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Embracing neurodiversity in workplace inclusivity

Workplace policies should consider embracing neurodivergent individuals to be truly inclusive (Dylan Nolte - Unsplash)

By Dr. Safiah Omar

The landscape of the contemporary workplace is continuously evolving and may disrupt many current organizational work structures and operations. For example, the emerging workplace policy that supports neurodiversity or neuro-inclusivity have become the main agenda for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) for many organizations. This is in line with one of the United Nation’s (UN) sustainable development goal (SDG) with the aims to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. The main focus of this goal include the provision of decent work, employment creation, social protection, and rights at work.

Dr. Safiah Omar

Neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are recognized and respected as any other human variation that is also known as neurotypical. These differences can include those who were diagnosed with Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Tourette Syndrome, and others. Neurodivergent individuals strengths were often associated with unique skills and perspectives that can bring valuable insights to the workforce community. However, traditional workplace practices and environments may not be conducive to their work survival as well as career development.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM), the employment statistics for neurodivergent working in public sectors show significant increases from year 2020 (72), 2021 (88), and 2022 (99). Whereas, the report shows inconsistent number of neurodivergent employment in private sectors for the same 3 years which are 2220, 119, 164 respectively. In relations to the official statistics reported by DOSM, the numbers were taken as at December 2022. Therefore, the accurate data for current neurodivergent employment is unknown. However in the first quarter of year 2024, organizations such as Petronas, Earns & Young (EY), Maybank, RHB Bank, Gamuda, Deloitte, and many others have started to include neurodiversity in their DE&I aspects. This situation is such an eye-opener for other organizations to increase awareness and celebrate the inclusivity of neurodivergent in their workplace.

The starting point should begin with developing an inclusive framework policy that harness the potential of neurodivergent individuals and create a truly inclusive workplace. Then, it should be noted that the developed policy should not just be a document that is left untouched at the human resource departments without proper implementation. Challenges in implementing the policy may include the coverage of the sub-contents that will truly protect, acknowledge and promote a culture of inclusivity for both neurodivergent and neurotypical. The success of implementing such neurodiversity inclusion policy can foster a sense of belonging and empowerment among all employees, regardless of their neurological differences.

Implementing neurodivergent work policies in companies requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses various aspects of organizational culture, talent management, and inclusivity. The content of the policy should emphasize the importance of fostering an empathetic culture and implementing innovative talent management strategies to support the well-being of neurodivergent employees. This highlights the need for organizations to create a supportive environment that respects cognitive differences and promotes inclusivity to enhance the overall well-being of neurodivergent individuals within the workforce.

Organizations can raise awareness about neurodiversity through training programs and workshops that educate employees ranging from non-executive, executive, managers and up to the level of top managers. The foundation of successful implementation strategy begins with well informed, understanding, and empathetic culture among employees and employers (neurotypical) about different neurological conditions and how they can impact an individual’s work. This should reduce stigma on neurodivergence and a more welcoming work environment can be established for neurodivergent employees.

The accommodation for flexible work arrangements should be tailored to suit individual needs. This could include options for remote work, flexible hours, or customized workspaces. By providing neurodivergent employees with the flexibility to work in a way that suits them best, organizations can help them to perform at their best. Providing reasonable accommodations is the crucial aspect depending on the individual’s needs.

Companies should also provide support and resources to help neurodivergent employees navigate the workplace and their roles. This could include providing assistive technologies, allowing for additional breaks, or offering a quiet workspace. A survey reported from The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in United Kingdom (UK) shows that neurodivergent employees are more likely to always or often feel exhausted, feel under pressure, and be lonelier at work than neurotypical employees.

As such, collaborating with other organizations such as NGOs or talent agencies that specialize in neurodiversity recruitment and intervention will benefit and expediate the process of cultivating a neuroinclusive culture. For example in Malaysia, there are Oasis Place, Malaysia High Functioning Autism Association (MAHFAA), Mental Illness Awareness and Support Association (MIASA), United Voice, Enabling Academy by Gamuda, Autism Initiatives Malaysia (AIM), and many others. These organizations can help companies to tap into a talent pool that is often overlooked, bringing new skills and perspectives to the employees (neurotypical). In addition, they can also provide the right trainings, improve the neurodivergent adaptability, and assist on other needs such as therapy and learning.

Finally, neurodiversity inclusion should start from the right leadership and teaming styles which may involve educating the leaders to better understand and support neurodivergent team members as well as creating diverse teams that can benefit from a range of different perspectives. Embracing neurodiversity is not just about creating a more inclusive workplace, it is also about recognizing the values that neurodivergent individuals can bring to the workforce. Supporting neurodivergent employees, organizations will create a better holistic workplace and enable the better drive functions toward innovation and success.

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