ADHD in the Workplace

By Katie Hurley, LCSW

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is often thought of as a brain based disorder that affects children, but the latest statistics show a lifetime prevalence of 8.3% for the disorder.¹ In fact, although the average age of onset for ADHD is 7, studies show that up to 60% of those kids will exhibit some ADHD symptoms into adulthood.²

According to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, 4.4% of adults in the United States have ADHD: 38% are women and 62% are men.³ Those are the people with a diagnosis.

The symptoms of ADHD in adulthood are different from childhood symptoms, and they can negatively impact an adult’s ability to succeed in the workplace. While adults with an ADHD diagnosis can attribute their workplace challenges to the disorder and work with a counselor to develop specific strategies to target their symptoms, adults who have not yet been diagnosed are likely to feel like there is something wrong with them. They also tend to be described as lazy, unmotivated, and/or unreliable.

Whether or not an adult has a formal diagnosis of ADHD, finding strategies to manage symptoms is key. When employees know how to mitigate their symptoms, they perform better at work.

Dealing with distraction

Distraction can be a struggle for adults with ADHD because many office settings are noisy, fast-paced, and busy. There’s also the issue of the constant intrusion of technology. The constant onslaught of phone calls, text messages, and email can derail the attention span, making employees less efficient.

Adults with ADHD struggle to tune out environmental noise and distractions. For this reason, it’s important to create a quiet workspace. Consider these tips to decrease distraction at work:

  • If you have an office, close the door to block out distractions.
  • If working in an open space environment, ask to move your desk to a low-traffic area.
  • Decrease clutter on your desk.
  • Use a headset when on the phone which will help to tune out background office noise.
  • Turn off email and text messages alerts and instead set aside ten minutes of every hour to check.

Managing a short attention span

A short attention span is one the classic symptoms of ADHD. Adults with ADHD can have difficulty maintaining concentration, even when a task or project is interesting. (Although, another classic behavior of ADHD is being able to hyper focus on things that you really enjoy. You may find yourself so caught up in doing research or writing a proposal that you don’t notice anything else.) Beyond that, low attention span can also impact listening skills. If the mind wanders during meetings or phone calls, work will suffer.

Consider the following strategies to learn to work with the attention span you have:

  • Break down tasks into manageable pieces that can be achieved over time.
  • Avoid getting stuck in a daily routine – schedule breaks and slight changes to your work routine can help you settle down to deal with the task at hand.
  • Set an alarm to focus for set periods of time, followed by a break.

Organization and memory

Poor organizational skills and memory problems are common issues for adults with ADHD. Both of these symptoms can negatively impact time management skills, which play a crucial role in the workplace. When employees struggle to organize their time, follow through on tasks assigned during face-to-face meetings, and/or set manageable goals to tackle large projects, they fall behind in their work and fail to meet deadlines. That can be costly.

Try these strategies to help improve organization and memory:

  • Always take notes in meetings.
  • Record meetings, if possible, to review details later.
  • Use a day planner to write down important deadlines.
  • Follow up oral conversations with an email for clarification and so you can refer back to important details as needed.
  • Use visual timelines to track important dates and break down assignments.
  • Use visual checklists to stay on top of progress.
  • Set alerts on your phone to provide reminders for scheduled phone calls and meetings.

Coping with hyperactivity

Where children with ADHD present as “bouncing off the walls”, hyperactivity in adults with ADHD is more akin to a feeling of restlessness or edginess. It can be difficult to settle down or relax. This can make adults with ADHD feel trapped if their jobs include a lot of sitting in one place.

Try these changes to release some of that pent up energy on the job:

  • Schedule frequent breaks.
  • Get moving – brief walks around the office can help reduce tension.
  • Consider keeping a balance ball handy in your office to break up time spent sitting in a chair. You could also keep a set of hand weights in your desk; do some bicep curls whenever you’re struggling to focus and/or need to get rid of the edgy feeling.
  • When possible, pop in to see a co-worker, instead of simply emailing from desk to desk.

Coping with ADHD in the workplace can be a challenge, but it isn’t impossible. With a few strategies in place and a willingness to ask for help when needed, adults with ADHD can thrive in an office setting.

By Kiersten Borkert
Kiersten Borkert Career Counselor