Supporting employees with executive functioning challenges in the workplace

What is executive function in the workplace?

Executive function is a set of cognitive processes that let us manage behaviours. These skills include planning, organising, and adapting behaviour. We use these skills to do many of the tasks in our daily lives, like following directions, solving problems, controlling emotions and reaching goals. 

There are 3 main areas of executive function. These are:

  • Working memory: This involves holding and manipulating information in the mind over short periods of time. It lets us actively process and use information to complete tasks, make decisions, and solve problems. 
  • Cognitive flexibility: Sometimes also called flexible thinking, this refers to the ability to switch between tasks, strategies, or perspectives.
  • Inhibitory control: This is our ability to suppress inappropriate or impulsive responses, resist distractions, and exercise self-control. 

6 executive functioning skills needed in the workplace

Executive functioning in adults is mentioned much less than in childhood education, despite it being as despite it being a crucial part of succeeding in the workplace. Here are some executive functioning examples, and how they’re needed in the workplace:

  1. Working memory: This is holding and manipulating information in our mind over short periods of time. It lets us actively process and use information to complete tasks, make decisions, and solve problems. At work, working memory helps with managing and switching between different work responsibilities. It also helps with problem-solving and decision-making. 
  2. Inhibitory control: This is our ability to control inappropriate or impulsive responses so that we make more deliberate and controlled choices. While at work, this might involve refraining from interrupting a colleague during a meeting, or staying off your phone.
  3. Emotional control: Similar to inhibition, emotional control is about being able to navigate our feelings in a healthy way, and choose appropriate ways to express or suppress emotions. Are you able to accept and receive constructive feedback? Is it difficult to get work done if something is bothering you? Emotional control is something we use on a daily basis at work. 
  4. Planning and prioritising: This is the ability to set goals, create structured plans, allocate resources, and organise tasks effectively. It requires us to look at the bigger picture of all the work we have and how long it will take to complete. 
  5. Task initiation: This is all about beginning tasks and initiating action. If you struggle with task initiation, you might call yourself a procrastinator. 
  6. Cognitive flexibility: This is the ability to adapt and switch between tasks, strategies, or perspectives. It enables individuals to adjust their thinking and behaviours in response to changing circumstances or demands. 

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How does being neurodivergent affect executive functioning skills? 

While looking at how to support employees with executive functioning challenges, it’s important to look at executive function and neurodiversity specifically. Neurodivergent individuals may experience executive functioning in a different way from neurotypical individuals. It’s important to point out that struggling with executive functioning skills isn’t a diagnosis. But it can be common in people who think differently. 

Employees who struggle with executive function and the challenges they may face 

Neurodiverse may have trouble with some executive functioning skills, but they have strengths in key areas that we, as employers, have a duty to unlock. Before exploring what we can do to offer executive function support, let’s look at what issues with executive function might look like.

Each person will experience challenges with executive functioning in different ways, but being neurodiverse may have an impact on: 

  • Time management
  • Organisation
  • Determining the order to complete tasks
  • Evaluating the quality of work
  • Focusing
  • Asking for help 
  • Maintaining attention

These issues aren’t the result of a lack of intelligence or effort. Instead, they become a challenge when a workplace doesn’t make accommodations for all employees, including neurodiverse individuals. 

Luckily, supporting executive functioning challenges doesn’t have to be a challenge in itself. By using strategies to support executive functioning, we can help neurodiverse employees  through these challenges and watch them excel in their roles.

Discover how businesses are unlocking the power of neurodiversity for success.

Texthelp, EY, and SAP sat down to discuss how they prioritise neuro-inclusion and what it means for business success.

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  • Cathy Donnelly, Chief People Officer, Texthelp
  • Hiren Shukla, Global Neurodiversity Leader, EY
  • Jose Velasco, Program Director and Autism at Work Ambassador, SAP Signavio

6 top tips for improving executive function skills at work

Supporting employees with executive function struggles is a key part of creating an inclusive workplace. It makes sure that all employees are given equal opportunities to succeed, and with this comes all the value that neurodiverse employees can add to a company. 

The good news is that helping with executive functioning challenges doesn’t have to be complicated or costly. Here are our top tips for offering executive functioning support:

  • Recognize that neurodiverse employees have different strengths and challenges when it comes to executive function skills. Take the time to understand employees’ individual needs and learning styles. It’s also important to hold open communication and create a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable asking for help if they need it.

