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Dyslexia affects workers' memory as well as literacy

?Employers must realise dyslexia can affect memory as well as reading and writing, according to Nancy Doyle, research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London

Doyle, who regularly features on the BBC TV series Employable Me, explained what dyslexia can look like in adults. “Post-education a lot of people with dyslexia will find themselves in jobs that are suited towards their literary level," she told HR magazine. "They might have just scraped by in English but be absolutely brilliant in physics or art. The issue is that there is no single part of the brain that is responsible for literacy alone, and a working memory is a part of dyslexia that often isn’t noticed as much.”

Doyle was commenting on recent research by Birkbeck which consulted eight internationally-recognised dyslexia experts alongside dyslexic employees and employers of dyslexic people. The research stressed the need to evaluate current practice, with 45% of people citing a need for clarity on coaching interventions specifically, which can improve skills and confidence among employees with dyslexia.

Dyslexia affects 5% to 8% of the workforce and is a protected condition under the Equality Act in the UK, and in the Americans with Disabilities Act in the US. This means employers must make reasonable adjustments to assist work functioning and performance.

However, most of the existing research on dyslexia interventions is focused on children. Little attention has been given to adults and the condition's impact in a work environment, despite associations with higher unemployment, lower levels of achievement post-education, and impaired workplace participation.

Doyle said that employers can often misconstrue memory issues as character defects. “You could have someone with dyslexia who excels at their job as a social worker or physiotherapist, which won't typically require as much written work, but they still run into issues because memory is also responsible for time management, organisation, concentration, and being able to prioritise tasks,” she said.

“The problem is that if someone is struggling employers won’t see this as being to do with someone’s capacity for memory, they’ll look at this as a character defect or a personality fault.”

She explained that the fluctuating nature of these issues can also make it difficult to understand: “There’s a close association with stress here too. So an employee might have found ways of coping by coming in early or staying late to get through tasks, but a stressful event like a family issue or a physical illness might throw them off course in a way that it might not for someone with a strong working memory. A complaint we often hear from HR professionals is ‘this person is performing really well one moment and the next they’re not’.”

Doyle said that there are a number of ways employers can help. “It’s worth noting that memory can be associated with countless other conditions too; ADHD, dyspraxia, MS, the list is endless," she highlighted.

"Coaching can be really helpful through providing help with practical techniques for dealing with workloads and help employees with their confidence and goal setting. This can be provided through Access to Work, which is part of the DWP, and if you’re a small business you can receive funding."

Doyle added: “Along with realising that working memory problems are not to do with motivation, there should be a recognition that a lot of these problems can manifest themselves as stress or anxiety. Someone who is struggling with their memory might say they are stressed and be prescribed medication, but if it’s a memory issue they can still struggle. A structured approach towards reasonable adjustments, including coaching and considerations around flexible working, can make a huge difference.”