments that attract and retain top talent. Diversity, inclusion and equality are at the forefront of everyone’s mind but despite best efforts from many organisations to drive change, there is still a lot to be done when it comes to inclusion for the neurodiverse community. 
If we are driven to creating safe spaces for divergent thinkers, we need to think about things a little differently than we are used to.
When I talk about ‘safe space’ in this instance I am talking about physical safety and the desire to make sure everyone can access the same opportunities. Clearly this article can’t address all that is needed to create an environment that nurtures success for neurodiversity in the workplace. However, what it does provide is some simple safety strategies that will make a difference and hopefully limit the number of workplace accidents and injuries that occur.

Accidents at work are becoming more commonplace. With a higher frequency of injuries more common among neurodivergent individuals, our specialists at Express Solicitors have made some interesting learnings on workplace safety. Sharing these findings, coupled with the expert advice from an autism and ADHD activist, Ellie Middleton – who specialises in supporting neurodivergent individuals in the workplace – we hope to help others avoid similar accidents in the workplace.

Risks in the workplace

Neurodivergent individuals have a lot to offer any business. Their brains work differently than those who are neurotypical, allowing them to find creative solutions to problems that others may miss. And in some industry sectors they are actively sought out for their exceptional attention to detail and high levels of accuracy.

Uncovering these unexpected benefits, where employees are able to do their jobs well, not despite their disability but because of it, is exactly what JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work programme reported. Employing more than 175 people in eight countries in 40 different job roles, Anthony Pacilio, head of the programme, says they are in general 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees and make fewer errors. “They are doing two people’s work,” he says. Those who manage neurodiverse employees have to learn to be more direct “and that makes them better managers not just for people on the spectrum but for everybody.”

However, this different way of thinking can also put them at risk in a work environment through no fault of their own.

Unfairly, some employers may be concerned about hiring neurodivergent workers due to worries about accidents, productivity and performance. But by making a few small changes, both autistic people and those with ADHD can stay safe at work – and will often prove to be invaluable team members. In addition, with the right support, they can produce impressive results and offer a unique perspective on a wide variety of subjects.

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Thriving in the right setting

Tailoring adjustments to each neurodiverse worker is crucial. A key learning we have made from dealing specifically with accidents at work involving neurodivergent employees is that it is important to make time on a regular basis to undertake a detailed assessment of neurodivergent individuals' specific workplace needs. These regular catch ups will help identify any barriers they face, any risks to health, safety and welfare and how these can be overcome.

It is also important to remember not every neurodiverse employee will disclose their condition, so proactive adjustments will benefit them and are also likely to benefit everyone in the workplace in some way.

Some practical examples include:

1)    Review and improve signage around the workplace
By installing safety signage and instructions for using different equipment in the workplace, impulsivity can decrease, helping neurodivergent individuals to stay safe. Visual instructions can also help to ensure information is relayed accurately.

2)    Ergonomic adjustments to workstations
Using the correct ergonomic adjustments to the individual's workstation to ensure they can work efficiently in a set up that has been tailored to their needs – not just reducing injury among neurodivergent individuals but also the wider workforce.

3)    Reducing distractions to prevent injury and accidents in the workplace
A working environment that minimises the risk of injury and accidents improves safety and productivity. Distractions can affect productivity for people with autism and ADHD. Consideration should be given to providing a quiet space where neurodivergent individuals can relax and recharge.

4)    Poka-yoke is a workplace technique that means ‘mistake-proofing’
Poka-yoke is a technique that can be used to avoid mistakes in the workplace. It involves creating the right conditions before starting a job and implementing poka-yoke techniques that add in extra checks to greatly reduce the chance of accidents. For example, machinery that won’t start unless safety steps have been followed, or two parts that can only be joined in the correct way.

By making small adjustments and creating a safe, productive workplace, employers can benefit from a mutually beneficial relationship with neurodivergent employees.

As Ellie Middleton concludes: “I think a lot of employers push back on making more of a conscious effort to be inclusive because they hear the words ‘accessibility’ and ‘inclusivity’ and presume that the required changes would be expensive, complicated and lengthy. In reality, most of the changes that make the biggest difference to neurodivergent people are not ground-breaking – in fact, they are mostly just rooted in kindness, clarity and common sense.”

Damian Bradley is a partner and head of legal operations at Express Solicitors where he specialises in employers’ liability claims. 

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