Leanne Maskell, author of ADHD: An A to Z, looks at how to understand and support ADHD at work and how managers can harness the unique benefits that those with the neurodevelopmental condition bring
If the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of ADHD is young boys disrupting a classroom, you’re not alone. Picturing this in the workplace – especially in light of positive strengths linked with ADHD, such as hyper-focus and innovative thinking linked with ADHD – can be challenging.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition linked to symptoms of impulsivity, inattention and/or hyperactivity. However, the diagnostic criteria are outdated and adults have only been able to be diagnosed in the UK since 2008.
Managers have an important responsibility to understand how ADHD can show up in the workplace as a disability triggering their legal duty to make adjustments. There is also a huge opportunity to harness the uniquely valuable strengths associated with ADHD. ADHD can most succinctly be explained through the lens of the 30% neurodevelopmental delay in executive functioning skills, but here are some more details on how this might play out in the workplace.
People with ADHD may struggle to understand their own needs, feelings and experiences. This might look like sitting in odd positions, forgetting to take breaks, or struggling to ask for help. We may subconsciously mask our symptoms, using a lot of energy.
ADHD is more of a challenge in regulatingattention, rather than a deficit of it, meaning we may struggle with time and focus, such as by forgetting to listen to instructions. This can also present amazing strengths in being able to enter into ‘flow’ states of hyper-focus, where we might produce a month’s worth of work in a day. However, it’s important to ensure we don’t burnout and take breaks. Regular check-ins can help with this.
Hyper-focus is linked with our ‘interest-based nervous systems’, driven by novelty, adrenaline, passion and dopamine highs. This can lead to extraordinary results at work, but it can also present challenges in situations where we’re not so interested in the topic.
This means people with ADHD may breeze through so-called “difficult” tasks, yet struggle significantly with ones traditionally seen as being “easy”, such as data entry. This can be hard for others to understand and challenges our traditional perception of disability. In other words, people with ADHD may need more mental stimulation at work to stay engaged, not less. Supporting employees to ‘task swap’ can be a highly effective strategy empowering employees to focus on their strengths.
Short-term memory can be tough for people with ADHD, as we may struggle to prioritise and retain information. Fortunately, we can outsource to ‘second brains’ and use organisational systems and routines effectively to manage memory-related challenges.
It can be both a strength and weakness to forget information quickly. It might make us very resilient, but it can also mean forgetting important lessons. Providing written instructions and agendas for meetings can be extremely helpful to manage these challenges.
The impulsivity associated with ADHD can present opportunities, such as bravery in trying new things, but also challenges in not always thinking these through fully beforehand. Acting before thinking gives us qualities of courage and determination, but it can also paralyse us if we become overwhelmed by distractions – or others, if we interrupt them while speaking.
People with ADHD may perceive time as “now or not now” meaning that we tend to live in the moment. In the workplace, it can be very effective to set short-term ‘SMART’ goals and to break marathons into sprints.
A brilliant part of the out-of-the-box thinking that accompanies ADHD is the ability to think of new, innovative solutions – we tend to be ideas machines. However, this can also present challenges in a neurotypical world, where procedures exist for a reason.
I often see clients (and myself) automatically starting at level 100 instead of level one. Although it’s brilliant to think so differently, jumping ahead of ourselves means we can struggle with execution. Setting out written instructions and expectations very clearly can be very effective in helping us to do what we know.
People with ADHD may experience ‘Rejection sensitive dysphoria’, which can be very challenging to manage in the workplace. This could see us working hard to avoid potential rejection and not wanting to be seen as difficult by asking for our needs to be met.
On the flip side, experiencing these intense emotions tends to make people with ADHD extremely empathetic, compassionate and loyal. Research has also linked qualities such as integrity and authenticity, making us key assets to any workplace. Providing written feedback and regular reassurance can be highly effective in supporting people that experience these challenges.
Ultimately, ADHD can show up in several different ways at work. Although it requires a certain level of ‘disorder’ in someone’s life to be diagnosed, things don’t have to stay that way. By understanding and supporting ADHD at work, the benefits can be harnessed, resulting in an inclusive, diverse workplace, where people feel empowered to show up as themselves.
Leanne Maskell is an ADHD coach, author of ADHD: An A to Z and director of coach training company ADHD Works.