Dyslexia in the Workplace

21 mins read

Dyslexia is an often misunderstood specific learning difficulty (SpLD) that influences the way someone processes certain types of information, primarily language. It can affect how someone learns, but has no bearing on intelligence.

It is estimated that around 10 percent of the UK population is dyslexic (NHS, 2022).

That’s one in ten people who can bring a diverse perspective to the workplace, for things like problem solving and creative thinking.

We’re now seeing the tide turn on perspectives about dyslexia in the workplace, with many employers recognising the unique strengths of dyslexic thinking. In fact, “dyslexic thinking” has been a recognised skill on LinkedIn since 2022, following a campaign spearheaded by renowned dyslexic entrepreneur, Richard Branson (Virgin, 2022).

But there’s still some way to go.

Research by Randstad Enterprise and Made By Dyslexia discovered that only 16 percent of dyslexics feel supported in the workplace.

So, we need to translate an awareness of dyslexia at work into real inclusion and support so that dyslexic employees can harness their potential and feel able to bring their true selves to work.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is an example of a unique cognitive processing function that influences language, processing speed and memory. This can translate into differences in carrying out tasks involving literacy, organisation and planning, and information sequencing.

A dyslexic person may find some aspects of reading, writing and spelling challenging, but they will likely excel in other cognitive areas, perhaps in the way they solve problems or verbally communicate.

As part of the Cognassist cognitive diversity assessment, we measure several areas of cognition, called domains, that may be relevant for dyslexia. They are:

  • Verbal Memory
  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Reading Decoding

It’s important to remember that dyslexia does not affect how clever someone is or how well they undertake their role at work. It’s just a type of cognitive processing that confers many strengths, which we’ll explore later in this article.

Everyone’s experience of dyslexia will be slightly different, but some typical characteristics include:

  • Mixing up visually similar words
  • Inconsistent spelling
  • Challenges scanning or skimming text
  • Reading and writing slowly
  • Challenges with reading maps
  • Needing to re-read paragraphs to understand them
  • Challenges with listening and maintaining focus
  • Challenges with making notes or copying information
  • Less able to block out distractions
  • Hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli
  • Feelings of mental overload or switching off
  • Mixing up left and right
  • Feeling overwhelmed when given several instructions at once
  • Challenges organising thoughts on paper
  • Forgetting conversations or important dates
  • Trouble conveying thoughts or feelings, especially on the spot
  • Challenges with personal organisation, time management and prioritising tasks
  • Avoiding certain types of work or study
  • Finding some tasks really easy but unexpectedly challenged by others
  • Having poor self-esteem, especially if dyslexic difficulties have not been identified in earlier life

(Source: British Dyslexia Association)

It’s common for a dyslexic person to experience other neurological differences, with overlapping characteristics. For instance:

Statistics suggest that between 25 and 40 percent of people with ADHD are dyslexic, and the same percentage of dyslexic people also have ADHD (McGrath and Stoodley, 2019).

And other SpLDs like dyscalculia – a learning difference primarily impacting how someone processes numerical information – are commonly experienced by dyslexic people.

Impact of dyslexia on work

Focusing on dyslexic strengths is without a doubt the most productive way to empower employees with the confidence to overcome dyslexia-related challenges.

But we do need to recognise these challenges, so we can find appropriate support mechanisms and adjustments for each individual. This is important, because one dyslexic person’s experience will differ to another’s, and so will their support requirements.

Here are some of the common ways that dyslexia characteristics can impact someone at work:

  • Verbal communication. A dyslexic employee might find it harder to keep up with the flow of conversation and to understand what others are saying, particularly if they need to do so at speed. They might have challenges with expressing themselves verbally, so can find it daunting to be asked questions on the spot, for example in meetings.
  • Written communication. Dyslexia can interrupt some people’s ability to communicate clearly and accurately in writing. So, completing tasks like writing emails, letters, reports or presentations could take a lot longer.
  • Instructions. Dyslexic employees might take longer to follow written or verbal instructions, get the steps mixed up, or need the instructor to repeat themselves so they can remember the information.
  • Organisation. Dyslexia makes it more challenging for some people to organise their thinking, their time, their to-do lists, or their workstation and personal property.
  • Energy and engagement. The cognitive demands of the workplace can have a knock-on effect on a dyslexic employee’s energy levels, as well as their confidence to meet new people and take on new projects.

