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Why neurodiverse workforces bring competitive business advantages


By Peter Ayres, Alight Research and Advisory Center and Caroline Garstang, Global Content Strategy
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What do Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and Jenny Dearborn all have in common?

To start, each is an award-winning, successful, innovative and respected professional. They’re recognized for building high-net-worth businesses, entrepreneurship and creating career opportunities and workplace cultures supporting people often overlooked by employers.

What do Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson and Jenny Dearborn all have in common?

To start, each is an award-winning, successful, innovative and respected professional. They’re recognized for building high-net-worth businesses, entrepreneurship and creating career opportunities and workplace cultures supporting people often overlooked by employers.

Jenny is a thought leader in HR, HCM, the Future of Work, and data analytics. She is the CPO at Klaviyo, and the Founder of Actionable Analytics Group. This advisory firm supports Human Capital Management and Education Tech startups from Seed to IPO.

Jenny was previously CTO at SAP and a C-level executive at SuccessFactors, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard.

Personality traits they share include out-of-the-box thinking, interest in social justice, openness to challenge the norm, hyperfocus, high energy, loyalty and honesty. All attributes considered to be highly valuable and sought after in a workforce. And this is where it gets interesting.

Bill, Sir Richard and Jenny openly share these traits with approximately 15-20% of the world's neurodivergent population and are just a few of a growing population of highly successful business, sports, entertainment and media people who speak openly about diagnoses such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Asperger’s and autism.

Bill Gates has ADHD, Sir Richard has ADHD and dyslexia, and Jenny Dearborn has severe dyslexia, ADHD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In a firm of 10,000, 1,500 to 2,000 colleagues are likely living with one of these challenging conditions. 

You could be working with someone with one of the conditions and have no idea. It is not unusual for people themselves not to realize they are neurodivergent.

People become skilled at masking their characteristics – and we know this from other groups including people masking sexuality, for example - due to the social and professional stigma these can carry in the workplace.

Not feeling able to come to work as one’s genuine self can cause chronic stress and impact overall wellbeing. Fortunately, more countries including the U.S., UK and EU countries are introducing legislation where neurodiversity is becoming a protected characteristic.

Masking...

is when someone with ADHD, for example, presents in a way that makes them seem like they are not living with the disorder. It's also called "impression management

Changing attitudes to neurodiversity in the workplace

We live in a richly diverse world. While many differences are visible, not all are. This includes the code and architecture of our brains.

In many cases, you would have no idea a colleague is neurodiverse. Similarly, to any other group of people, this characteristic can bring no barriers to success for the employee or employer.

Without knowing, many successful organizations owe some of their successes to employees with neurodivergent perspectives. These people can be hugely powerful assets, particularly in decision-making, product or service innovation, or in tasks where hyperfocus is an asset, for example.

When it comes to change, the tendency to speak plainly, honestly and often without social restrictions of conventional norms, hierarchy or bias can be hugely beneficial. By bringing a new perspective, others can be opened to thinking differently, resulting in significant competitive advantages for the business.

Many of the innovations we now take for granted including Windows software, iPhones, the cracking of the Enigma Code, gravity and the simple, affordable car, for example, are the work of people, now influencers, who were not constrained in their thinking but neurodivergent.

Most neurodiverse individuals don’t view their condition as a disability

Many are wired to think out of the box and have skills that are essential for digital success according to Gartner’s study, Why you need neurodiverse talent. For example, people with ADHD can have exceptional focus and problem-solving abilities. Similarly, autistic people can be meticulous and have higher analytical thinking.

In fact, there is no such thing as a “normal” brain. Different ways of thinking result from a range of circumstances beyond a brain’s wiring including academic education, life experiences and social conditioning.

Neurodivergent skills and the digital economy

The future of work is dependent on many of the skills neurodiverse people typically have. These include logical thinking, understanding rules and sequences, numeracy, computing skills, visual and independent thinking, as well as being detailed and focus oriented.

This makes them ideal candidates for roles in cloud computing, IT security, AI and many other roles in IT.

“Problem solving, creativity and imagination will be in high demand with the rise of AI (artificial intelligence) and automation. We should stop trying to get all children to think the same way. We should support and celebrate all types of neurodiversity and encourage children’s imagination, creativity and problem solving — the skills of the future.”

Richard Branson
founder of the Virgin Group

Source: CNBC
Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson attributes his success to dyslexia and ADHD his “superpowers.”