  • Provide concise instructions and expectations. If a task is particularly large or proving hard to handle, break it down into smaller parts. Visual aids like checklists and flowcharts can also help here. And make sure to offer positive encouragement as your employee is moving forward.

  • Help employees with time management techniques by encouraging the use of tools like calendars, planners or task management apps. Make sure to set realistic deadlines and provide regular check-ins to help keep employees on track.

  • If an employee is in hyper-focused mode, it may be difficult for them to remember to take a break, leading to burnout. Alternatively, employees may often find themselves slowly moving through a boring or complex task. Assure employees that a short coffee break or 5 minutes of movement is recommended for improving focus if it’s needed. 

  • Having fixed working arrangements leaves some employees at a disadvantage. The 9-5 work structure in an office may not work for all employees, particularly neurodiverse employees who might require more flexibility around how they work. Implement reasonable accommodations, such as flexible work and hybrid working.

  • Expectedly, challenges associated with executive functioning can lead to self-esteem issues and anxiety. Recognize wins, no matter how small. When it comes to formal performance feedback try to keep it constructive, supportive and with a focus on strengths, rather than just areas for improvement. If working from home, help make neurodiverse employees comfortable with regular check-ins and by being direct in our online messaging.

Join these companies in embracing neurodiversity and inclusion

Learn more about how to create an inclusive recruiting and onboarding experience

As an employer, being inclusive is vital for every stage of an employee’s journey. Inclusive recruitment is a key aspect of this, as it helps attract neurodivergent talent who can bring unique skills and perspectives to your business. 

In this series, we explore how to create a recruiting and onboarding process that’s accessible and inclusive to all. 

How can we support employees if they don’t share that they're having trouble with executive function?

Not all employees will share that they’re having challenges related to executive functioning. This may be due to embarrassment, fear that they’ll be discriminated against, or because they don’t want to disclose that they’re neurodivergent.

So how can we help with executive functioning, if employees don’t share that they’re having problems?

In an inclusive workplace, these accommodations can be implemented without disclosure. For example, if we might notice that someone is having difficulty staying on track. In this case, we would help by offering time management techniques, or by adjusting the workload.

HR or DEI managers can also highlight the available resources and support systems, such as training, mentoring, or assistive technology, so employees know about the help that’s available. Companies may also want to provide tools that promote different ways of thinking, communicating and working to all employees, without the need for disclosure. For example, Read&Write for Work.

Assistive technology for executive functioning challenges

One of the most full-proof ways of supporting employees is by using assistive technology to help with executive functioning challenges.

Assistive technology works alongside employees, and help where needed. This can have transformative effects in the day-to-day lives of employees.

For employees with executive functioning issues, assistive technology can help. For example, if holding information and organizing thoughts are problems, assistive technology can make it easier to take notes and annotate texts.

Assistive technology in the workplace also shows a commitment to workplace inclusivity that has been put into action. This can help with attracting and retaining talent. Offering assistive technology also means employees don’t have to disclose that they’re having issues. They can simply make use of it.

Explore Texthelp's assistive technology

Read&Write for Work helps companies unlock the potential of your people and your business. Its reading and writing tools empower all employees to think, learn and work to their full potential. Creating an inclusive workplace with Read&Work also helps to empower your DEI program, making it easier to attract from a wider talent pool and retain diverse talent.

For employees with executive function challenges, Read&Write can help with literacy challenges, staying focused, productivity and information processing.

Supports people who think, learn and work differently. Helps neurodiverse workforces to thrive.

Further reading

If you want to learn more about how to support neurodiverse thinkers in the workplace, we want to help you in your journey of becoming a more inclusive workplace.

Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

Neurodiversity is one form of diversity in the workplace. Discover what employers can do to support employees with neurodiverse conditions.

Supporting employees with autism

Employees with autism can face certain challenges at work, but with the right accommodations in place, they can thrive and bring unique benefits to a business. Discover how.

Supporting dyslexic employees

Learn how to support dyslexic employees and bring significant competitive advantages to your business. 

Supporting employees with ADHD

Discover how to create an inclusive workplace that supports employees with ADHD and unlocks the strengths that these employees can bring.

Supporting employees with dyspraxia

Learn how to support employees with dyspraxia in the workplace and discover what competitive advantages they can bring to a business.