Embracing Neurodiversity in the Workplace

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Elaine: Hello, and welcome to Health and Safety To Go, a podcast broadcasting from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, Ontario.

Promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace can help to create a psychologically safe and nurturing work environment where all workers feel respected and valued. But sometimes stigma, a lack of awareness, and a lack of appropriate infrastructure, can make people with neurodevelopmental differences feel excluded. This can affect their ability to work to their full potential and it can also impact their mental health.

Today, we're joined by Dr. Marie-Hélène Pelletier who has more than 20 years experience as a psychologist and a senior business leader. Dr. Pelletier is also the author of The Resilience Plan: A Strategic Approach to Optimizing Your Work Performance and Mental Health. She'll share more about neurodiversity and how employers can create neuroinclusive workplaces that support individual differences and needs.

Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Pelletier.

Marie-Hélène Pelletier : Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Elaine: To start, can you explain what neurodiversity is and what kind of barriers people who are neurodivergent might face at work?

Marie-Hélène Pelletier : Yes. It is a great question, right? because we hear the term quite a bit. And what does it mean? So first the term was actually created by an Australian sociologist  in the 1990s and it's basically just referred to the fact that there is diversity in how we are neurologically wired. So, the image that she was using is the same with biodiversity, there is diversity in nature the same way there is diversity in how we're wired. So, these differences are not necessarily problems. And what comes with this definition is that neurodiversity is not a medical term. It is not a diagnosis either. It just refers to brains being differently wired.

Okay, now, one of the images that often people who write about neurodiversity and do research in this this area will use is it's similar to being left-handed or right-handed. And imagine if an entire physical environment is designed for people who are right-handed, and you and I are left-handed. It is very easy for us to, well, number one, we have to always look at how things are set up. Do I need to adjust? And over time the more this happens the more demanding it can be right, because now you're having to adjust all the time. It could be draining emotionally. If you have to explain constantly, why is it that you're functioning this way and not that other way which you need in order to function optimally? And so, it can get to a point where it's actually very demanding. It's creating another layer of barriers to bringing our best contributions at work.

Elaine: And how do these barriers impact a worker's mental health?

Marie-Hélène Pelletier : Right! Well, if we think about the definition of mental health, which is our ability to bring our best contributions, both in our learning or at work, and cope with the daily stresses of life, then, if there are these additional demands created by this challenge in this particular context, then that means we're going to be more taxed. All right, we have we're dealing with more demands. And so that can become a challenge in itself, it can lead to even more challenges. And for some people it will even impact their identity. I’m working with someone right now who recently as we were having a conversation about other things that this particular individual is dealing with but they said “I'm a weirdo”, and I was thinking, okay well, and we talked about this a bit longer, but you can imagine how them labeling themselves that way, in this case it was not  seen positively by this person, was really getting to who they are as an individual. So, a fairly significant impact.

Elaine: What are some common types of neurodivergence and how do they represent as strengths in the workplace?

Marie-Hélène Pelletier : Another great question because as we're looking at the research on neurodiversity different studies will have different, will include different diagnosis in their particular  group of individuals that their studying,  that they define as neurodiverse. And so, most of the time, in most of the studies, they will be including people with diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. They will include autism spectrum disorder, dyscalculia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette's Syndrome, and sometimes others, but these are the ones that most of the time will be included in in that definition. But that's important even to note because that means it impacts the prevalence, right, that if we're asking well, so how prevalent is neurodiversity in our workplaces? For example, well, some studies will see 10%, 15%, 20%, it depends a bit but it's safe to say that it's probably around 15. And not only there is a sort of a different inclusion of different diagnosis in in this but there's also the fact that some individuals are not diagnosed even though they have one of those neurodiverse traits. Some people are misdiagnosed, and some people are diagnosed but do not talk about it. And so therefore that's these are examples of reasons why there is diversity in information even about this. But in terms of and the second part of your question, the strengths, and I love that question and I would say we want to think about strengths here the same way we think about strengths in general, right? When we're looking at strengths, we’re not saying just the strengths of, say, the millennials, or you know, a certain group, a certain generation, or a certain culture. Certainly yes, they share some traits. But within a certain group, there's always individual variations. So, we'll want to keep that lens even here. That being said, yes, there are strengths that have been observed, things like the inability to persevere, be even more persistent,  for certain tasks. Tolerate repetitive tasks, even better having an intense ability to focus or at times being at way more creative than non-neurodiverse individuals.