(Source: MindTools)

Unfortunately, these workplace challenges can have an impact on dyslexic employees’ emotional wellbeing. Often, people describe feeling different, isolated, embarrassed, or less intelligent or capable than they really are.

One study found that participants commented repeatedly about feeling self-conscious about how long it took to complete tasks, which in turn appeared to generate negative feelings such as paranoia, worry and frustration (Wissel et al., 2022).

It’s vital that we understand the toll that the workplace can have on dyslexic employees, and create spaces that account for diverse minds so that no one feels excluded or at a disadvantage for being neurodistinct.

Businesses can understand more about the representation of neuro-differences in their workforce with the Cognassist Neuro-difference Dashboard. This also shows employees that they have colleagues who share similar experiences to them, and that they’re not alone.

Dyslexia workplace adjustments

Dyslexia can meet the definition of a disability under the Equality Act 2010, regardless of whether employees consider themselves disabled or not. That means employers have a legal responsibility to protect both current and prospective dyslexic employees from victimisation, discrimination and harassment. Employers also have a duty to provide reasonable adjustments for dyslexia in the workplace.

But removing that legal lens, it’s clear that making adjustments to the workplace to remove any disadvantage that someone might face due to the way their brain works is the right thing to do, for the employee and the organisation. Because without dyslexic employees, the workplace itself would be at a disadvantage. More on that later!

What are dyslexia workplace accommodations?

Workplace accommodations, also referred to as reasonable adjustments or workplace adjustments, are changes or adaptations employers can make to reduce or remove a disadvantage at work associated with someone’s disability, in this case dyslexia.

Even seemingly simple adjustments can make a big difference to a dyslexic person’s ability to carry out their role to their full potential. Successful implementation of adjustments can lead to:

  • Reduced stress, anxiety and burnout
  • Enhanced productivity
  • Increased confidence and self esteem
  • Improved job retention and satisfaction
  • Positive impact on workplace culture

Examples of accommodations for dyslexia in the workplace

Below, we’ll look at three of our top dyslexia workplace adjustments, that you can either implement to help yourself or a dyslexic employee.

We have taken these examples from our collection of Personalised Workplace Adjustments. These are strategies and accommodations we provide on our platform for managers and employees based on neuro-difference disclosure, cognitive profile and job role. They are carefully curated to enable everyone to conduct their tasks without neuro-identity, cognitive differences or job-related barriers.

Provide assistive technology

These days, there’s a huge variety of (often free) software that can help dyslexic employees with all kinds of tasks:

  • Note-taking: This could be as straightforward as using a Dictaphone or mobile phone to make an audio recording, which can be used to write up notes later. Or more sophisticated note-taking technologies include features that capture hand-written notes and audio recordings, and support with structuring notes.
  • Organisation and planning: Time management software or apps can help with logging and visualising how much time has been spent on each task, as well as prioritising work. Concept maps or mind maps can be a useful way to visualise processes, create summaries or overviews, or to plan a report or project.
  • Reading: Text-to-speech technology converts text to audio, reading the words aloud often in very realistic artificial intelligence (AI)-generated voices. Some packages enable text conversion to audio files which can be downloaded.
  • Writing: For example, speech-to-text or dictation software. This type of technology is widely available, often for free as part of word processing programs like Microsoft Office or Google Docs. Other more sophisticated paid-for technologies are available and can provide industry-specific speech recognition solutions for fast and accurate transcription.

