There is a growing trend toward embracing “neurodiversity” in the workplace through recognising their worth and hiring individuals with neurological differences. These differences include cognitive impairment, including conditions such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD among others. Organisations who are looking to expand on neurodiversity in their workforce will need to adjust their recruitment, selection and development strategies, create workplaces that are inclusive, and innovate programmes to support the ongoing wellbeing of this talent pool.
“Cognitive impairment is when an individual has trouble concentrating, remembering, learning new things or making decisions that affect their everyday life.”
What is cognitive impairment?
“Cognition” refers to the mental process involved in understanding, knowing and learning. Cognitive impairment is when an individual has trouble concentrating, remembering, learning new things or making decisions that affect their everyday life.
Millions of people around the world have cognitive impairments. These include developmental and intellectual disabilities, people with traumatic brain injuries or learning disabilities such as dyslexia and autism. Individuals with cognitive impairments may experience limitations in learning, motor skills or social abilities. This can affect workplace performance. Such functional limitations can include:
- Short or long-term memory loss
- Difficulty with orientation
- Diminished attention span
- Difficulty processing logical thoughts
- Inability to solve problems
- Difficulty with reading, writing and speaking
- Difficulty expressing oneself, such as finding the right words to use in a conversation
What can cause or aggravate cognitive impairment?
Cognitive impairments can arise from a genetic disorder, a brain injury, the chemistry of the brain or some other circumstance. Single or repeated head injuries can impair cognition. They can arise from virtually any poorly controlled chronic disease of the brain or the body’s organs. These include hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, infections, obesity, depression, anxiety, mental disorders – as well as alcohol, sedative, opiate or other substance dependencies. Certain medications that get into the brain can impair cognition, such as tranquilizers, anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, older antidepressants, pain medications, and older bladder incontinence medications. Most of these conditions are treatable, particularly when memory cognitive disorders are detected early through annual monitoring of cognition after age 50 years old.
Practical support of employees with cognitive impairment
Accommodating the individual strengths of a person with a cognitive impairment requires communication, flexibility and a variety of work method options. Three categories of practical support that employers can offer employees with cognitive disabilities in the workplace are:
- Individualised work stations: A work environment that is adapted for the needs of a person with a cognitive impairment can be safer and more efficient for that person. It may be beneficial to minimise surrounding distractions such as clutter and noise, but it is advisable to avoid isolating the employee’s workstation. Putting partitions around a work area can reduce distractions. If need be, provide adjacent space for their instructor, job-sharing partner or job coach. It can be helpful to colour code or arrange materials and equipment in the order of their use.
“Accommodating the individual strengths of a person with a cognitive impairment requires communication, flexibility and a variety of work method options.”
“A work environment that is adapted for the needs of a person with a cognitive impairment can be safer and more efficient for that person.”
- Assistive IT and technology: There are literally hundreds of assistive technology devices that hold the promise of overcoming or at least diminishing the challenges faced by individuals with cognitive impairment – not all of them are expensive. Digital clocks, calendars, smart phones, voice recorders, and even pagers, when used creatively, can have a great impact on the independence of individuals with cognitive disabilities. For example, people who have problems remembering a sequence of tasks could use audio recording outlining these steps where a task is broken down into its component steps. For individuals who have difficulty typing as well as writing, speech recognition is an option for text entry in a computer. People who have good verbal skills can compose material directly through speech, and the computer will take on the task of translating the words into printed text.
- Visual office information displays: Clarify messages and signage by using pictures, numbers and familiar symbols rather than words. Place labels and instructions as close as possible to the referred items. Create maps to use inside the workplace.
Mental and emotional support of employees with cognitive impairment
When it comes to the psychosocial support of employees with cognitive impairment, key professionals in an organisation include Employee Assistance, Human Resources and Occupational Health professionals who are equipped to work with employees who are experiencing cognitive challenges. Working in partnership with the struggling worker and their family is integral to maximising work-related adjustments and supporting the individual and their needs.
“As front-line health care professionals, EAP practitioners can offer welcome relief and support, along with resources and targeted referrals that can make a huge difference to a cognitively challenged employee.”
Cognitive health in the workplace will continue to grow in its importance over the next decade and beyond. As front-line health care professionals, EAP practitioners can offer welcome relief and support, along with resources and targeted referrals that can make a huge difference to a cognitively challenged employee.
Fear of jeopardising their position and losing peer respect are common reasons given for not reaching out. The following are some suggestions in promoting organisation-wide awareness and programmes that will destigmatise and support cognitive health:
- Create an environment that promotes awareness and support of neurocognitive health while encouraging working with employees who manifest cognitive challenges.
- Make cognitive health awareness part of an overall workplace wellness initiative. Promote educational services, exercise, and nutrition programmes, as well as professional development and socialisation opportunities to maintain employee physical, mental, and emotional health.
Supporting remote employees with cognitive impairment
There are many pros for employees with cognitive impairment working from home. Many such employees thrive working in their home environments because they can regulate variables that are beyond their control in the office, such as the distractions of lighting, noise, and in-person interruptions. As their concentration and focus increases so does their productivity. Working from home provides flexibility to their working regimen that might not have been possible while working in an office and lengthy commutes are non-existent, providing more time and energy and causing much less stress just starting the day.