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Is a neurodivergent worker on your team struggling? You might be the problem

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March 14, 2023
By Todd Humber

Photo: Neirfy/Adobe Stock.

If there is a neurodivergent employee on your team who is struggling, you just might be the problem.

And, odds are, you have someone on your team who is classified as neurodivergent. By one count, there are about 600,000 neurodivergent adults in Canada. Other estimates peg the number at about 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the population.

In an excellent 2021 column in Talent Canada, Mekki MacAulay of IBM Canada broke down what it’s like to be a worker who is neurodivergent. He pointed out that only one-third of neurodivergent Canadians are employed — and in an era of chronic labour shortages, it would behoove leaders to be as accommodating of this talent pool as possible.

Which takes me back to my first point: Managing someone who is neurodivergent sometimes requires a different tact or accommodation, something that was underscored in a recent labour arbitration ruling out of Alberta.


The neurodivergent RN

In that case, the arbitrator ruled that the Alberta Health Service (AHS) failed to accommodate a registered nurse who was diagnosed as neurodivergent. While the facts of this case are “dense,” as the arbitrator noted, the lessons are quite easy to digest.

To simplify things, the RN struggled after returning from a long-term disability leave that ran about two years. After the employer issued suspensions, she was asked to undergo an Independent Medical Exam (IME). It disclosed that she was neurodivergent with associated memory, encoding, self-monitoring, attention and concentration difficulties that required accommodation.

The recommended accommodation included that she receive written summaries of work-related discussions and repeat them back.

Successful under one manager

After another failed attempt to return her to work, the RN was placed in a non-nursing clerical role, where she was still paid as an RN, with a manager who closely adhered to the accommodation agreement.

She thrived in that role.

After one year, on the recommendation of that manager, she was moved back into a nursing role. The RN completed six months successfully and was assessed by the College of Registered Nurses of Alberta (CARNA) as performing to the standard expected of a registered nurse.

But then that manager retired, and things took a sharp turn.

New bosses, old problems

After six months working for new bosses, things regressed. AHS sent a performance evaluation to CARNA stating she was not performing to the standard of an RN, and her license was suspended. In July 2018, AHS suspended her without pay — a suspension that lasted until the start of the recent arbitration.

The union filed a grievance over the failure by AHS to accommodate her disability. The employer took a hard stance, adamant that it had fulfilled its duty. It listed its attempts, including four different placements for her in a four-year period. Each time, she struggled to the point of being unable to perform the duties of an RN.

AHS said its behaviour was not the issue. Instead, it argued she had “illustrated no accountability for her role in the accommodation process and she conducts herself in a manner that she believes the employer must do everything for her on her terms, and there is no accountability or ownership for the role that she plays in making the endless accommodation attempts.”

It noted that CARNA limited her ability to work as a nurse, including requirements that would be cost-prohibitive for any employer. That included requiring full buddy shifts for 80 hours, and only being able to perform as an RN after the “buddy RN” determined she could work safely and independently.

In essence, it was required to pay two RNs to do the job of one, which the AHS argued amounted to undue hardship.

Arbitrator points to retired manager

The arbitrator, though, pointed to the retired manager as proof the RN could work successfully — if the accommodation agreement was adhered to properly by her bosses.

“There is evidence to the contrary that not only has the employer not reached the point of undue hardship, if it follows the Accommodation Agreement as it should, the grievor can successfully perform her duties as an RN to the required level with appropriate supports in place,” it said.

And while it couldn’t order reinstatement in this case, it did direct the employer and union to share a copy of its recommendations to CARNA. It asked for her to be given another opportunity to see if she can meet the standard of performing as an RN.

It also awarded $10,000 in human rights damages to the RN for failure to accommodate her, and ordered the two parties to come to an agreement over lost wages and benefits for the time she was off work.

Opportunity for employers

The awareness around neurodivergent workers is continuing to grow. As this case shows, when given the tools and opportunity to succeed, they can perform at a high level.

The opportunity for organizations is ensuring that managers behave more like the one at AHS who retired and less like the ones who threw their hands up and tried to force the problem out the door.

That can be an expensive proposition — to your bottom line; to your reputation; and your ability to hire and retain the best talent for your organization.

Todd Humber is the senior editor for Talent Canada. He can be reached at thumber@annexbusinessmedia.com.

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