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Safe Space #17 – How do I support my neurodivergent team member?

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Welcome to the Safe Space – where managers can share their issues, and gain advice from top learning & development consultants.

Here at =mc we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this regular feature, we share some of those challenges, and our advice, for dealing with them.

This month our team are joined by guest blogger Lekshmi Baburajan. Lekshmi is an Learning and Organisational Development consultant who is neurodivergent and lives with Dyslexia. She is passionate that neurological differences are not seen as deficits; instead, recognised and respected as any other ways in which people differ. She supports organisations that want to expand their awareness of neurodiversity, understand the access to work process and help build neuro-inclusive cultures that welcome everyone.

Lekshmi has a background in the Not-for-Profit sector within Learning and Organisational Development and is both a freelance and Associate consultant with Roxburgh HR. She holds postgraduate qualifications in Human Resource Development and Organisational Design and Development. Lekshmi is a qualified NLP Practitioner and a Practitioner in Brain and Behaviour Change using applied neuroscience. She is currently working towards an International Coaching Federation accreditation.

The issue this month comes from a manager who wants to support a team member but has a specific worry about getting it right: managing someone who has declared that they are neuro-divergent.

What is the issue?

Hello =mc, really hoping you can help me. I work for a small charity in the Midlands. We provide housing and associated support to vulnerable adults with learning difficulties. Our work can be demanding and intense. I work in a support team, providing events and activities. The work is fun, innovative, important and at times very busy. I’m really fortunate that last year I was able to make the case that I needed to expand my team – and have someone to help me (it was just me before). I’m really pleased with the person we have hired, she is excellent. She is lively, enthusiastic, has great ideas and really cares about our community. She has been in post for about three months, and we just passed her probation. At that meeting she told me that she has ADHD and didn’t want to flag that before her probation had passed. I’m a little disappointed that she felt that way – and wish I’d known sooner. That said, I’m not quite sure what to do with this information. We don’t have an HR team, and whilst I have managed people before, I’ve never come across this before. I haven’t a clue what this means in terms of how I should now manage her and her work. Can you help me?

What Lekshmi says:

I can empathise; the challenge for most neurodivergent employees is determining whether their workplace is a safe space for disclosure. Often the worry is whether their specific diagnosis will be perceived negatively. Whilst your charity supports adults with learning disabilities and may, in fact, be a safe space, your employee may have less positive past experiences about disclosing her ADHD at work. Often this happens because of a lack of understanding and awareness of neurodivergent conditions and what managers, and employers can do to support them.

Whilst my own dyslexia diagnosis gave me answers to questions about why I perceived and processed things differently, I was left with a label that came with a range of assumptions and judgements about my capability and performance at work. In the past, potential employers have asked me how my dyslexia could impact my ability to do a job which is admin heavy, detail-orientated or requires quality checking of content. My response was to reassure them by highlighting the strategies I had developed and cultivated to ensure accuracy in my work. Still, the experiences made me decide early on in my career not to disclose. I wanted to eliminate conversations about my condition’s impact on my abilities and instead demonstrate that I could do the job.

You mentioned that your charity has no HR team. Consider whether the current recruitment and onboarding processes allow employees to highlight their neurodivergence. It may be helpful to get some external HR support on this. You also mentioned your charity is small and, at times, very busy, so I wonder how one-to-ones are typically managed and whether they tend to focus on the work to be done rather than allow time for a quality check-in and conversation. If either is the case, the probation meeting might have seemed like the most appropriate time for your employee to raise her ADHD. So, whilst I can appreciate your disappointment, there may be multiple reasons for her not telling you sooner.

You also mentioned that you have never come across this before and don’t know what it means in terms of how to manage her and her work. Here is a brief overview to help you understand a bit more: ADHD arises from atypical development; its symptoms can be grouped into two types of challenges that people face: firstly, difficulty with attention, such as concentrating and focusing, and secondly, impulsiveness and hyperactivity. It’s important to note that people with ADHD can concentrate when they are interested in what they are doing; however, they may have difficulty sustaining and regulating attention on tasks that are found to be routine or boring. The other side of this is hyper focus; many ADHD individuals experience intense moments of concentration, where they are completely absorbed in activities and tasks that interest them.

In adults, ADHD symptoms can be far more subtle than in children making it harder to diagnose and get help. Whilst hyperactivity tends to decrease in adults; difficulty with attention tends to remain a challenge as the pressures of adult life increase.

