While ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ has a very descriptive name, the name is frustratingly unrepresentative of the symptoms experienced by individuals who have the condition. Many people living with ADHD choose not to tell colleagues they have the condition in fear of being labelled ‘disorganised’, ‘unfocussed’, and ‘unreliable’.
What does ADHD look like?
Every individual experience of ADHD is different, and adults with ADHD can be affected by some or all of the key symptoms. While it is often misinterpreted as being a mental health condition, ADHD comes under the umbrella of ‘neurodivergence’, along with autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and Tourette Syndrome.
ADDitude magazine describes the following as common ADHD symptoms in adults that we can be more aware of in the workplace:
- Forgetting names and dates
- Missing deadlines and leaving projects unfinished
- Extreme emotionality and rejection sensitivity
- Becoming easily distracted and disorganized
- Suffering generalized anxiety disorder and mood disorder
- Low frustration tolerance
- Trouble multitasking
- Excessive activity or restlessness
The list of symptoms above is in no way all-encompassing and does not include many ADHD traits that lead to employees with ADHD being more motivated and productive than their peers. A common symptom of ADHD is hyperfocus: concentrating exclusively on one task or project for an extended period of time. Hyperfocus often kicks in when a project seems exciting or especially interesting.
ADHD in the workplace
A fast-paced working environment may seem like a challenging setting for someone with ADHD. However, variation and working in short bursts can bring out the best in individuals who struggle with motivation and focus. Jumping between different tasks can help with maintaining engagement and energy levels throughout the day.
In the workplace, executive dysfunction and difficulties with working memory can be the biggest challenges for people with ADHD, and each person has their own strategies for managing these symptoms. Executive dysfunction leads to difficulty ‘getting things done’, especially the things that seem very important. Sometimes the things a person with ADHD cares about the most can be the hardest to get done, as it can lead to them attaching emotions to the tasks and putting extra pressure on themselves to complete things to an unattainable level of perfection. If a person is taking a lot of time to do a seemingly simple task, it may be that the task is especially important to them.
Issues with working memory (short-term memory) can be extremely frustrating in the workplace. Forgetting small details, dates, and duties can be disheartening and lead to self-criticism. While notebooks and calendar reminders are helpful, it would be impossible for a person to note down every small detail of the day ‘just in case’. Occasional non-judgemental reminders can be really useful to teammates with ADHD.
ADHD in adults, especially biological females, has been widely overlooked due to differences in the ways ADHD traits present. This often leads to missed or late diagnoses and development of mental health conditions fuelled by long-term assumptions that a person with ADHD is ‘lazy’ or not ‘trying hard enough’. Many ADHD adults therefore struggle with anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome.
With the common challenges in mind, here are some tips for teammates of people with ADHD.
Tips for teammates:
- If a teammate reveals to you that they have ADHD, ask them if there are any strategies that help them at work, and if you can provide any support.
- Answer questions clearly and non-judgementally.
- Keep key information succinct and in one place (as much as possible); it can be difficult to keep track of what needs to be done if key information is broken up into separate emails and messages.
- When delegating tasks, provide details of how to do the task (if it is a new task), and a clear deadline.
- If your teammate is having difficulty meeting a deadline, ask them what information or support they need in order to complete the task.
- Be on the lookout for signs of burnout and overwhelm; periods of hyperfocus, ‘masking’ (hiding neurodivergent traits), and lengthy to-do lists can take their toll.
- Be supportive of all teammates; individuals with ADHD may choose not to disclose their condition.
Strategies and support can help people with ADHD thrive, and excel, in the workplace. Asking questions, doing independent research, and being kind to everyone (whether they have disclosed a condition or not), are key to maintaining an inclusive workplace for people with ADHD and other invisible disabilities.
Useful links and resources:
- ADHD Foundation
- ADHD UK
- ADDitude magazine
- ADHD in the Workplace – Stephanie Watson, WebMD
- An employer’s guide to ADHD in the workplace – Scottish ADHD Coalition
- ADHD and mental health – Mind