We are currently in Mental Health Awareness Week from 13 to 19 May 2019, which is intended to raise awareness around mental health issues affecting millions of people in the UK today.

Last year the Mental Health Foundation reported on research showing that 16 million people experience a mental health problem each year. A key focus in recent times has been how to manage stress in the workplace and most of us will have experienced this at one time or another. But, what about people who are psychologically different to the majority of their colleagues – how do they cope in the workplace? Acas has published guidance, ‘Neurodiversity in the workplace’, along with information for managers, and research and case studies. ‘Neurodiversity’ is a fairly new term that many employers may not yet know about. However, learning more about it and taking steps to support it at work can be beneficial for employers and their staff.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity relates to the different ways the mind can work and interpret information. It is estimated that 1 out of 7 people are neurodivergent (around 15% of people in the UK). This means their brain works, learns and processes information differently to the way society expects.

Neurodiversity includes individuals who have dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorders and other neurological conditions. These conditions can affect people on a spectrum and have a wide range of characteristics, but can share some commonalities in how information is learned and processed.

Neurodiversity may be a legally protected ‘disability’

Although neurodivergence is reasonably common, there is a general lack of understanding of it, which can lead to problems and potential employment claims in the workplace. Not all neurodivergent workers will have been diagnosed as such, but nevertheless they may well meet the legal definition of having a “disability” under the Equality Act 2010.

A ‘disability’ is a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. The effect must have lasted for twelve months or be likely to last twelve months. An effect that is likely to recur is treated as continuing for this purpose.

If a worker has a disability they will have a protected characteristic which means they are protected against discrimination in the workplace, victimisation and harassment because of their disability. Employers are also under an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate persons with a disability at work. Examples of reasonable adjustments for neurodivergent staff include: giving verbal as well as written instructions to a dyslexic worker or use of a quiet and secluded part of the workplace for an autistic worker.

According to a report by the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission, 52% of neurodivergent workers say they have experienced discrimination during interview or selection processes and 73% say they have not disclosed their condition due to fear of discrimination.

Reasons to support neurodiversity in the workplace

Employers who see the advantage of tapping into a neurodiverse talent pool are yet few and far between. However, there are potential advantages to supporting employees with such conditions. Not least, employers are more likely to be complying with their legal obligations to staff and therefore avoid employment claims. If support is provided to neurodivergent workers then an organisation is more likely to identify and provide support needed by neurodivergent customers too. Positive attributes commonly associated with neurodivergence include: bringing a different perspective, development of highly specialised skills and consistency in tasks once mastered.

The Employment Team at Stephens Scown is experienced in providing advice on equality and discrimination law issues. We would be pleased to advise on neurodivergence in the workplace.

Laura McFadyen is a partner in our employment team in Exeter and specialises in HR and employment law. To discuss the content in this article or any other employment issue please call 01392 210700 or email employment@stephens-scown.co.uk.