Insurance firms can benefit from hiring neurodivergent individuals, but more work needs to be done

Investing in neurodivergent individuals in the workplace is not just the “right thing to do”, it’s also an “absolute commercial opportunity”, said Owen Morris, managing director of personal lines at Aviva UK General Insurance (UKGI).

According to Morris, who was speaking as part of the Unlocking Hidden Assets – Neurodiversity redefined in the modern workplace panel at Dive In Festival last week (28 September 2022), there are “some enormously talented neurodivergent individuals” in the world and the UK insurance industry can be a “wonderful place” to work for them because there are “so many problems to solve” and “different ways to think”.

However, although insurance firms have pushed diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives towards the top of their agendas in recent years, statistics show a lack of employment among neurodivergent individuals in workplaces in general. 

The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) latest analysis on Outcomes for disabled people in the UK: 2021, published 10 February 2022, highlighted that, between July and September last year, only 53.5% of disabled people aged 16 to 64 years in the UK were employed, compared to 81.6% of non-disabled people.

Disabled people with mental illness or other nervous disorders (30.1%), severe or specific learning difficulties (26.2%) or autism (29%) had the lowest employment rates compared to people with other impairment types such as disabilities connected with legs or feet (58.4%) and visual problems (48.6%).

The statistics in the analysis were calculated using the Labour Force Survey (LFS), which draws data from around 90,000 individuals each quarter.

Lack of employment for neurodivergent people is a “phenomenal waste of amazing talent”, said Marsh UK and Ireland senior people partner Steve Woodhouse, who also spoke as part of the panel at Dive In.

Speaking exclusively to Insurance Times, Matthew Connell, director of policy and public affairs at the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII), said that if firms work on hiring a “diversity of perspectives and thought” – providing this is part of an ”inclusive culture – [it] results in better judgements and decision-making in the public interest”.

He continued: “It reduces the risk of groupthink and encourages innovation in the insurance profession.

“[But] key to attracting, supporting and retaining neurodivergence in the workplace is understanding what it is.”

So, before delving into what insurance firms can do to improve employment rates for neurodivergent employees, what is the difference between this term and neurodiversity?

Workings of the brain

Speaking exclusively to Insurance Times, Mental Health in Business (MHIB) chief executive Claire Russell said: “Neurodiversity refers to the different ways that our brain can work and process information.

“Most people are neurotypical – their brain works and interprets information in the way that we and society expect.

“Some people are neurodivergent, which means their brain works and processes information differently. These differences can have both positive and negative effects.

“It is important to know that people with neurodiverse traits or with a diagnosis of conditions such as autism, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyspraxia and dyslexia may need additional, specific support at work in order that they can thrive.”

Other conditions that would fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity include borderline personality disorder (BPD), bipolar disorder (BD) and schizophrenia.

“It is also important to be aware that, while some people may regard their neurodiversity as their superpower, it can also mean increased risks of common mental health disorders like anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as eating disorders, gender dysphoria, alcohol and substance misuse and thoughts of suicide,” added Russell.

Connell added: “Neurodivergence is the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways and there is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning and behaving.”

Top tips

According to guidance updated by the UK government on 1 September 2022 – entitled Employing disabled people and people with health conditions – the cost of making reasonable adjustments to accommodate employees who have a physical or mental impairment are often low.

It is also a legal requirement for employers to ensure disabled job applicants and employees can overcome any substantial disadvantages they may have doing their jobs and progressing in work under the Equality Act 2010.

If an individual employee feels reasonable adjustments have not been made, their employer can be taken to an employment tribunal as a result.

Echoing the UK government’s sentiments, Woodhouse said: “Ambitious about Autism told me the other day that the average workplace adjustment costs £80 – it costs more than that to take a few people out for a coffee nowadays, probably even more than that next week, so it’s not expensive”.

In June 2022, Marsh UK and Ireland revealed that it had committed to employing 30 autistic colleagues during the three years of its partnership with Ambitious about Autism from 2021 to 2023 – equating to 10 per year.

Woodhouse continued: “It’s all about attitude, not cost. You’ve got to want to make a change and most importantly, you’ve got to ask  ’what do you need to make your life easier?’”.

Marsh UK and Ireland’s senior people partner explained that adjustments for employees with autism can include providing employees with a fixed space to work rather than hot-desking, noise-cancelling headphones and enabling companion animals to come to the workplace.

Dive In Festival panel spokesperson and general manager for the Group for Autism, Insurance, Investment and Neurodiversity (GAIN) Vic Mazonas, meanwhile, said: “The most practical advice I can give is worry less about disclosure rates, confirmed diagnoses and input and worry more about the outcomes of what you’re trying to achieve. 

“If you as a manager are creating a culture of acceptance where you have a track record of being good to your people and being people-centric in your thinking, no-one is going to mind if you’re a bit clumsy in the words and your technical understanding, so long as the intent is clear.”

Kennedy’s knowledge lawyer Arani Yogadeva, furthermore, drew attention to the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Access to Work function, which enabled her to “really unlock some hidden assets” in herself as an individual diagnosed with ADHD.

Access to Work is a publicly funded employment support programme that aims to help more disabled people start or stay in work – it can provide both practical and financial support, such as mentoring and money towards travel costs if public transport can’t be used.

Russell said: “Supporting people with neurodiverse traits effectively means looking beyond a diagnosis or a label and seeking to understand the specific needs and requirements of the unique individual in front of us.

“As the insurance industry continues its journey in equality, diversity and inclusion it is imperative that within every organisation there are conditions of psychological safety – where every individual is supported, given the opportunity to thrive and where they feel safe to be themselves and to ask for help when they need it.”