Extra time

We all need a little extra time for certain tasks, whether it’s navigating ourselves somewhere, or writing up meeting minutes. For dyslexic employees, there are a few tasks that, when given enough time for, can be performed perfectly well. For example:

  • Reading and writing tasks: It’s important to allow plenty of time for employees to read instructions or materials, complete a writing task and achieve goals. Work with them to find out how long they need for certain tasks and use this as a benchmark in the future.
  • Planning: Where possible, let the individual know how long you expect certain tasks to take, and make sure they have enough time to plan their work. Encourage them to split their day into sections based on time or tasks. Consider setting up short daily meetings to check in on progress and help plan the day’s tasks.

Provide a glossary of terms

This is particularly important if your employee is new to the industry or company. A glossary of terms could include internal vocabulary or common acronyms. Encourage your employee to continually add to the list as they come across new terms.

When it comes to applying reasonable adjustments for dyslexia, they should form collaborative discussions between the employee and their manager. There should not be a blanket approach to providing support because everyone’s experiences can differ, even if they have the same diagnosis.

If you’re looking for innovative ideas for supporting neurodistinct employees in your organisation, you can find inspiration in our ‘27 workplace adjustments to support neurodiversity’ handbook.

Dyslexia and working from home

The adjustments mentioned in this article are relevant whether the individual works on-site or from home. There are a number of benefits to working from home for dyslexic employees, including:

  • More control over potentially distracting environmental stimuli
  • Less time travelling means more time available for cognitively demanding tasks
  • Can create spaces to enhance thinking, like mind mapping on large wall charts and draw process flows and thought diagrams

But there are some additional considerations worth mentioning for dyslexic home workers:

  • Home working has its own distractions; noisy neighbours, talkative housemates or the temptation to carry out household tasks can make it harder to get work done.
  • It can be easier to forget to take breaks when working at home, particularly if you are the only person in the house.
  • Regular working hours can slip more easily, leading to working overtime and potential burnout.
  • Working remotely means most organisations rely more heavily on written communication like emails and instant messaging.

Tips for home working with ADHD:

  • Stay connected with colleagues. Have regular catch ups – at the same time every day is beneficial – even if you’re not talking about a specific task or project.
  • Set aside allocated break times to do things like hanging up the laundry or tidying your bedroom – these often take more time than we anticipate and can interfere with our schedule.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for a video chat to talk through an idea or to clarify instructions if you’re finding it challenging to interpret an email or message.

Benefits of dyslexia in the workplace

Workplace adjustments are a crucial support tool for many of us who experience neuro-differences like dyslexia. But they aren’t the only way to support ourselves or receive support at work.

Recognising the unique strengths of diverse thinkers is an important way to navigate dyslexia related challenges in the workplace. And many traits associated with dyslexia translate into real competitive advantages. For example:

  • Pattern recognition
  • Memory
  • Mathematics
  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving
  • Communication
  • Manual skills
  • Determination
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Visualisation

But how to use these strengths to your advantage at work

1. Abstract thinking

Are you often able to reason with complex concepts, recognise patterns or form novel ideas? If so, like many dyslexic people, you may excel at abstract thinking – a type of high-order thinking that allows you to think about ideas using symbolic or hypothetical principles, going beyond what we can physically see.

Don’t be afraid to share your unique point of view. Those of us who experience neurological differences may feel less comfortable drawing attention to our skill sets, perhaps for fear of discrimination. But it’s by embracing our strengths and sharing our skills that we can all feel valued for our differences.

2. Visualisation

If you have strengths in visualisation, you may be able to holistically process visual-spatial information, rather than in a step-by-step fashion. People who process information in this way are often good at exploring possibilities and inventing. Visualisation skills often complement abstract thinking and creativity, so you might recognise yourself in both of these traits, too.

