Why are neurodivergent employees turning to self-employment? 

2 August, 2023, 11:50am GMT

Chloe Mumford

By Chloe Mumford

Freelancer illustration

Up to very recently, an 9 to 5 office job was seen as standard for most of us. However, following the global pandemic and the power shift in favour of candidates, there are more freelancers than ever.

Based on current estimates, there are 6.5 million freelancers and self-employed workers in the UK. Of that figure, 20-35% is estimated to be neurodivergent; talent that companies are missing out on. In contrast to the global workforce, where approximately 1 in 10 are neurodivergent, the prevalence of neurodivergent individuals choosing self-employment represents a substantial disparity. It highlights a trend of neurodivergent employees choosing self-employment over traditional employment, possibly after finding resistant workplace environments challenging, and struggling to cope with standard hiring processes.

In this article, we explore why neurodivergent individuals are turning to self-employment, and what companies can take away as learning lessons.

Why are neurodivergent people leaving office jobs?

Recently, freelancing has become more appealing to a lot of workers as a result of the challenges they face in a traditional office, and the freedom freelancing can bring. For neurodivergent individuals, it offers them the chance to build careers that suit them, without the barriers they often encounter in traditional workplace settings.

Although, it is important to understand that even among those with the same condition, no two neurodivergent people are exactly alike. For each individual, the barriers they face are unique to them and their circumstances. Though it is likely that traditional office environments often pose difficulties in communication, social interaction, and sensory processing for neurodivergent individuals, pursuing freelance or self-employment offers a different perspective. Embracing this alternative path allows neurodiverse talent to navigate their work environment with greater flexibility, alleviating potential stresses, and accommodating their unique needs and strengths.

Freelance journalist and writer Marianne Eloise said “I went freelance specifically because of my difficulties fitting into traditional workplaces, and those difficulties were a major catalyst in seeking a diagnosis at all”.

What’s clear is that the traditional way of working can be difficult and overwhelming for neurodivergent workers, driving them to self-employment where they have more control over their working environment and the work they take on.

Key takeaways for employers

Offer flexible working options

Hybrid and flexible working can massively reduce pressure and anxiety on neurodivergent individuals, allowing them to get work done where they want and at their own pace. For many, their home is their safe space. In a work environment where they’re easily distracted by coworkers and don’t feel comfortable, their productivity can be expected to diminish.

Alternatively, for some, working from home may prove to be a bigger distraction, as managing boundaries between work and personal life becomes challenging, resulting in a lack of structure. To combat this, organisations should consider providing support for remote workers by encouraging remote employees to follow a consistent routine that includes designated work hours, breaks, and time for personal activities, as well as setting achievable goals and having check-ins to help with organisation. Offering flexible working is key, because it gives employees a choice, and in turn, shows that you trust them to work successfully wherever they choose.

The UK government recently passed the Bill of Employment Relations, otherwise known as the Flexible Working Bill, which aims to expand employees’ rights to request flexible working arrangements, including new employees who, before now, had to work 26 weeks before a request. This bill enables people to have more control over their work schedules and locations, and seeks to promote work-life balance. Undoubtedly, it’s a major win for employee well-being and a step towards a more inclusive and adaptable workforce.

Provide support from day one

Often people who are neurodivergent and don’t yet have a diagnosis are unable to get the support they need. This should not be the case. Instead, support should be available to everyone, without requiring them to disclose their reasons or provide a diagnosis.

Unfortunately, the waiting period for diagnostic assessment is growing, with many waiting years for an appointment. At Leeds Adult ADHD Service for instance, there are around 3300 people on the waiting list to receive a diagnostic assessment. People who are getting assessed currently were referred to the service in December 2020. Due to the gap between demand and capacity, the waiting time for assessments is only expected to increase.

Consequently, it’s both unrealistic and unethical to withhold much-needed support from employees until they get an official diagnosis and then disclose it. For numerous reasons, many neurodivergent workers don’t feel comfortable disclosing the details of their condition. Instead, organisations should proactively establish a supportive environment that responds to the diverse needs of all employees. By having appropriate support already in place, organisations can ensure that everyone receives the necessary assistance and accommodations they need to thrive. Creating an inclusive and understanding culture fosters trust and empowers employees to feel valued and supported, regardless of their neurodivergent status.


From the start of the hiring process, accommodations and resources need to be put into place to support neurodivergent talent.

Employers have an obligation under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for employees who have a disability or a condition that causes them to suffer a substantial disadvantage within the workplace. This includes neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism, which are commonly regarded as disabilities under the act even if the employee does not consider themselves disabled.

Employers have a ‘duty of care’ regarding their employees, which means they are required to treat neurodivergent employees fairly, and avoid causing any type of detriment at work due to their neurodivergence. They should be given the same opportunities as other workers, must not be overlooked for promotion or training opportunities, or denied any other workplace benefits due to their neurodivergence.

With these policies in mind, companies must ensure that all hiring and workplace initiatives are up to standard. According to law, employers are liable to ensure worker wellbeing to the best of their ability.

Foster an inclusive workplace culture

When companies work to better understand their employees, they have a greater understanding of the solutions needed to create a more inclusive workforce. Having open conversations with employees is necessary, otherwise it would be hard to identify the support they require.

Additionally, middle management is vital to creating an inclusive culture. They need training to understand how to appropriately interact with all workers to ensure they’re recognised and supported. Not only will this help in managing neurodiverse workers and their individual challenges, it will provide deeper insight into how to motivate and challenge these employees, getting the most out of their skill set.

Fortunately, resources are already available to help companies create more inclusive work environments with neurodivergent workers in mind. Currently, the UK Government runs the Disability Confident Scheme, which provides resources, advice and support to employers looking to attract, hire and retain neurodivergent talent. It also helps raise awareness about neurodiversity and the unique strengths and valuable contributions it can make to the workplace.

Final thoughts

While self-employment offers many positives to neurodivergent workers, it can come with its own downsides. Like all freelancers, they may struggle with money management, periods of low-income and self-assessing tax, which is anxiety-inducing for many people. But, by making traditional workplaces more accessible, inclusive and supportive for neurodivergent employees, organisations can provide them with an employment option where they will be valued for their strengths, work with leaders who know how to get the best out of them, and have access to resources and support if they need it.

Most organisations still have a considerable journey ahead to foster truly inclusive workplace cultures that embrace and accommodate neurodiversity. It requires a behavioural and organisational shift and establishing a sense of belonging that we at the UWI believe should form a stronger focus of DE&I initiatives. But to begin with, organisations can focus on a few actionable areas we have outlined in the article to take the first steps towards enticing neurodiverse workers out of the freelancer talent pool.