How SMEs can ensure neurodiverse employees thrive

By Sandi Wassmer, below, CEO, The Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion

Many SMEs believe that they don’t have the resources to adequately support neurodiverse employees, that it’s way too complicated and expensive. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As a CEO with ADHD, who didn’t get diagnosed until well into her working life, I have navigated the working world as both a stressed out, overwhelmed and miserable neurotypical fake, and a happy, authentic and productive leader with ADHD. I certainly know which I prefer. The difference? Two-way, open, non-judgmental communication.


Begin with inclusion

Having an inclusive culture, with diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion embedded into all aspects of the organisation is a great place to start. From culture and strategy to policies and ways of working, DEI leadership should be at all levels within the organisation. It’s also vital that everyone has a true sense of belonging and feels free to respectfully be who they are without fear of judgment or recrimination.

Treat people like the individuals they are

All human beings are individuals and need to be treated as such. Just as no two neurotypical employees have the same needs or abilities, the same goes for neurodiverse people. Get to know the individual, understand their strengths, areas for development and the things that they will need to be successful.

Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions

There are a lot of misapprehensions about neurodiverse people’s skills and abilities. In an inclusive culture, where diversity of thought, views and approaches are the norm. Organisations should embrace the incredible strengths and talents that neurodiverse people bring, such as skills mastery, pattern recognition, outside-the-box thinking, laser focus, resilience and no-nonsense honesty.

Be clear, straightforward and unambiguous

One of the biggest challenges for neurodiverse people is communication. So much communication in the workplace can be unclear and ambiguous, leaving people wondering what the expectations of them are. The solution is simple and is good for absolutely everyone: be clear and concise, not vague and ambiguous. Make sure that deadlines are agreed upon, expectations understood, and policies and processes are clearly articulated. Check-in with the individual to ensure that they have everything they need to get on with their jobs.

Decrease distraction, increase headspace

Many neurodiverse people find it difficult to concentrate in busy offices. For me, either having a quiet space to take a few moments of reflection or using noise-cancelling headphones make a huge difference.

Take regular breaks to re-energise

Although we all know that it’s vital to take regular breaks, so many of us do not do this, especially when working from home. For many neurodiverse people, who may have a tendency to uber focus, it’s incredibly important to remember to pause throughout the day.

Support flexible working

Flexible working, whether this be working different hours or in a different location, is good for both neurodiverse and neurotypical employees, and legislation supports it. Many neurodiverse people also have differences in their sleep and circadian rhythms, so allowing them to work at times when they are most productive and in locations where distractions are minimised can lead to hugely increased productivity.

Take care of employee well-being and mental health

Many neurodiverse people experience mental health challenges, often because they have been left with feelings of not being good enough, having been shamed, blamed, judged and generally made to feel like they don’t belong. They have spent far too much time trying to fit into a neurotypical world. Of course, supporting employee mental health and well-being in the workplace is a well-established practice. However, it’s essential to ensure that your environment fosters a sense of belonging, that the right supports are in place for employee well-being and mental health, and that neurodiverse people are not expected to “fit in” to a non-existent homogenous culture. This doesn’t need to be costly, support such as weekly well-being checks as part of one-to-ones and employee assistance programmes (EAP) are a great place to lay foundations.

Prospective and existing employees nowadays are not just looking for a remuneration package when they consider working for or staying at an organisation. Culture, well-being and belonging are now equally important, and that’s great news for SMEs who historically have had to compete with larger companies for remuneration alone. With an estimated 15% to 20% of people in the UK being neurodiverse, it’s likely that you already employ neurodiverse people. If you don’t, you’re missing out on a massive talent pool.

As most employers are experiencing challenges attracting, retaining, and progressing talent, ensuring that neurodiverse people have the same career opportunities as neurotypical people is just good business sense for SMEs.