3. Practical abilities

You might notice that you’re good at physical interpretation and game playing, or planning and executing manual tasks. Regardless of your field or industry, you’ve likely used your practical abilities to overcome possible dyslexia-related challenges. Maybe you remember instructions by acting them out or drawing models to explain complex concepts to people. These are all skills you can use to help your colleagues who may not be as strong in practical tasks.

4. Verbal communication

It’s true that some dyslexic people can find verbal communication a challenge. But according to a study, 71 percent of dyslexic individuals are above average at communicating (Made By Dyslexia, 2020).

Maybe you’re a talented storyteller, are good at simplifying complex concepts, or have an engaging and passionate communication style. If you identify with these traits, consider whether you would be open to being a Neuro-inclusion Champion or mentor within your organisation. Your skills in crafting clear and engaging messages could help communicate the importance of neurodiversity at work.

5. People skills

If you count verbal communication as one of your strengths, chances are you also have excellent people skills. Not everyone finds it easy to sense and respond to people’s emotions, but you may find that dyslexia gives you a greater level of empathy and that you are able to make authentic connections with people.

People skills not only help make dyslexic people great team members, but also great leaders. If you feel comfortable, why not volunteer for team leadership roles or tasks that require close team collaboration?

By leaning into these traits and advantages, dyslexic thinking can become beneficial for individuals and the organisation as a whole.

This is especially true when employees of all neurotypes and neuro-identities collaborate and share their strengths. Top tip for dyslexia skill sharing:

  • Talk about your cognition – the Cognassist cognitive assessment highlights strength and development areas, which can help you identify skill sharing opportunities.

Supporting dyslexic colleagues at work

As a colleague or a manager working with a dyslexic person, you have a vital role to play in helping to build a neuro-inclusive environment at work. You can help your colleagues feel safe to be their true selves. Together we can break down the barriers so that we can all confidently embrace our cognitive differences.

You can help create a supportive work environment for dyslexia by:

Taking advantage of online diaries

If your colleague has challenges remembering to attend meetings or meeting deadlines, you might encourage them to take advantage of the online diaries or project management tools your organisation provides. These will help them to plan and track their time, as well as enable them to set notifications and reminders, so they can be sure to not miss a meeting or deadline again.

Providing meeting documents in advance

If you are responsible for arranging meetings, try to provide associated documents in advance to help colleagues prepare questions or gather thoughts before the meeting. Providing the meeting notes, agenda or any other accompanying material in advance, allows colleagues to focus on what is being discussed rather than trying to multitask.

Don’t rush through meetings

Not everyone absorbs information at the same pace, so it’s important not to rush through meetings or presentations. Try to encourage everyone to offer their thoughts or ask questions, but if this is not possible, be clear that they can be submitted later by alternative means, such as via email, direct messaging or face-to-face.

Offer to collaborate

Collaborating on certain tasks and projects is not only a great way to get the job completed but also invites a range of diverse ideas and viewpoints. Encourage your team to share their Cognassist cognitive diversity report to learn how you all process information best and inspire a conversation about your strengths and challenges. In the future, this will make it easier to divide projects and delegate tasks.

Avoid asking dyslexic colleagues to read aloud

Some dyslexic individuals won’t feel comfortable disclosing their differences at work, but be aware that not everyone will feel confident reading aloud, so always try to ask for volunteers rather than calling on individuals.

Demonstrate and follow up

If you are collaborating with a dyslexic colleague, they are likely to find practical demonstrations easier to comprehend than reading instructions. Try to include visual and auditory information in demonstrations and follow up with clear bullet pointed directions, show one thing at a time and repeat steps, and ask them to demonstrate the skill or task back to you to confirm comprehension.

