OHS Canada Magazine

Understanding and supporting neurodivergent workers: CCOHS Corner

June 15, 2023
By Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Health & Safety neurodivergent

Photo: Adobe Stock

Karima is a new hire on the health and safety team at a large company. Although traditional interview settings are challenging for her, she made a great impression on the interview panel with her unique approach to problem solving and her extensive technical knowledge.

When asked if there was anything else she wanted the hiring team to know, Karima hesitated. Would disclosing her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism put off the hiring manager? She decided to let them know.

“Thank you for sharing that,” her manager, Marisol said. “We actually pride ourselves on being a neurodiverse organization.”

A week into her new position, Karima is feeling welcomed by her new co-workers, yet overstimulated by the open work environment. Her manager is quick to check in and address her concerns.

Our collective understanding of what it means to be neurodivergent is growing. Employers are recognizing that a neurodiverse workforce can improve workplace productivity and profitability if they take the time to address specific needs and set workers up for success.


What is neurodiversity?

The term neurodiversity was coined in 1998 by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, to reflect that being neuro-atypical is simply a reflection of the natural variations of the human genome. These variations should be understood and accommodated.

In general terms, a neurodivergent worker is one whose brain functions differently than a neurotypical person. Neurodiversity encompasses several conditions but those most often included are autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, Tourette syndrome, dyslexia (challenges with reading and spelling), dyscalculia (challenges with numbers) or dyspraxia (challenges coordinating physical movements, including those required for speech).

What does neurodiversity look like in the workplace?

It can vary, but often workers on the autism spectrum may be sensitive to light or noise and have difficulty connecting with colleagues and managers. ADHD can present physically, such as fidgeting or an inability to sit still, and mentally, in the form of overthinking or impostor syndrome (a belief someone holds that they are not deserving of achievements or roles they have earned).

People with attention deficit disorder can have trouble with time management and concentration. They can also be impulsive and have trouble with working memory.

Despite these challenges, neurodiverse workers have unique talents that may give their organizations a competitive advantage. Workers with ADHD may struggle with organization but are often creative and collegial, coming up with innovative ideas and bringing positive energy to a brainstorm session. Many can hyperfocus on projects they’re passionate about but need explicit deadlines for when each aspect of the work should be completed. Workers on the autism spectrum sometimes struggle with eye contact or communication but may be meticulous with details.

Setting neurodiverse workers up for success

A growing number of multinational corporations and tech companies are recognizing the unique talents of neurodivergent workers, with some organizations creating dedicated programs to hire them.

To help make your workplace more inclusive and welcoming, and to challenge stereotypes, start by learning about the different types of neurodiversity and what they look like on a spectrum.

Consult with your HR department to discuss how you can encourage success among neurodivergent applicants and workers. One way is to review your hiring process.

Are you unintentionally excluding candidates based only on an evaluation of their interpersonal or communication skills?

Assess whether there are any barriers in your hiring process that may deter qualified candidates from applying. Some companies are working to remove barriers by focusing on competency rather than scenario and behaviour-based questions.

Promote diversity and inclusion

Spreading awareness and normalizing the conversation around neurodiversity can help prevent adversity and stigma in the workplace.

Share information about what it means to be neurodivergent, how these workers can be supported, and the steps you are taking to commit to being a workplace that values and leverages differences in abilities, experiences and perspectives.

Bringing in professionals to help educate workers and managers helps to ensure neurodivergent workers have understanding and support from their colleagues.

When it comes to open work environments, having a dedicated quiet space with natural light for focused work can give a neurodivergent worker some refuge from the sensory overload they may feel in their noisy desk area. Employers can also provide technological aids, tools or assistive devices such as noise cancelling headphones, software to assist with scheduling and task management and speech-to-text or voice recognition software. When possible, hybrid work options can also be beneficial, balancing time in the workplace to collaborate and foster community with time at home to focus without bright lights, scents, and noise.

Support a psychologically safe and inclusive work environment

Having a comprehensive workplace health and safety program in place is one way to protect psychological well-being.

Review or develop policies, initiatives and activities included in this program to ensure they reflect and accommodate neurodiversity. Your program activities should be designed to continually improve the physical, psychosocial, organizational, and economic aspects of the work environment and to increase empowerment and growth.

When developing or reviewing your plan, ask yourself: Is the physical workplace safe? Is the culture positive and based on respect, equity, appreciation, and trust? Are workloads manageable and designed to fit workers’ unique interpersonal and emotional competencies, capabilities, and job skills? Are wellness programs available, including mental health support?

Workers who are neurodivergent, whether existing workers or new hires, may be more comfortable reaching out to trusted co-workers or managers in an inclusive and respectful workplace with these policies and procedures in place to support their needs.

After all, a workplace that is supportive of everyone’s mental and physical health will help foster an environment where workers feel encouraged and safe to express their needs. Check in with those who have self-identified as being neurodivergent to help determine any challenges they may be experiencing.

Encourage them to seek help when needed and offer support through an EAP or other resources if available. Inform workers and applicants about your diversity, inclusion, and accessibility policies and encourage them to specify whether they require any accommodations at work or during the interview and recruitment process.

No two neurodivergent workers are the same. Be proactive in asking and listening to workers about how to create an environment for their success. Understanding neurodiversity, reviewing practices and policies, and leveraging workers’ unique capabilities are important steps in fostering an inclusive and supportive environment that is responsive to their needs.

Back at the open office, Karima takes a long sip of her water and responds.

“Hi Marisol, I’m feeling good, thanks for asking! I am loving the community feel here in the office, and everyone has been welcoming and kind. But I’m a bit overwhelmed by the noise and lights. Is there a quieter spot I can work in when I need to focus?”

“Ah, I understand. There are a few, I can show you. If it helps you, we can also look at setting you up to work remotely for a couple days each week. Think about what would work best for you and we can discuss options after lunch.”

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial, and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, advice, education, and management systems and solutions that support the prevention of injury and illness. Visit www.ccohs.ca for more safety tips.


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