There are many neurodivergent people working in the health sector. In the mental health field, their experiences often make them far more empathetic and understanding with patients which can, in turn, help improve services.
Unfortunately, traditional recruitment processes are often biased towards neurotypical applicants. However, the last few years have seen improvements and commitments from numerous employers, such as the NHS, to improve neurodiversity within the workplace.
Here are some tips and useful considerations for a neurodivergent jobseeker in the mental health sector.
What does ‘neurodivergent’ mean?
Neurodivergent is an umbrella term to describe a range of medically diagnosed conditions including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette’s. These conditions describe differences in how the brain processes information compared to those who are ‘neurotypical’.
It can impact on a range of abilities such as socialising, memory, time-keeping, understanding of language and numbers, impulsiveness and control over the body. It can also cause sensory challenges such as oversensitivity to light, sound or touch. Recent studies estimate that around 15–20% of the population are neurodiverse.
Undoubtedly the biggest decision you will face is whether to disclose your condition.
There is no right or wrong answer to this. There are pros and cons to both and much depends on how confident the organisation, recruiter or supervisor feels in understanding and working with your condition.
If you do disclose, recruiters are obliged by law (Equality Act 2010) to make reasonable adjustments to their processes to ensure you are considered fairly.
Such considerations might include:
Offering a pre-interview period where you can meet your interviewers, the team where you will be working or view the place where you would be working/interviewed
Sharing questions in advance
Using specific questioning in interviews such as referring to your past experience rather than hypothetical situations
Extra time to answer questions
Not negatively assessing a lack of eye contact or unexpected body language
Providing work trials or work interviews based on portfolios instead of a traditional interview.
Employers can only refuse to make these adjustments if:
They can evidence it isn’t practical or possible for them to do so
It would require significant extra resources
It would be ineffective in overcoming or reducing the disadvantage
It would have an adverse impact on the health and safety of colleagues.
You should disclose with at least a week’s notice to give a recruiter enough time to make any adjustments. Detail the specific adjustments that you would find helpful, and why, to avoid measures being put in place that are unnecessary.
Pros of disclosure:
Recruiters will be better able to understand behaviour they might otherwise find strange or concerning such as tics or a lack of eye contact.
You will have to do less ‘masking’ (trying to behave as you think you are expected to) which can be exhausting and distracting.
It can lead to an honest conversation about the realities of the job and adjustments that will help you thrive in the role. Some neurodivergent people can end up in poor performance procedures which could have been avoided if small changes to their working environment had been made.
It can help recruiters and employers have a better understanding of neurodiversity and the strengths it can bring to a team
Cons of disclosure:
Many people will make assumptions and ill-informed judgements about what you can and cannot achieve, often based on ‘myths’. For example, it is often assumed that all people with autism have poor empathy skills.
Some employers may dismiss your application instantly. Research shows employers still do not feel confident employing those with neurodiverse conditions
You may feel a discussion about your condition will overshadow or distract interviewers.
When deciding whether or not to disclose it might be helpful to research your prospective employer using tools such as the NHS Workforce Disability Equality Standard reports, any equality policies on their website or through forums and networks (see the resources section at the end of this article for ideas) to get a better understanding of how they perform when employing neurodiverse staff.
Your recruiter or interviewer may have very little understanding of your condition. It might be useful to prepare a disclosure document that includes some background information about the condition and your specific challenges.
Frame it in a way that highlights your strengths and abilities as well as challenges. Language can be very important here – use phrases such as attention to detail, high levels of concentration, problem solving abilities, precision and accuracy, honesty and directness, detailed specialist knowledge or lateral thinking.
This will help highlight that your challenges are often counterbalanced by strengths and abilities that may exceed neurotypical people and which can be very helpful in a team.
Remember to stipulate who this information should be shared with. If you are successful in your application, you might prefer to tell colleagues yourself rather than have a manager do it.
Access to work
If you do decide to disclose it is worth making your prospective employer aware of the Access to Work funding available to help workers and employers overcome challenges faced by disabled people in the workplace.
The grant is tailored to your needs and capped at £62,900 per year. Some of the changes it could be used for include:
Awareness training for colleagues
Extra capacity to deliver a workplace support plan such as additional supervision, flexible work patterns, providing a mentor or additional time to complete tasks
Purchasing technology such as ‘Brain in Hand’
Creating a designated area for ‘quiet time’ or a designated desk within a hot-desking environment.
Some of these adjustments will benefit everyone in a team which can be a powerful message for recruiters.
Planning is essential for interviews (as it is for most parts of daily life when you are neurodiverse). Research the location, plan your travel and allow yourself plenty of time just in case there are unexpected travel delays.
If you have disclosed, ask for interview questions or tasks in advance so you can prepare and practice. If you have not disclosed then you may need to practice the body language that will be expected such as turning to someone when they are talking, leaning in to show interest and engagement and making appropriate eye-contact that is neither too much nor too little.