Try to keep communication concise and consistent

When talking:

  • Speak clearly using plain, simple language, free of slang and sarcasm
  • Pause between points to help your colleague digest what you have said and gather their thoughts
  • If you’re giving instructions, give them one at a time and in a logical sequence and follow up in writing
  • Allow the other person to respond and try not to interrupt them when they are talking

For written communication, you could:

  • Use dyslexia friendly fonts such as Arial, OpenDyslexic or FS Me
  • Use bullet points or bold text to highlight key points, but avoid italics, underlining or block capitals
  • Use visual aids like diagrams, flowcharts and mind maps to convey information and break up text into easy-to-manage chunks
  • Print documents or write notes for dyslexic colleagues on coloured paper, ask their colour preference if they have one; plain white backgrounds can be dazzling for dyslexic individuals

For some further guidance on supporting neuro-differences like dyslexia in the workplace, take a look at our article and handbook.

Disclosing dyslexia at work

If you haven’t told anyone in your organisation about being dyslexic, that’s okay. It’s a very personal choice; some people are vocal about their diagnosis and others view it as private information.

Unfortunately, some outdated stereotypes still exist and you might be worried that telling people about your dyslexia might make you colleagues or employer think differently of you. For example, some people still think that:

  • Dyslexia is related to intellectual capabilities
  • Extra training on reading and writing skills will ‘improve’ dyslexia
  • Not that many people are dyslexic
  • Dyslexia is a problem with ‘seeing’ words

These myths can be harmful and it’s understandable if you’re apprehensive about disclosing dyslexia at work. But without people being open about their experiences with dyslexia, it’s harder to break down the stigma and misconceptions.

Consider the following when deciding whether to share your neuro-differences:

  • Talking about our neuro-differences, including any specific neurotypes like dyslexia, helps contribute to an open and inclusive workplace culture. You never know, in talking about your experiences, you may empower others to share theirs.
  • Letting your manager know about being dyslexic means they can provide the right support for you. Without disclosure, your manager may be limited in the type of adjustments they can provide, and your colleagues may not be aware of how you work best, so can’t give as much support as they might like to.
  • You don’t need a formal dyslexia diagnosis to receive support at work. To aid conversations with your manager, have a think about any aspects of your role or the workplace that you find challenging, and together you can work out which, if any, reasonable adjustments you can try. You could ask yourself questions like, “What does a good/bad day look like for me?” to help figure out support strategies.
  • Does your organisation have a culture of openness and understanding? Does it have mental health support networks or mentorship schemes? These could be indicators of whether you’re likely to get the response you’re looking for when disclosing.
  • Do you know of any colleagues who talk openly about dyslexia? You could talk to them about their disclosure experience at your organisation.

The Cognassist Neuro-inclusion Support Framework provides a safe space to confidentially reach to a trained colleague, either to disclose a neuro-difference or just to have a chat.

Dyslexia awareness and manager training

Supporting dyslexia and gaining support from others at work relies on a culture of neuro-inclusion. This involves a company-wide awareness of neurodiversity and diverse thinking. But how can this be achieved when everyone’s knowledge and background is incredibly varied?

Neuro-inclusion training brings everyone in an organisation up to speed with the same level of understanding of neuro-differences and what it means to be an inclusive colleague.

Dedicated manager training is vital, so that dyslexic employees feel as though they can work with their manager to ensure their requirements are met. Dyslexia-aware managers understand both the challenges and the benefits of dyslexia in the workplace, creating a psychologically safe space for employees to explore how to work with their unique cognition, not against it.

Not only this, but the Cognassist Neuro-inclusion Awareness training, accredited by City & Guilds and ILM, provides in-depth courses for the whole organisation, from employee and manager awareness, through to Neuro-inclusion Champion training. The courses provide:
• Up-to-date knowledge on reasonable adjustments and legal compliance
• Best practice and tips for embedding neuro-inclusion
• Personal strategies for professional development

Free Preview Course – Introduction to Neurodiversity in the Workplace

  • Why neurodiversity in the workplace matters
  • The science behind cognition and neurodiversity
  • Kickstart your neurodiversity journey from the bottom-up
  • Top neuro-inclusive practices to supercharge your DE and I strategy