Expanding Workplace Psychological Safety through Neuroinclusion

Building a truly inclusive organization requires multiple initiatives overlapping the many intersecting dimensions of diversity – and matters of the mind are no exception. However, no matter how genuine in their foundation, your organization’s mental health initiatives may regrettably be incomplete.  

My little corner of the equity and inclusion landscape primarily centres around invisible disabilities of the mind, including mental illness and many neurodivergent conditions and challenges. I have written, spoken, and consulted on each category separately; however, in recent years I’ve discovered the great benefit of considering both avenues within the same set of workplace initiatives. 

Let’s begin by uncovering the overlaps in both psychological safety and neuroinclusion: 

What is Neurodiversity? 

As outlined in this March 2023 CCDI Consulting blog entry, neurodiversity refers to the natural variation in human neurocognitive functioning, including differences in learning styles, attention, mood, and socialization.”  The term neurodiversity includes absolutely everyone, and the many ways our brains can work.  

Fifteen to twenty percent of the world’s population have a spectrum of brain characteristics that are different enough from the majority to be categorically disabling. These differences are referred to as neurodivergence, and often cause misunderstandings and challenges in professional settings.  

Some of the most prevalent diagnoses categorized under neurodivergence include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD); however, not all who identify as neurodivergent carry an official diagnosis. Even in Canada, there are still immense financial barriers to accessing diagnostic services, totalling on average between $3000-$5000 for ADHD and Autism. These diagnostic assessments are generally carried out by specialized clinical psychologists, who (unlike psychiatrists) are not covered by our provincial health care.  

As a result, many individuals have been forced to self-diagnose their neurodivergence. While this practice is widely accepted within the greater neurodivergent community, the lack of formal diagnosis can block access to helpful medications or other available support programs – skewing statistics (and thus, research) away from many already-marginalised communities.  

I mention these barriers for two reasons:

  1. To release our dependence on an official diagnosis for someone’s struggles to be legitimised (e.g., to access workplace accommodations) 
  2. To better understand how someone can get all the way into adulthood still not knowing why they are “different” or what to do about it.  

How Does Neurodiversity Play into Psychological Safety? 

In this other March 2023 CCDI Consulting blog entry, a psychologically safe workplace is defined as one where “employees feel secure in expressing their thoughts and feelings, even if they differ from those of their colleagues or superiors.” When nurtured in conjunction with physical safety, employees who feel psychologically safe at work are more likely to be emotionally engaged, more productive, bravely innovative, and fiercely committed to their employing organization.  

Psychological safety is an important component in establishing workplace culture and preserving morale, incorporating crucial elements of trust, respect, and continued learning to existing diversity and belonging initiatives. These programs often include workplace mental wellness assets, such as employee assistance programs (EAPs) for individualized guidance, employee-led resource groups, and hosting internal events for key awareness days. 

While these efforts are a wonderful addition, they often leave the burden of understanding on the individual – rather than influencing systemic change within the organization. This is a key difference between workplace wellness programs and strategic inclusion initiatives. In order to truly foster a culture of safety and belonging, the onus is on employers to set the stage.  

Frightening Figures 

Neurodivergent individuals have historically (and in many cases, still currently) been subjected to behavioural modification efforts and repeated punishments simply for perceiving their environment differently or communicating in a way that is different than the neurotypical recipient is familiar. Because of this, many have learned social survival skills such as masking their natural tendencies or mirroring those around them, pretending to be someone else to appear neurotypical. Such activity, when repeated over years and decades, can have a dangerously significant effect on the person’s self-worth, deteriorating their mental health along the way. And the results can be devastating.  

In this recent meta-analysis of autistic adults without co-occurring intellectual disabilities, it was found that late-diagnosed adults on the autism spectrum were a whopping nine times more likely than the general population to experience suicidal ideations, with 35% of those studied having also made a specific plan or an actual attempt to prematurely end their lives. This unfortunate correlation is repeated in studies of people with ADHD, learning disabilities like dyslexia, and other neurodivergent conditions.  

Readers of this blog are no doubt aware of the powerful impact intersectionality has on a person’s life experience. If neurodivergent adults are already at a nine times higher risk of suicide, adding in additional societal barriers from gender expression, racial presentation, or other dimensions of diversity could only serve to complicate the situation.  

Workplace inclusion, diversity, equity and inclusion programs are of crucial importance, and incorporating initiatives to ensure flexibility for all neurotypes could truly save lives. 

A Bold & Bright Future  

Tailoring your workplace communications, policies, and hiring practices for neuroinclusion is an excellent first step towards reducing the risk of suicide or other mental health struggles for your employees. Building on your existing inclusion and mental wellness initiatives, optimizing for neuroinclusion can benefit not only your neurodivergent employees, but your traditionally neurotypical ones as well.  

There are so many benefits to your entire workforce when all employees feel safe to show up as their authentic selves at work. Neurodiverse work teams (made up of both neurotypical and neurodivergent professionals) have been shown to be 30 per cent more productivethan strictly neurotypical teams, and make fewer errors overall. This presents an incredible opportunity to expand your organization’s output potential without increasing staffing costs. Diverse perceptions and perspectives can breed innovative problem-solving, enhanced attention to detail, increased adaptability, and improved collaboration between teams.  

Every employer wants the best performance from their employees, and optimizing for both neuroinclusion and psychological safety can ensure your people feel valued and secure to take inventive risks within their roles. Your entire workforce can benefit from the increased morale, defined culture, improved mental health, and higher retention that can result from working within a truly inclusive, abundantly safe professional environment.  

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