Consider recording a video of yourself answering a list of prepared questions. Ask a friend to watch it back with you to give feedback on your body language, tone of voice and answers.
Interviews will often begin with ‘small talk’ which those with autism may find difficult. Prepare what you might say in response to questions or comments about the weather or your journey to the interview.
Remember, while you will be expected to answer such questions, you are not usually expected to ask reciprocal ‘small talk’ questions of the interviewers.
Interviewers can sometimes use vague or implied language that seems unclear. Try rephrasing the question as you understand it and ask: ‘is that what you would like me to tell you?’.
Take a solution focused attitude to your challenges and the adjustments you might need. Highlight examples of how they have proven successful in the past including in different settings or sectors.
Assessment centres or taster days
Assessment centres or taster days can be better for those with neurodiverse conditions as it gives the opportunity to showcase clinical skills and is not so dependent on verbal or social skills.
However, if you have not disclosed, you may also be judged on your ability to have conversations and take part in group discussions – neither contributing too much nor too little.
If you have ADHD consider whether your medication is less effective in the afternoon and how you will manage this. (For more information see article on assessment centres)
Video conferencing interviews
Video conferencing interviews might be easier for some neurodiverse candidates but more challenging for others who need visual cues or struggle with auditory processing. Practice with a friend or a coach and use discreet visual cue cards to help you manage typical questions.
Applying for mental health jobs when you are neurodivergent
Ask questions of the human resources team or recruiter to ensure you are clear what is expected of you on the first day and during the first week. Make sure you write down addresses, the name and phone number of your supervisor and team. Check if the location for the induction is in a different location to your work office.
If you have not disclosed consider and practice the strategies you might need to handle the various challenges you will encounter such as heightened nervous anxiety and sensory overload. Spend some time finding places you may be able to retreat to for short breaks to help you recover.
Don’t be disheartened.
Research shows non neurotypical people face serious challenges in the workplace and NHS statistics prove NHS staff with disabilities are less likely to be appointed from shortlists compared to colleagues.
You are part of the generation that is having to change attitudes and systems which is no easy job.
Contact and learn from other neurodiverse professionals in your sector (see resources section of this article). Build up a peer support network that can also provide insights into the best and worst employers for neurodiverse professionals.
Remember awareness of neurodiversity is growing each year as the numbers diagnosed continue to increase. Those with neurodiverse family members or friends often end up becoming powerful champions within teams and organisations to improve understanding.
References and resources
- Nancy Doyle, Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults, British Medical Bulletin, Volume 135, Issue 1, September 2020, Pages 108–125, https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldaa02
- McLoughlin, D and Doyle, N. Psychological assessment of adults with specific performance difficulties at work. The British Psychological Society. 2017. https://www.bps.org.uk/division-occupational-psychology/neurodiversity-employment
- Half of all leaders and managers would not employ a neurodivergent person. Institute of Leadership and Management. https://www.institutelm.com/resourceLibrary/half-of-all-leaders-and-managers-would-not-employ-a-neurodivergent-person.html
- Workforce Disability Equality Standard: 2020 data analysis report for NHS trusts and foundation trusts https://www.england.nhs.uk/publication/wdes-2020-data-analysis-report/
- Access to work: NHS Toolkit. Diversity and ability. https://diversityandability.com/nhs-toolkit/health-professionals-atw/
- Seeking work – a guide for autistic people. Autism Society. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/employment/seeking-work/autistic-adults
- Royal College of Nursing. Peer support services: Neurodiversity. https://www.rcn.org.uk/Get-Help/Member-support-services/Peer-support-services/Neurodiversity-Guidance/ND-recruitment
- National Autistic Society. Forums: Autism and nursing. https://community.autism.org.uk/f/health-and-wellbeing/6993/autism-and-nursing
- Blair, Jackie Anne. 'I may have been your nurse. Unknown to you ... I also have autism'. Yahoo Life. 2020 https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2020/07/06/autism-nursing
- Seymour, Kristin. “ADHD Helps Me Be a Better Nurse”. Attitude: Inside the ADHD mind. 2019 https://www.additudemag.com/nurses-with-adhd-personal-story/
- Loon, Aschwin V. Nurses with autism spectrum disorder. Nursing with Humour. 2017 https://www.nursingwithhumour.com/2017/10/16/nurses-with-autism-spectrum-disorder/
- Twinley, R et al. Neurodiversity – Together we are all kinds of minds. Royal College of Occupational Therapists: OT News. 2020 https://cris.brighton.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/15347201/Twinley_neurodivergeant_OTs_Original_Text_Anon_Copy.pdf
- Muggleton, J et al. Neurodiversity is not just for those we work with. A group of autistic psychologists write. The Psychologist. British Psychological Society. March 2022 https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-35/march-2022/neurodiversity-not-just-those-we-work