The Academic Landscape of Neurodiversity in the Workplace: A deep dive with Jo Yarker


January 18, 2024

This blog is inspired by our chat with workplace health champion Jo Yarker on the Workplace Geeks podcast. Have a listen.

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We recently wrote about our conversation with Josh Artus about his “Designing for Neurodiversity” report. A powerful account on the importance of the topic that dispelled myths and introduced a very human centric approach. To follow that up we spoke with Jo Yarker about a much more academic study into the impact of measures that aimed to improve work experiences for those that identified as neurodivergent.

Jo, an occupational psychologist specialising in health and well-being at work, conducted a systematic literature review on the topic of "Physical workplace adjustments to support neurodivergent workers". The idea being to conduct an objective review of existing literature on physical workplace adjustments for neurodivergent individuals, focusing on their impact on occupational longevity, performance and health and well-being.

What is a systematic literature review you say? Well…

Discussing the systematic review, Jo outlines the rigorous process involved in selecting relevant studies. The review began with a broad search strategy, which then went through sorting with specific inclusion and exclusion criteria. The objective was to identify the most important workplace adjustments for neurodivergent individuals and understand how these adjustments impact their ability to stay and thrive at work.

Jo highlights that out of 319 studies initially identified, only 20 made the final cut for consideration, with study designs including quantitative, mixed methods, and qualitative studies. The findings? Well, there wasn’t much that could be considered conclusive when it came to interventions that demonstrably have a positive outcome for neurodivergent individuals.

Why is that? Jo identified several reasons:

Methodological Weakness

Jo acknowledges that the research on interventions for neurodiversity is generally not well developed and is methodologically weak. She notes, "our results indicate that the research is generally not well developed and is methodologically weak", highlighting concerns about the overall quality and robustness of studies in this field.

Focus on Indicative Effects

The study findings indicate that the existing research is confined to offering indicative effects. This suggests that while some studies may provide insights and suggestions, they may not provide conclusive evidence regarding the effectiveness of interventions for neurodivergent individuals in the workplace.

Qualitative Nature of Studies

Jo points out that many of the studies in this area are qualitative. While qualitative research provides valuable insights into experiences, it may lack the ability to offer definitive evidence. Jo states, “we only have opinion, and stories of what is working rather than triangulated data of what is working and who it’s working for.”

Complexity of Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity itself is a complex concept, with individuals having varied and unique profiles. This complexity makes it challenging to design standardised interventions that work universally. “So, what might be an appropriate work adjustment for one individual with autism is absolutely not the case for another, everybody is completely different and has a unique spiky profile that we might need to adjust to."

Lag in Academic Research

Jo mentions a lag between academic research and practical implementation. This gap can limit the availability of robust academic evidence supporting the effectiveness of interventions. Jo states, "often academia and research are lagging practice."

A central theme of the Workplace Geeks podcast is to bridge the gap between academia and practice and Jo thinks that is critical in the work on neurodiversity and calls for improved research methodologies, collaboration and data collection. "So it's really thinking about what we need to do is help people understand how to collect data better and more systematically in real-world settings."

Reflecting on both Josh and Jo’s work, where does that leave us on the topic of neurodiversity?

Both conversations emphasized the need for a holistic approach that goes beyond physical space to consider social adjustments, management perspectives and organisational support. It highlighted that a comprehensive understanding of neurodiversity requires recognising its impact on employment, health and overall happiness outcomes. They underscored the need for empathy, continuous learning and open-mindedness, urging individuals to resist dismissiveness and be receptive to evolving perspectives.

But in order to push things forward, as Jo’s work highlighted, it’s about gathering the evidence we need to make good decisions going forward, overcoming some of the challenges highlighted and finding a way for academic and practice to work hand-in-glove moving forward. That’s where associations like the BCO may be able to help.

The BCO's commitment to providing free access to the neurodiversity guidance note showcased a dedication to influencing societal change through professional knowledge.

If you’re sat there wondering what to you can do to create more inclusive workplaces then what we’ve learnt from Josh and Jo is that you need to take a holistic approach that goes beyond physical space. Recognise the importance of social architecture, management practices and organisational support in creating an inclusive environment for neurodivergent individuals. Be mindful of language and its impact on perceptions of neurodiversity. Use inclusive and respectful terminology that fosters understanding and minimizes stigma. Understand the nuances of identification and labelling, acknowledging the power dynamics involved. But ultimately cultivate empathy and open dialogue. Recognise that discussing neurodiversity may be challenging, but creating a safe space for conversation is crucial. Be open to different perspectives and experiences, encouraging an atmosphere that promotes understanding.

Check out Jo’s Affinity Health at Work consultancy and have a read of the paper we discussed.

Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash

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