Different thinking: how to get the best out of employees with ADHD

As a condition, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) falls under the umbrella term of neurodiversity alongside dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism. The term neurodiversity is used as a reference to the diversity of our brains and our neurocognitive functioning. It is important for employers to bear in mind that these are spectrum conditions.

People on these spectrums may learn differently but, most importantly, they bring huge strengths as well as weaknesses to the workplace. ADHD workers, for example, can be hugely creative, dedicated and energetic with high intellectual levels and an unparalleled ability to think outside the box.

Embracing neurodiversity

Employers wishing to embrace diversity need to be aware of these benefits; in such a context, some may see these conditions quite straightforwardly as differences. Public perceptions around a more favourable understanding of ADHD in particular have been vastly aided by media figures, from the comedian Rory Bremner to the swimmer Michael Phelps, who have acknowledged their own challenges with this cognitive disorder.

But they can be classed as the more fortunate ones because it is not the same narrative across the board. As with any neurodiverse difference, there will be a sense of shame and stigma – none more so that in the case of ADHD, which has suffered from sensationalist and negative media coverage in the past.

While the skills of people with dyslexia have been recognised in many mental functions from spatial reasoning to the ability to perceive subtle patterns in shifting systems or data sets (1), such positive attributes do not seem to have been flagged up for the ADHD community.

Then there is the cost to the economy. A review of empirical data from US-based studies on ADHD published between January 1990 and June 2011 found that unmanaged ADHD has a huge impact on the US economy, particularly in adult ADHD, and more so in the workplace where there is a major loss of productivity and income (Doshi, et al 2012).

How does it affect the person?

So how does ADHD manifest itself in the person affected? ADHD is characterised by symptoms of hyperactivity, lack of concentration and impulsiveness. Estimates for school aged children can vary from 5 to 10 per cent. Most importantly for the workplace, it is thought that as many as two thirds of these children with ADHD symptoms will carry on showing signs of this condition right through their working lives. People with ADHD may well have issues controlling their emotions and therefore often experience social isolation as they graduate into adulthood.

Many with ADHD learn how to mask their symptoms or manage the severity of their condition. They are either fortunate enough find their professional niche or they respond well to pharmacological interventions. For them, the workplace is not so much of an issue. For others this is not the case.

Adults with ADHD will often present with a patchy career history as they experience both social and performance issues. The main areas of difficulty will be found in staying organised and focused over long periods of time, or managing numerous projects at the same time or conversely getting bored with a single project.

Pullquote

‘Then there is the short fuse and the hypersensitivity…’

Other areas of challenge are around time management, arriving at meetings at the right time or hitting deadlines. Then, of course, there is the short fuse. Although people with ADHD may be known for their directness (which can be read as bluntness), they are often hypersensitive to criticism or negative feedback. This hypersensitivity results both from a physiological predisposition to overreact emotionally and from a lifetime of criticism of their behaviour. (2)

Not only can adults with ADHD become easily distracted by other more important or interesting activities, but the condition may coexist with autism or dyslexia. The fear or actual experience of failure can often lead to depression and anxiety.

Reasonable adjustment

Given the sensitivities and preconceptions around employees with ADHD, what is the situation regarding disclosure to the employer? Under the Equality Act 2010 in the UK, an employee with ADHD may be considered to have a disability if their condition has a substantial and long-term negative effect on their ability to carry normal day-to-day work.

If the employee has disclosed that they have ADHD, and therefore the employer is aware of the condition, then it is up to that employer to make what are considered reasonable adjustments. Many of the adjustments the employer can make may not be particularly expensive and what is reasonable will depend of the size of the organisation and the nature of the operation.

Reasonable adjustments are not dissimilar to those used for people with ADHD in educational settings. They might include:

  • Facing the desk away from potential distractions in the office, a thoroughfare for example
  • Providing headphones to screen out extraneous noise to aid concentration
  • Giving clear action points in meetings in a direct, non-ambiguous way
  • Using colour to highlight certain points, thus helping people with visual acuity to access and retain information
  • Working on tasks for shorter periods of time to allow for breaks to get up and move around
  • Locating people in quieter rooms or offering flexi-time to work at quieter times of the day.

Once the ADHD employee has disclosed their cognitive differences, they could work together with their line manager to decide on the best working practices for both parties. ADHD employees have a huge amount to offer in the more diverse workplaces of the new era. A commitment by companies to diversity (including different ways of thinking) will support a focus on building a brighter, more productive working relationship.

References

(1) Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide (2011) The Dyslexic Advantage, Hudson Press USA

(2) Susan Young and Jessica Braham (2007) ADHD in Adults, John Wiley & Sons UK

Further reading

Nice Guidelines UK

ADHD symptoms

ADHD in the workplace

Impact of ADHD at work

American With Disabilities Act

Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada

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