The pharmaceutical industry is in a period of intense transformation, with digitisation enabling remote monitoring and data exchanges between clinicians and patients. The skills required to be a pharmacist are shifting as a result.

Andrew Miles, UK General Manager and SVP UK and Ireland Pharmaceuticals, GSK, commented: “The pace ofmedicines development is faster than ever before, and the skills required are complex and often overlap. Scientists of today need to be able to integrate computer skills with biological and chemical skills.”

In 2013, the government was advised by the Centre for Workforce Intelligence to limit pharmaceutical student numbers or face a possible surplus of between 11,000 and 19,000 by 2040. That situation has now reversed, and there is mounting concern among NHS leaders that there are not enough pharmacists to meet demand. The Pharmaceutical Journal warns that urgent action is required to boost pharmacy training places for the strategy outlined in the NHS Long Term Plan.

The skills shortage in the pharmaceutical market needs to be addressed, and there is an existing talent pool that is systematically overlooked in recruitment processes that would be highly valuable to the pharmaceutical sector – neurodivergent individuals.

What is neurodiversity, and how is it being overlooked?

Neurodivergent individuals include people living with autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD and social anxiety disorders amongst others. They have only recently been recognised as a subcategory of organisational diversity and inclusion and are one of the most overlooked talent pools in recruitment processes.

While around 15% of the UK population is neurodivergent, the CIPD reported only 10% of HR professionals in the UK consider neurodiversity in their approach to people management. To understand the magnitude of how this affects employment figures among neurodivergent individuals, the National Autistic Society revealed that only 16% of adults on the autism spectrum in the UK are in full-time employment, with 77% of them saying they want to work.

Furthermore, in the CIPD’s Neurodiversity At Work report, comments from individuals living with dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia demonstrate that with just a few simple accommodations and heightened understanding from management, their productivity dramatically increases. This information makes clear the changes that are necessary in recruitment and people management processes and that a few changes can open up access to a whole new talent pool.

With the global healthcare industry on a path to a new age of precision medicine with remarkable advances in all fields, from genetic and non-genetic biomarkers, we need to think beyond traditional pharmaceutical manufacturing skill requirements to nurture talent in key areas like automation, and artificial intelligence, essentially combining traditional pharma skills with computer science capabilities.

Many people living with neurodivergence have higher-than-average abilities in specific cognitive areas. For example, research shows dyslexia and autism can cultivate unique skills in pattern recognition, lateral thinking, retention of information and exceptional attention to detail. This skillset makes them ideal candidates for roles that leverage their strengths, which could be in data analytics, computing, pharmaceutical process operation or finance and accounts.

Similarly, people living with ADHD exhibit higher-than-average abilities to perform at pace under pressure, are ultra-structured and highly adept at multi-tasking. This makes them perfect candidates for high-intensity jobs that require a certain level of precision, like strategy and analytics.

Adapting the recruitment process to attract a neurodivergent talent pool

There are three vital steps in a recruitment process: the job advertisement, the shortlist stage and the interview. Each stage should incorporate ‘reasonable adjustments’ to attract and not overlook neurodivergent candidates.

The job advertisement

The job advertisement is vital as a first impression and is where neurodivergent talent can first be unintentionally blocked out if it is overcomplicated or unnecessarily long. Job advertisements should avoid jargon and redundant information by only highlighting essential skills – which could mean just the functional skills required such as experience or academic achievement. Neurodivergent candidates can be very literal, and they may not apply for a job because it requests an inane or ‘generic’ skill they feel they don’t possess. So, if ‘lively personality’ or ‘professional maturity’ is not entirely relevant to the job, then leave this out of your ‘requirements’ section. You should assess for these types of qualities in the interview stage – not prompting candidates to judge themselves before applying.

Organisations need to ensure their culture of inclusivity is clearly advertised within their employer branding. This could include promoting case studies on their website of how they support and value employees living with neurodiversity.

The shortlist stages

When employers shortlist a candidate for an interview, they should ask them what they require to make the interview environment comfortable. Make sure your application has a section that allows candidates to declare their neurological differences and the type of adjustments they would need. These may include changing the type of questions you ask in an interview, like avoiding all hypothetical or metaphorical questions. It also could include simple adjustments to the room’s lighting or conducting a Skype interview.

A frequent misconception in recruitment is that standardised approaches to hiring are scalable to everyone and always produce the best candidates. This approach is not beneficial for the candidate or organisation, as it alienates neurodivergent people and others who may not interview well but still have the perfect skillset for the job.

The interview stages

Managers and interviewers need to understand the challenges neurodivergent people face. These can include the inability to make direct eye contact, failing to notice body language, not putting across the ‘right’ body language or atypical ways of speaking and behaving. Employers must ask themselves if a good handshake or strong eye contact are genuinely relevant requirements for excelling in the role.

Retaining neurodivergent employees

Once you hire an individual with neurodiversity you must remain committed to supporting them. Organisations need to educate all employees on the various traits neurodivergent people can exhibit and the importance of reducing stigma towards these traits and people. This can mean using ‘Champion Ambassadors’ to run team briefings and drop-in sessions to create a safe space in the office. Additionally, assigning a workplace ‘buddy’ or mentor that can aid with daily tasks helps promote an environment in which neurodivergent individuals feel valued and supported.

Like with the interview process, employers need to communicate with newly hired staff to learn what adjustments or requirements they need to make their working lives easier. For instance, some individuals on the autism spectrum might need to wear headphones or earbuds while working to prevent auditory overstimulation.

We need to adapt our recruitment processes to reflect our focus on systems that flex and scale to drive production and efficiency. While the skills shortage in the healthcare industry is caused by larger issues, tapping into an often overlooked and highly capable talent pool can help close the gap.

Marita Hazeldene is vice president of Client Services at Cielo