Positive attributes of ADHD

These can include hyperfocus, resilience, creativity, conversational skills, spontaneity and energy. Many people view these attributes as “superpowers” because we can hone them to our advantage. People with ADHD can often also bring a unique perspective that others may find interesting and valuable.

Personal experiences of ADHD

Note the change of person here to “we” and “our” and the change to a specific focus on ADHD. We, the authors of this blog and colleagues at Alight, were both diagnosed with ADD/ADHD recently.

Throughout our educations and careers, we have had to rely on coping mechanisms. Coping, or surviving, is not an ideal way to live.

Nor was knowing something was amiss, but not being able to pin it down to anything concrete. In fact, in Peter’s case, the lack of diagnosis and understanding contributed to a severe case of burnout, from which he has thankfully since recovered.

Why the “H” in ADHD is misleading

The symptoms of ADHD vary by individual and by sub-type: inattentive, hyperactive or combined. Changes in hormones can also affect severity of symptoms at different life stages.

The H (hyperactivity) is often presumed to be physical. For many, it’s mental, a “racing mind” – this can be distressing and lead to diagnosis of depression or anxiety, without detecting or acknowledging the underlying ADHD, leaving it untreated and the problem persistent.

Many adults with ADHD are plagued by feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted.

Psychological distress, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, chronic stress and ADHD burnout are common.

Many feel their lives are out of control or in chaos and daily tasks may seem impossibly huge. Despite that, as you can see from the examples, people can make a success of it, despite the disadvantages they face.

There is no gender bias

There is a common misconception that ADHD is a diagnosis for hyper boys. It’s not. ADHD in adults is very real and occurs in women too. Many neurodivergent women are not diagnosed until adulthood, and this can impact them at work and career advancement. The most common misdiagnosis for a woman with ADHD is depression.

“Many neurodivergent women are not diagnosed until adulthood, and this can impact them at work.”

Anna Quintal
The Brain Charity’s Employer Relationship Officer

Why an ADHD diagnosis can be a blessing in disguise

A correct diagnosis, if nothing more, is a relief. So much suddenly falls into place.

It’s for this reason we have both chosen to talk about living and working well with ADHD during ADHD Awareness Month 2022, an international awareness initiative. Do our part to stamp out the stigma and stand up in the face of discrimination.

The goal of an ADHD diagnosis and treatment is to help you be more effective in your day-to-day life and reduce the extent to which your untreated condition impacts you. Treatments can be highly effective.

Can you tell if someone has ADHD?

A huge barrier to diagnosis is a misunderstanding of what ADHD is and how people with it present themselves. In many cases there are no obvious signs.

We discovered that each other lives with ADHD during a work conversation about a joint project we were working on. Both skirting around the topic, we touched upon neurodiversity and then couldn’t stop.

Inclusion is a priority at Alight

As employees of Alight, we are incredibly fortunate. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is top of the corporate agenda.

We are encouraged to set up a community of interest groups (a group of colleagues who live and work with a disability or have family members who do) to meet regularly to learn, share and breathe a sigh of relief that we’re not alone. It can be an incredibly lonely journey if you think you are not supported.

At Alight, we have the Able@Alight network. Set up by employees for employees, the group has a focus on all disabilities including neurodivergence. It has been incredibly active and influential for colleagues and their families.

We are both blessed to have incredible line managers. People who are interested in us as individuals. Colleagues we can be honest and open with and vice versa about how ADHD affects us. This has allowed us to put work processes in place that ensure targets and objectives are met.

It is thanks to my manager that I (Caroline) had the confidence to go ahead with my diagnosis. For this I will always be grateful. It continues to be life changing.

Is it worth getting an ADHD diagnosis?

Getting an accurate diagnosis enables you to find and start an effective treatment plan, which we vouch can be life changing.

As a point of interest, although there is an environmental factor at play in developing ADHD, there is strong evidence for a genetic link too. Research shows that parents and siblings of someone with ADHD are more likely to have ADHD themselves. If you think you or someone you know might have ADHD there are many points of help in each country.

Your doctor/general practitioner is a good starting place. There are also many excellent resources online to get you heading in the right direction.

We also agree that talking, sharing and even laughing about our lives and experiences with ADHD is highly valuable. We are now great friends and confidants as the result of a chance conversation and having the bravery to talk openly about it!

Caroline Gartsang (US)
Caroline Gartsang (US)
By Caroline Gartsang

Caroline is part of the global content strategy team. She researches and writes about challenges and opportunities relating to the workforce and workplace. These include pay, wellbeing, DE&I and health and wealth benefits.

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