ADHD in the Workplace
The ADHD brain tends to have trouble settling in to a particular career path, staying fulfilled at work, and maintaining good personal relationships with colleagues. Why is this? And what can we do about it?
ADHD Issues at Work
ADHDers often struggle with several aspects of employment; time management, distractibility, organisation, punctuality, interpersonal relationships, and staying on a structured career path to name a few. These struggles are as a result of poor executive functioning.
Executive functioning originates from the prefrontal cortex, which is chronically understimulated in those of us with ADHD. This part of the brain is how we self-monitor — it helps us gauge whether or not we are on time, how long things will take (or have taken), and if we are doing what we're supposed to be doing.
It's the reason why we are often late despite trying our hardest to be on time, why we often spend too much time on a minor task that just happens to catch our attention, why we are so easily distracted, and why the office is always a mess.
ADHD is an invisible disability, meaning that neurotypical colleagues and superiors often won't see a person with a disability, but a person who has poor attention to detail, makes careless mistakes, is prone to interpersonal conflict, and is chronically late. Consequences include write-ups, suspensions, demotions and termination.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?
Lower Income and Productivity
In the USA, ADHDers are 60 percent more likely to be fired from a job, three times more likely to quit a job impulsively, and almost a quarter of employees on long-term sick leave due to stress meet the criteria for ADHD.
A 2009 study by the World Health Organisation concluded that when ADHD is left untreated, adults with the condition lose an average of 22 days of productivity per year.
Average annual income lost to each individual with ADHD in the UK is estimated to be up to £3,300. In the USA the figure is even higher, with an annual average loss of household income between $8,900 and $15,400.
Conflicts With Colleagues
Interpersonal conflict can result from impulsive responses to demands seen as unreasonable, or blurting out inappropriate comments. For others, the main issue is always being seen as "different" or "weird", not quite fitting in with neurotypical colleagues.
Social rejection, minimising by colleagues of ADHD symptoms, name-calling and bullying are only a few examples revealed in the ADDA’s Workplace Committee 2014-2015 survey “Did You Disclose Your ADHD at Work?”
Those of us with ADHD have likely had many challenges and failures in our lives that make us particularly sensitive to criticism. We can struggle to control our resulting emotions and may lose patience easily. Having continual trouble at work and losing jobs is traumatic and erodes self-confidence.
Frequent job changes mean a perpetual cycle of re-learning new processes and workplace cultures, as well as a feeling of failing social expectations. Remaining in lower-level positions throughout life due to frequent job changes means that there's no opportunity for promotions or pay rises, and our accrued leave and pension contributions remain low.
The Good News!
We will likely find we are better able to manage the challenges of the workplace as we learn more about how our brains work and how our ADHD impacts our efforts. It's important to get a medical diagnosis and receive effective treatment such as prescription medication, therapy, ADHD-focused life or career coaching, and self-help strategies.
When treated and managed, ADHD can bring many positives to the workplace. People with ADHD tend to be creative problem-solvers, love a challenge, excel in high-adrenaline situations, and have a good sense of humour.
Improving Your Workplace
When issues arise at work, there are almost always steps we can take to improve things. It may not seem that way at first, but there may well be more within your control than is first apparent.
Start With a Solid Foundation
The first thing to do when we experience work and career issues is to build up personal resilience and take care of our mental health. There are things we can do that help us with whatever work-related issues we may be having, including practicing daily mindfulness meditation, designating time for healthy stress-relieving activities, and regular exercise.
Locate the Source
The next step is to figure out where the problem stems from, both in terms of where our own shortcomings lie, and what is unfulfilling or frustrating about the job itself. From those findings, we can then create an action plan to improve both ourselves and our workplaces to make our jobs more fulfilling.
Maybe it's interruptions from colleagues constantly derailing tasks which is causing stress? One solution could be to designate blocks of time to be available for enquiries or answering the phone, and at all other times interruptions are only allowed in emergencies. Or perhaps moving the desk to a location where interruptions from colleagues are less likely to occur.
If boredom has set in after the "romance period" has ended, solutions could include asking the boss for a new project, designating half an hour a day to chat to people in other departments to see new perspectives, or doing a deep-dive into one area of work to see if improvements could be made.
Taking a list of suggestions to the boss and having an honest discussion may seem daunting, but most managers appreciate the desire to improve.
Make a list with two columns, the first column being things about yourself that you feel need to be improved to contribute to your workplace satisfaction, and the second being things you feel should change about your job. Then, take each of those aspects and think realistically about what action you could take to improve them. Get creative and you might find that more is within your control than you first thought.
Asking for Workplace Adjustments
Once you have an action plan, set up a meeting with your supervisor to discuss it. You don't have to mention you have ADHD if you don't want to. Simply explaining that you are finding certain things a challenge is usually sufficient.
Your boss will probably be pleased that you are recognising your limitations and attempting to boost your productivity, and will likely be happy to accept and implement reasonable adjustments for you.
You may be hesitant to ask for workplace adjustments. Perhaps you're worried that telling your employer would result in them treating you differently, or maybe you feel embarrassed by the idea and feel as though you shouldn't need support to be "normal". These feelings are valid and understandable, but they could be hampering your success and wellbeing.
Remember that, generally speaking, most employers are responsive to efforts by their staff to improve their productivity and wellbeing. It benefits employers to have happy, healthy, successful employees.
You also don't necessarily need to tell your employer that you have ADHD. It's possible to request changes and adjustments without a disability. However, if the changes are insufficient to improve your wellbeing, or if your employer is reluctant to make changes, telling them may allow more meaningful adjustments to be made.
ADHD is covered under the 2010 Equality Act in the UK, and the Americans With Disabilities Act 1990 in the USA, provided your ADHD substantially limits your life activities.
Here are some of the reasonable adjustments you can request:
Offering a desk away from busy areas of the office, and providing "do not disturb" signs for office doors.
Providing written information for tasks and helping with task structuring.
Opportunities to work flexible hours or locations, possibly at home.
Working with a manager or colleague who is well organised and can help guide the employee through projects from start to completion.
Providing appropriate supervision to support the employee and regularly check in with them, giving constructive feedback, reinforcing positive management strategies, providing positive praise.
Allowing employees to delegate work where appropriate, for example dictating documents that are then typed up by someone else.
Encouraging the use of notes in meetings so that there is a clear record of what is discussed and any comments the employee has can be submitted, rather than shouting them out in meetings.
Working on particular tasks for shorter and more frequent chunks of time.
Struggles at work due to untreated or undisclosed ADHD can be hugely debilitating and have serious consequences for our mental and financial health and wellbeing. It's important to remember that these obstacles are as a result of a neurobiological difference and not a moral failing. Furthermore, properly-managed and fully-disclosed ADHD in the workplace can bring about major positive change for both the employee and the company.
Join us for ADHD at Work — Part II, where we take a look at good career choices for ADHDers, investigate more serious work-related issues such as bullying and harassment, and discover how and when to move on from a position. See you then!