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Fox Quarterly Summer 2024

How Hospitality Can Welcome Neurodiversity

Inclusive practices and flexible work environments can help neurodivergent individuals thrive, says Bilal Hassan.

What do Heston Blumenthal, Elon Musk and Richard Branson have in common?

ADHD, autism and dyslexia, among others, have contributed to the unique way these individuals think and perceive the world. These traits have often led to remarkable achievements and success, which they credit to their neurodiverse profiles. While 10 per cent of the population identifies as neurodivergent, that figure rises to 45 per cent of the C-suite. What might this mean for luxury hospitality?

Blumenthal, who shared his positive assessment for ADHD in 2017, recently revealed a bi-polar diagnosis. The chef-patron of the three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck drew attention to a new study that shows business is missing out what Blumenthal calls the “superpower”’ of a neuroinclusive workforce, in addition to a recent study that suggests neurodiverse people feel discriminated against in the workplace.

“People with diagnoses like mine – and with numerous other kinds of neurodiversity in our society – are woefully underrepresented in the workplace,” Blumenthal says. “These are individuals who may have exceptional skills and unparalleled abilities yet because of traditional ways of working, we are missing out on the brilliance they can bring to UK business.”

Blumenthal is discussing with his management team how to ensure that The Fat Duck Group welcomes neurodiversity and is urging other employers to do the same. A survey of FTSE 350 board directors and HR professionals commissioned by the chef found 37 per cent of respondents describe their company’s understanding of its neurodivergent employees as average or poor.

Understanding Neurodiversity

Yet neurodiversity can be a huge asset to businesses. It is the natural variation in human brain function, including conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other neurological differences. These diverse cognitive profiles are increasingly recognised as strengths, bringing unique perspectives to the workplace. Types of neurodiversity include:

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): Individuals with ASD may have exceptional focus, attention to detail, and pattern recognition

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Characterised by creativity, high energy and the ability to hyperfocus

Dyslexia: Often associated with strong problem-solving skills and visualisation

Dyspraxia: Linked to innovative thinking and perseverance

The appeal of hospitality to neurodivergent professionals

The hospitality sector’s inherent diversity and dynamic nature make it particularly attractive to neurodivergent individuals. While specific examples of neurodivergent individuals thriving in hospitality are often underreported, success stories involve professionals hired for entry-level roles who transition into areas where they excel due to their deep focus and innovative thinking. This variety of roles, tasks and the fast-paced environment align well with the strengths of neurodivergent professionals.

For instance, Soho House’s open workplace and direct-to-direct role organisation foster a sense of belonging and comfort. The design of the workplaces avoids traditional office setups, opting instead for open spaces that encourage interaction and collaboration. Employees work at every level, regardless of their position, making them feel at-home and valued; uniforms do not differentiate positions, so a GM might be found working a shift behind the bar. This approach not only allows neurodivergent individuals to find roles that best fit their strengths, contributing to a positive and productive work environment, but also to be ambassadors of a brand built on an ethos of inclusivity.

Similarly, CitizenM’s innovative company structure, with only three layers of hierarchy, allows employees significant flexibility in shifting between roles that best suit their skills and preferences and consistently ensures a stimulating and challenging workplace. An employee might handle check-ins one moment and make coffee the next, but they will always have their core, preferred task at which they excel. By focusing on the strengths and interests of each individual, CitizenM creates a supportive environment that values diversity in all forms, including neurodiversity.

Strengths of neurodiverse individuals in hospitality

The terms ‘neurodivergent’ and ‘neurodiversity’ were coined in 1998 by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, as a way of recognising that everyone’s brain develops in a unique way. Eight years earlier, the US had signed into law its Disabilities Act. Yet progress worldwide since then has been patchy. India, for instance, only recognised Autism Spectrum Disorder in its Disabilities Act of 2016.

Neurodiversity is often called a hidden or invisible disability, yet it is estimated that 15-20 per cent of the global population is neurodivergent. In the USA alone, however, the unemployment rate for neurodivergent adults is eight times the average: around 30 to 40 per cent, according to the University of Connecticut’s Center for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation.

Neurodiversity, though, can be a significant asset in hospitality. Neurodivergent professionals, particularly those with autism, can excel with their sustained attention and meticulous eye for detail. They can ensure that every aspect of the guest experience is immaculate and up to standard. Their logical approach can be essential for swiftly and effectively resolving booking conflicts and other operational challenges while their ability to maintain high productivity levels and make fewer errors leads to greater efficiency.

Professionals with ADHD can bring unparalleled creativity and outside-the-box thinking, solving unexpected problems and developing new service offerings. They can exhibit a strong sense of duty and reliability, being punctual and consistent. According to neurodivergent organisation Genius Within, global research has repeatedly indicated that neurodivergent employees have lower turnover and lower absenteeism, as well as higher company loyalty when adjustments and accommodations are in place.

Most of us will have heard someone say something like “he’s being OCD” or “she’s on the spectrum”.  Not only is this dismissive of specific conditions, it dismisses the huge potential that the neurodivergent can bring to hospitality. Transforming working environments into supportive spaces that welcome all ways of experiencing the world provides every employee with the opportunity to flourish. Ultimately, it acknowledges that the different approach of neurodiverse thinking is a strength, not a disability.

Bilal Hassan is senior lecturer in at Les Roches Crans-Montana Global Hospitality.

Fox Communications

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