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SWT shortlisted in national award for neurodiversity work

09 July 2021 : Council news

Somerset West and Taunton Council (SWT) has been shortlisted for this year’s MJ Achievement Awards in recognition for its work to support neurodiversity in the workplace.

SWT’s People Business Partner team will attend a live awards ceremony along with five other nominees for the 'Innovation in Building Diversity and Inclusion' category, taking place at the London Hilton on Friday, 17 September.

A project to support neurodivergent needs was initiated by the council’s Portfolio Holder for Corporate Resources, Cllr Ross Henley, with support from Strategic HR Lead, Julie Jordan, following a rise in mental health issues experienced by staff.

It was recognised that the cause of these issues had emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic and following a significant transformation programme to merge the former Taunton Deane and Somerset West councils in April 2019.

Cllr Henley was diagnosed with autism in his late forties and has since become an ambassador for the neurodivergent community, regularly speaking at prestigious conferences and networks.

Neurodiversity covers a range of conditions including attention deficit disorders, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette's. It is estimated that more than 15 per cent of people in the UK are neurodivergent, meaning they learn and process information differently.

The aim of the project was to support staff, customers, Councillors and partners with neurodivergent needs through a review of the council’s recruitment processes and by raising awareness through learning and development.

A working group comprising staff with direct or indirect experience in neurodivergent issues was established to help shape policy and make recommendations for change.

During their scoping work, the group found that in periods of change and ambiguity such as the pandemic, stress and uncertainty is magnified for neurodivergent individuals who need routine and stable reference points in their daily lives. Clear communication was also identified to avoid misunderstandings.

It was also found that employers are generally less proactive at supporting job applicants with neurodiversity at the recruitment stage. The National Autistic Society has reported that only 15 per cent of autistic adults are currently employed in the UK.

SWT felt strongly about getting its recruitment process right to ensure applicants with neurodivergent attributes would be equally successful as those without when applying for roles within the organisation.

On conclusion of the findings, £15k was invested implementing a new recruitment system, providing assistance for neurodivergent applicants applying for council vacancies and undertaking interviews if shortlisted.

Neurodivergent-oriented packages were also developed for staff, including a communications course using best practice from qualified practitioners; coaching and mental health peer support; apprenticeship schemes and workshops offered in partnership with local education providers and mental health charity MIND; and the appointment of five Mental Health First Aiders and six Wellbeing Champions.

A further £17.5k was invested updating the council's learning management system to include mandatory neurodiversity awareness training for employees and line managers; and provision of a Level 2 qualification in ‘Understanding Autism’ offered in partnership with Bridgwater and Taunton College.

Cllr Henley said: “We’re delighted to be nominated for this year’s MJ Awards and it validates the efforts by our staff to implement a cultural change across the organisation.

“There’s still much to do, but I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved so far; building a solid foundation to ensure our workplace is more inclusive and attractive to neurodivergent individuals, who we’re committed to supporting throughout the employee lifecycle.”

Project lead, Julie Jordan added: “We recognise that the best workforce is inclusive, diverse, with blended skills and experience and to that end, we needed to revise our approach to future-proof the council for the next generation of public servants who will be serving our communities.”

Through its efforts to promote neurodiversity awareness externally, SWT is now nationally recognised as an inclusive employer.

Regardless of which unitary proposal for local government reform in Somerset is chosen, the embedded changes will continue allowing new partners to adopt SWT's approach and practices.