So that means that in some roles sometimes neuro individuals will often actually, and have been found to, perform faster and better than a neurotypicals.

Elaine: That's interesting. What are some practical steps that employers can take to make workplaces more neurodiversity friendly?

Marie-Hélène Pelletier : Yes! So, stepping back and I will talk about practical things in a second, just before I go on with this, I would say there are lots of parallels with how we approached  mental health a few years ago and still do to this day. Where the more we can be, we can step back and have a planful, a strategic, approach to neurodiversity, the better. That's what works well for mental health because then it allows us to look at what resources do we have, what are our goals given limited resources? Where will we invest next?

Right? So, the more we can have that kind of approach here, as employers, the better.

That being said, if we get one step more specific, we will want to include actions focused on education, right? Because in the absence of good information humans will make assumptions. If we make assumptions, we're going to be in stereotypes and that's probably not going to be helpful to anyone. So, education is a good pillar to consider, and another good one is individualization. So yes, we're wanting to support say neurodiversity and potentially subtypes like autism or ADHD for example, and we want to keep in mind that as many authors write, you've met one say, autistic individual, you've met one autistic individual.

So, there is a large degree of individual characteristics that we want to make sure we keep in mind. We'll want to keep in mind accommodations. How can we create an environment where maybe lights can be better, controlled sounds can be better controlled? And these are just some examples, but the more we can have that flexibility the better. And just generally supporting neurodiversity better. For example, how are we posting for roles? Are we including in every single posting a sentence that says must love teamwork, which even if they are absolutely able to work great within a team, they may not be. A person who identifies as neurodiverse may not see this as their main trait and therefore may never apply. Right? So, these are some examples.

Elaine: And how can co-workers be good allies to their colleagues who are neurodivergent?

Marie-Hélène Pelletier : We want that too. Right? Sometimes within an organization we can easily think that creating positive initiatives to support neurodiversity need to come from the top and from the employer. That's true, it does need to come from there and from all of us. You, me, everyone, today can implement actions that will support all of us. Because you never know! You never know who is neurodiverse. Who has a partner who is, who has a child who is, and so the ways that we talk about it, the ways in which we are inclusive can have a huge impact on our culture including psychologically safe culture.

So, examples! We can all get more information. If you're going to a conference and there is a talk somewhere about neurodiversity, instead of just focusing on the technical things specific to your field, maybe make sure you go. So, you're adding to your comfort to information and comfort. Another action to consider; make sure we're inviting everyone to the table. We're including everyone so that we make extra efforts to in general have diverse teams in as many ways as we can including neural diverse teams. And another action to consider. When you hear someone speak in ways that are particularly respectful of neurodiversity name it, say it! You could say something like, oh, you know, “I'm not myself in that category and just hearing how you speak about it, if I were, I would feel respected and I would feel like I can trust you even more as a colleague because of how you said this, right?

So, touching things like this and of course you can also catch the other  extreme where someone expresses things in a way that would not necessarily feel respectful. If someone who is neurodiverse was around then we don't want necessarily to you know, blame the person who just said this, but you can just rephrase it. You can say the same sentence and say it in a very inclusive way and that brings us back into that culture where we're wanting to support all forms of neurodiversity, of diversity in general, and neurodiversity.

Elaine: Is there anything else you wish to add about why embracing neurodiversity in the workplace is important?

Marie-Hélène Pelletier : Yeah! I think, you know, the more we can think of all of us being neurodiverse, that's probably the lens that will guide choices of words, choices of actions, choices of how we organize ourselves, in a way that is very inclusive. You know, the same way that for mental health a few years ago, the message was one in five will have a mental health problem. The conversation now is much more, “We all have mental health. We may at times have mild challenges, moderate, or more severe, but it includes all of us, right?”

So, the more we can think this way with neurodiversity. So, we're not even thinking in a sort of dichotomy type way, and the more we're including all of us in this conversation the better. And we want to participate in it. So, if you're seeing something on social media, that's good information. add your voice, add a comment, or add a like or contribute to your own increased  levels of information and education. And everyone else around you as well.

Elaine: Dr. Pelletier, thank you again for taking the time to join us on the podcast and for sharing your expertise. At CCOHS we know good things happen when an organization takes steps to foster a mentally healthy workplace, like better worker engagement, morale, satisfaction, retention, and recruitment. When they embrace the value of neurodiversity too, they welcome greater creativity, innovation, productivity, and resilience.

Thanks for listening everybody.