Why construction should recruit more neurodiverse employees

Close-up of two construction workers' gloved hands clasped together in a gesture of collaboration Image: AdobeStock

Leonardo da Vinci, Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, Elon Musk – something of a diverse group and all (some admittedly posthumously) diagnosed as being neurodiverse.

How is this relevant to the construction industry?

The answer may be in construction’s so-called ‘great resignation’, a major challenge for businesses, which is driving many to seek new answers to their recruitment problems.

It is generally accepted that, with some 30% of senior construction workers expected to reach retirement age in the next 10 years, efforts to bridge the skills gap will need to include some thinking outside of the box.

And thinking outside the box is a skill with which neurodiverse people are often credited, which could explain the surprising number of neurodiverse workers in the construction industry.

Adjustments and inclusion are key

A recent report from the UK’s National Federation of Builders (NFB) found that one in four construction workers consider themselves to have a neurodiverse condition.

Perhaps more surprisingly, around a third of neurodiverse workers who took part in the survey said their condition was a factor in them choosing construction as a career.

The NFB report highlighted a trend of broad support for neurodiverse workers, with employers proactively implementing adjustments and providing extra assistance to create an inclusive environment.

ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) was shown to be the most prevalent neurodiverse condition among construction professionals, closely followed by autism and dyslexia.

The relatively high number of neurodiverse workers in construction is both surprising and encouraging, with 67% of survey respondents suggesting the industry is well equipped to support people with neurodiverse conditions.

However, the situation is not wholly positive, with 36% of respondents admitting they have not told anyone about their condition, and 38% feeling there is no empathy (or not much) for neurodiverse people within the industry.

An NFB spokesperson said of the findings, “The construction sector’s response to neurodiversity is encouraging. However, the fact that some individuals still hesitate to openly discuss their conditions underscores the importance of creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable and supported.”

The case for inclusion

But why should construction businesses go out of their way to make adjustments for neurodiverse members of staff?

Research carried out by Robert Austin and Gary Pisano and published in the Harvard Business Review suggests that, in work situations, teams which include neurodiverse members could potentially be 30% more productive than those without them.

Furthermore, the research, Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage, concluded that the inclusion and integration of neurodiverse professionals has the capacity to boost team morale – a fact that will not be lost on forward-thinking construction bosses who recognise that the industry is struggling to tackle significant health and wellbeing issues.

There is a discrepancy, however, between understanding the benefits of employing neurodiverse members of staff and making appropriate adjustments to accommodate them.

The report demonstrated that, while many neurodiverse workers have higher-than-average abilities that might include excellent pattern recognition, memory and maths skills, many people with neurodiverse conditions struggle to gain employment, as they fail to fit the profiles sought by prospective employers.

Yet, where the talents of neurodiverse individuals are recognised, extremely positive results can be achieved, particularly in technology roles, where tasks are often a match for their strengths.

In industries including defence, where individuals are tasked with finding anomalies in, for example, satellite images, neurodiverse operatives are actively sought and often make up the majority of analytical teams.

A changing landscape for neurodiversity

On a Ground Engineering podcast, Rebecca Penn, a finance analyst at Balfour Beatty, with dyslexia and ADHD, described the trepidation with which she entered the construction industry.

She said, “When I applied, I didn’t flag it, because of the stigma, and I wasn’t aware of how companies support people with neurodiverse conditions.

“Now, four years later, I would 100% flag myself and say I need extra support, and maybe the [interview] questions earlier, so I have time to process them.

“Now, I’m really open about it, because there’s been such a change in the culture. At Balfour Beatty, it’s a topic that we talk about a lot now. I would not gain anything hiding my quirks.”

In fact, Penn has been instrumental in creating a neurodiversity affinity group within Balfour Beatty – a branch of the company’s ability network. The group is growing fast and already has more than 100 members.

Penn said, “We saw it as an opportunity to have neurodiversity in its own right, because it’s such a big topic and affects so many people…with around one in every seven people in the UK with a neurodiverse condition – and, in construction, we think it’s way more.”

Groups such as this within major construction businesses have the potential to make the industry much more attractive to workers with neurodiverse conditions.

Recruitment and retention

According to the NFB research, 75% of construction workers said they were not asked about neurodiversity at hiring on onboarding, indicating a possible lost opportunity to offer support.

This is a crucial step for the construction industry to take, if it is to benefit from not only recruiting neurodiverse people, but also from retaining them.

NFB’s commercial director, Danny Clarke, said, “Only through understanding the unique skills and perspectives that neurodiverse individuals bring to the table, will the industry benefit and also improve the overall well-being and job satisfaction of all workers.”

There is an opportunity here for forward-thinking business to gain from employing staff noted for creative thinking and high productivity.

It is hoped that the NFB’s Neurodiversity in Construction report will serve as a resource for driving initiatives forward and bringing about a more inclusive era in the industry.

And, as the construction field continues to evolve, embracing the talents and perspectives of neurodiverse individuals promises not only to diversify the workforce but also to unlock innovative solutions and approaches that can shape the future of construction.

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Andy Brown Editor, Editorial, UK - Wadhurst Tel: +44 (0) 1892 786224 E-mail: [email protected]
Neil Gerrard Senior Editor, Editorial, UK - Wadhurst Tel: +44 (0) 7355 092 771 E-mail: [email protected]
Catrin Jones Deputy Editor, Editorial, UK – Wadhurst Tel: +44 (0) 791 2298 133 E-mail: [email protected]
Eleanor Shefford Brand Manager Tel: +44 (0) 1892 786 236 E-mail: [email protected]