In the absence of HR, you also need to be aware of the legal context: the Equality Act 2010 is an important consideration; it brings protections to a disabled person in employment or seeking work. Not all neurodivergent people will consider themselves disabled; however, it is important to recognise that neurodivergent conditions like ADHD are likely to meet the legal definition of disability under the Act if it has a “substantial” and “long term” negative effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. You are clearly pleased with the decision to hire her, and you referenced her as ‘excellent’, so I suspect she already has some well-developed strategies for managing her ADHD. However, growing research suggests neurodivergent people disproportionately experience work-related stress, which can come from conforming to workplaces with practices that don’t necessarily recognise divergence. You have been made aware of your employee’s ADHD, so there is a duty to consider reasonable adjustments, and a failure to do so is unlawful discrimination. This doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds, you can make many practical adjustments simply by thinking differently about how you can support employees with ADHD in work environments. This is where you as a manager can make a big difference through for example:

  • Using noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs to reduce noise
  • Allocating a quiet space to work from or a desk facing away from busy areas in the office
  • Offering the option to choose when they work from home
  • Encouraging and allowing time to write notes and repeating action points in meetings in order to capture a clear record of tasks
  • Encouraging your employee to use flexibility in how tasks are completed so that they can work in shorter time frames to manage concentration and focus

Access to work is a great resource that can support anyone who is neurodivergent with funding to help them at work. I have used this in the past and can highly recommend the service. It helps individuals and organisations with costs associated with reasonable adjustments such as specialist assistive technology and equipment, one-to-one training and strategy support and even neurodiversity awareness sessions for staff in your charity.

As with any neurodivergent condition, I recommend talking to your employee about how they experience their condition and the impact it has on them. As I mentioned above, your one-to-one meetings are going to be important. Create time and space for them to talk about their ADHD and what support they would like. Whilst it may seem like they are managing well, the reality is that many neurodivergent employees have learnt to “mask” well to fit into societal and work norms. As with anyone, support needs can change, so make time to check in regularly, specifically during busy periods and when there is a lot of change, as tried techniques and strategies may need future support. Also, ensure that she has a clear route to raise any support needs with you by clarifying the ways in which she can reach you as and when she needs to. Your own research can also help to provide you with further suggestions and ideas on what you could consider introducing into the workplace. Flexibility is key; many processes and ways of working can be easily adapted; stay open to changing things where possible and work with your employee to determine the right support for them.

I have added some links and references below; they contain further resources to support you in building your knowledge of neurodiversity and ADHD and exploring workplace adjustments.

What Yvette says:

You have some great ideas and suggestions from Lekshmi above. I would also add that managing someone who has declared a disability or a difference of any kind shouldn’t be something to be scared of. Knowing that the person you manage needs you to adapt your approach is incredibly valuable. In fact, we advocate for adapting your approach for every person you manage – after all every human is different and we all have different needs. Ask yourself the following questions: what do I know about how this person likes to work and what they find uncomfortable? What do I need them to deliver? How can I match those two things? Then you can work out where you need to provide instruction, information, direction and detail; and where you need to engage in dialogue, conversation, coaching and caring; and finally where you can back off and leave them to it. These are really useful questions for all managers. The difference in this situation is that you may need to get out of your comfort zone in order to get the best from and be the best for your colleague. And if you don’t know what they need from you, ask them. This may feel daunting, but again a couple of very specific questions can be useful here: what has helped them in the past? You can then work to replicate this. And what has gotten in their way of being successful? Then you can work to remove these barriers. The important factor here is to open up conversation, and really listen to what they are saying. Then you can act on it.

Finally, whilst Lekshmi has provided a great overview, it is really important you do your own research so you can identify other ways to help this person, and others. There are also some great resources available online for this. Thanks to Lekshmi for these recommendations:

What’s next?

If you’d like to explore ways of handling for situations like this, contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to discuss similar challenges and how we might be able to help.

If you’d like to get in touch with Lekshmi directly, find her on LinkedIn.

Finally, if you’re facing a challenge you’d like some advice on in the next issue of the Safe Space, email us on Whilst we can’t promise to publish all the requests we receive, we will offer advice by email as a minimum.

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Yvette Gyles

About Yvette Gyles

Yvette specialises in leadership, personal effectiveness, change and innovation. Before joining =mc, she worked in HR for several years in both the private and charity sector as an HR...