Authors: Casey Langley and Elysca Fernandes
Mental health awareness:
Mental Health America’s (MHA) 2023 Mental Health Awareness month theme is “Look Around, Look Within,” which invites individuals to consider how all aspects of one’s environment impact their mental health. While 96% of employers report offering mental wellbeing programs, only 16% of employees report feeling supported by these programs (McKinsey, 2021).
The prevalence of mental health conditions is alarmingly high – MHA reports 46% of Americans will meet the criteria of a diagnosable mental health condition sometime in their life, and in Canada, by the age of 40, 50% of Canadians will have (or have had) a mental illness (CAMH, 2021). While organizations have implemented wellbeing programs, the stigma about mental health prevails. In one study, 75% of individuals said they would be reluctant to disclose a mental illness to an employer or co-worker and would be three times less likely to disclose a mental illness than a physical one (CAMH, 2021).
There’s no better time than now to recognize the connection between mental health and neurodiversity, reduce stigma, and create a way forward through inclusive design.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity refers to a range of neurological differences encompassing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), developmental or learning disorders including dyslexia and dyspraxia, Tourette’s syndrome, sensory processing disorders, and more. Folks with these neurological differences are often referred to as being neurodiverse. Recent studies estimate that 15-20% of the global population is neurodiverse, and that neurodivergence impacts their everyday lives to varying degrees (National Cancer Institute).
The concept of neurodiversity is a marked shift away from language rooted in medical models that focuses on the need for diagnoses and medical interventions. The shift recognizes neurological differences as normal variations of the human brain that exist on a continuum.
Mental health conditions are impacted by a mix of psychological, genetic, social, and environmental factors, differentiating them from neurological differences. However, neurodiversity and mental health conditions often co-occur, leading to additional stigma. Approximately two-thirds of people with ADHD and 54-70% of people with Autism have one or more co-occurring mental health conditions (CHADD, Autism Speaks, 2017).
Neurodiversity and inclusion:
While many organizations offer programs and accommodations on an individual basis, the onus falls on the individual to overcome the barriers of accessing a diagnosis, then risking disclosing it. This approach fails to account for the stigma, whether felt or anticipated, around both mental health and neurodivergence disclosure. In a report on neurodivergence, 40% of individuals indicated being negatively impacted in their role by their neurodivergence, and 32% reported they had not been able to disclose their neurodivergence to their organizations (HR Magazine, 2023).
When we instead focus on neuro-inclusion – creating an environment where culture, workspace, and practices are inclusive of neurological differences – we provide a forum to reduce stigma.
Neurodiversity and neuro-inclusion as concepts help reframe and de-stigmatize neurological differences in workplaces, because they move the focus from the individual to how we design our environment. Many neuro-inclusive practices also benefit employees who are not neurodiverse. It does not replace the need for individual accommodation, but it can mitigate the burden on individuals to disclose and create an environment that makes voluntary self-disclosure safer.
Inclusive design offers an impactful way forward for organizations to embed inclusion into their culture and mobilize inclusion efforts.
In addition to building an environment that makes voluntary self-disclosure safe and creates avenues for meaningful consultation with neurodiverse employees, organizations can benefit from a range of resources designed by neurodiverse individuals and experts. Neurodiverse conditions commonly impact:
- Communication – social situations may be experienced differently, and standard communication tactics including figures of speech, body language, ambiguous language, etc. may be challenging for neurodivergent folks.
- Executive functioning –differences in cognitive processes including planning, organization, and behavioral regulation can impact time management, decision making and problem solving, and regulation in social or work situations.
- Working memory – differences in the ability to hold information in one’s mind for a short period of time such as memorizing a string of information to complete a task may be challenging for those who are neurodiverse.
- Sensory sensitivities –sensory stimuli may be experienced differently, such as being hyper-sensitive to noise, light, touch, taste, or smell. This may include sensory overload or overstimulation in office environments with bright lights, crowds, strong smells, and more.
Solving for inclusion & extending solutions to all:
Creating work environments and programs that are designed intentionally for variances in executive functioning, communication, working memory, and sensory sensitives goes a long way in improving the day-to-day experience of neurodiverse employees without needing to “mask” their condition or self-disclose.
Recognizing these variations allows organizations to adapt their HR, leadership, and work practices to be more inclusive along these categories.
Neurodiversity Hub and LaTrobe’s infographics on each of these areas provide tips for employers including simple adjustments and tactics such as:
- Providing clear communication about things such as timelines and requirements, and providing tools and support for time-management and task management.
- Communicating information in multiple formats including visual, written, and audio.
- Adapting face-to-face interviews to incorporate more technical skills assessments or other forms of pre-employment testing required for the job.
- Building awareness of neurodiversity in workplaces and intentionally committing to supporting neurodiverse employees.
- Being accommodating of and providing space without judgment for differences in body language and eye-contact and not drawing attention or judgment of stimming.
- Setting routines or checklists for common tasks instead of relying on memory.
- Providing low sound or lighting spaces (e.g. dark rooms), tinted glasses, and sensory simulating objects like fidget toys.
In line with inclusive design, extend these solutions to ALL individuals – this way those with neurodiverse conditions, whether or not they choose to disclose, permanent lifelong conditions (e.g. ASD), acquired conditions (e.g. neurological impact post-brain injury from an accident), variances due to mental health conditions (e.g. mood disorders like anxiety and depression), and more can all benefit.
Ready to have better conversations? See McLean & Company’s related resources below and reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about our research and services.
- Create a Holistic Employee Wellbeing Program
- Embed Inclusion into the Organization's Culture
- Introduction to Psychological Safety for HR
- Guide to Using Self-Identification Questions Respectfully in HR
ADHD Weekly. Co-occurring Mental Health Conditions are common.
Armstrong, Thomas. “The Myth of the Normal Brain: Embracing Neurodiversity.” AMA Journal of Ethics, 2015.
“Autism and Health: A Special Report by Autism Speaks.” Autism Speaks, 2017. Web. Accessed April 2023.
Barnard, Dominic. “HR Lacks Training to Help Struggling Neurodivergent Staff.” HR Magazine. 10 Mar. 2023. Web. Accessed March 2023.
Disabled World. “What is Neurodiversity, Neurodivergent, Neurotypical.” Disabled World, November 2022. Web. Accessed March 2023.
Holmes, Kat. “Inclusive: A Design Toolkit.” 2016. Web.
“Mental Health Awareness Month – May 2023.” National Today. 01 May 2021. Web. Accessed March 2023.
“Mental Illness and Addiction: Facts and Statistics.” CAMH, 2021. Web. Accessed April 2023.
“Neurodiversity.” National Cancer Institute. 25 April 2022. Web. Accessed Mar 2023.
Neurodiversity Hub. “Resources for employers.” Neurodiversityhub.org, n.d.
Segel, Liz Hilton. “The priority for workplaces in the new normal? Wellbeing.” McKinsey & Company, 13 Jan. 2021. Web. Accessed March 2023.