COVID-19 has changed many things we used to take for granted about modern life, from a growing emphasis on mental health to telemedicine. And though the worst of COVID may have passed, its effects are still reverberating.
When it comes to the economy, no COVID-induced change has been more far-reaching than what has been dubbed “The Great Resignation”. According to the federal JOLTS report, Fifty million people quit their jobs in 2022, representing about 30% of the US labor force. If that statistic did not convince you that there is an acute shortage in the labor market, then the fact that unemployment is at a 54-year record low of 3.4% should.
As employers look for solutions to this labor shortage, there has been a renewed interest in the neurodivergent workforce. Neurodivergent individuals are, however, much more than a temporary solution to this transient labor challenge. They represent an untapped talent pool that is ready to be unleashed, and possess little-known advantages that have vast implications.
This article will outline some of the benefits of a neurodivergent workforce as a part of a four-part series in which we will cover some of what you should know about the impending neurodivergent workforce revolution.
Pop culture often depicts certain neurodivergents (esp. Autism) as ultra-intelligent and rational individuals who live for their work, from Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon, to Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. While these portrayals fall dramatically short of accurately representing autism, they do highlight one aspect correctly: autistic people can frequently be dramatically more accomplished and productive than their neurotypical counterparts.
A report by JP Morgan Chase found that neurodivergent employees can be 90 to 140% more productive than their neurotypical peers. Although there is no one reason which completely explains this difference, researchers attribute this in large part to many neurodivergents’ ability to “hyperfocus”. Multiple studies have found that “abnormalities” in the brain of ADHD and Autistic individuals enable them to engross themselves in a single task in ways neurotypical individuals can’t match.
Attention to detail
Not all mistakes are created equal. Some are glaringly obvious such as a spelling error, others are much more subtle. And still, the flagrancy of a mistake is not at all correlated with its consequences. Stories detailing the disastrous consequences of one small error are easy to come by. For that reason many professions highly prize people who are able to pay attention to fine detail.
Neurodivergent individuals often excel in this regard, particularly in identifying details that might elude their neurotypical counterparts. This disparity can be attributed to the distinct neuroanatomy and cognitive architecture of many neurodivergent brains. What appears glaringly obvious to neurodivergents may go completely unnoticed by neurotypicals.
Furthermore, autistic people tend to have a great capacity to process information. This is one of the reasons many autistic people find things like T-shirt tags and background noise annoying. Many neurotypicals literally cannot process these sensory stimuli if they are simultaneously doing something else, but autistic people can - in fact, they can’t help but to process them. When other ‘distractions’ are kept at bay, this unique ability - combined with superior pattern matching abilities across information streams - is a huge advantage.
Creativity is notoriously difficult to quantify, but nonetheless, it should make sense that since neurodivergent people’s brains are wired differently, they tend to produce more unique - creative - output than their neurotypical counterparts. Multiple studies confirm that individuals with Dyslexia and ADHD are more creative than their neurotypical peers (measured through lateral thinking ability). It should not be surprising, then, that some of the most creative and innovative people ever were neurodivergent. The list is long but includes the likes of Edison, Mozart, Picasso, and Sir Richard Branson.
Despite the common belief that Autistic individuals are less creative, multiple studies have shown that although they tend to come up with much fewer novel ideas, the creativity and scope of those ideas is much higher. People like Elon Musk, Albert Einstein, and Michelangelo exemplify the extreme power of creativity within the autistic community.
Neurodivergent individuals have also been observed to leave their jobs less than their neurotypical peers (a statistic that most employers should find especially enticing during The Great Resignation). Numbers, although hard to come by, put neurodivergent retention rates between 90-95%. Lower turnover is not just a number. Training and recruiting new employees is expensive and time-consuming, not to mention a drain on team cohesion and institutional knowledge. Some estimates put the cost of losing an employee at one third of their annual salary, so decreased turnover rates represent a real competitive advantage.
Some challenges we can meet
By now it is evident that neurodivergent workers represent a huge value proposition. But there’s more to it than that, because many of the intractable challenges companies face today can be better solved with a neurodivergent workforce.
Tight Labor Market
For many companies, turnover has become a secondary challenge/extension of the much more pressing issue of the labor shortage. Record low unemployment means a smaller candidate pool. Yet, neurodivergent individuals still find themselves disproportionately outside the workforce. On the whole, the neurodivergent community has a dramatically higher unemployment rate, and certain groups, like autistic college graduates, have unemployment rates up to 85%! Understanding the reasons behind these disparities requires further exploration in future articles.
The existence of a substantial untapped labor pool amid a clear demand for labor suggests a market failure. Embracing a neurodivergent workforce benefits not only individual companies but also the broader economy.
Despite record-high headcounts, companies today often find themselves starved for new ideas. Why is it that with more people than ever working on solving today’s most pressing challenges, innovation is stalling? There is no one reason, but an obvious factor is excessive homogeneity in thinking.
Some companies looked towards diversity to increase their creativity, citing that people that come from varied life experiences bring different perspectives and different ways of thinking. There is merit to that practice, but it is worth noticing that demographic diversity (e.g. race, gender, age) while entirely admirable, facilitates, but does not ensure cognitive diversity, which has been shown to lead to more creative and innovative outcomes.
Without prejudice to the remaining diversity criteria, a neurodivergent workforce (themselves a very demographically diverse cohort) offers a simple and efficient means of seeding cognitively diverse perspectives in the workforce.
Reconciling with Calls for a Higher Purpose
While not directly related to neurodiversity, it is undeniable that both consumers and prospective employees prioritize companies whose values align with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. According to a CNBC survey, 80% of respondents say they want to work for a company that values DEI, and 59% of consumers say that it is important to them that the companies they buy from actively promote diversity and inclusion.
The extent to which a company’s DEI efforts influence the end decisions of buyers and workers is still emerging, but it is undeniable that many companies nowadays emphasize their DEI efforts. From changing the color of their logo for Pride Month to applying for B Corporation status, it is clear that many corporations feel it is in their economic best interest to care about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
While some neurodiversity advocates (such as our own Manuel Gomes) tend to distance themselves from the DEI sphere, believing the business value they deliver to be ample justification for neurodiversity at work, it doesn’t make sense for companies to hide their neurodiversity efforts.
It is undeniable that a natural positive byproduct of a neurodivergent workforce is better brand reception. In short, it makes full economic sense for companies to share their neurodiversity efforts, accreting brand value on top of the bottom-line results reaped by successful neurodiversity initiatives.
The advantages of neurodivergent workers are not widely recognized, and the barriers they face in the workforce extend beyond their relatively unknown benefits. Stigma, bias, and misunderstanding among neurotypicals are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reasons why neurodivergent individuals have trouble reaching their potential in the workforce.
In the next article, we will delve into other challenges companies encounter, and how a neurodivergent workforce can address them. We hope to foster greater understanding and pave the way for a more inclusive and productive future.