According to recent studies, adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) are almost eight times more likely to report occupational impairment than non-ADHDers. In his book, ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says, Russell Barkley says:
“Adults who grew up with ADHD are likely to have a lower socioeconomic status than their brothers or control subjects in these studies and to move and change jobs more often”.
Adults with ADHD are almost five times more likely to be fired and eighteen times more likely to be disciplined than non-ADHDers. They struggle to stay focused in an increasingly challenging workplace, jump from one project to the next, are more likely to make mistakes due to inattention or forgetfulness. For these reasons, they report feeling less productive than their colleagues. Many will work longer hours, particularly those in white-collar jobs, to make up for their poor productivity, which makes it difficult for them to achieve work-life balance.
This helps explain the result of a recent study on beneficiaries of long-term disability insurance for burnout and other stress-related conditions: 24% of beneficiaries also had ADHD. ADHDers are three to six times more likely to suffer a burnout than non-ADHDers. Luckily, ADHD is very treatable and given the right conditions, ADHDers can experience a lot of success in the workplace.
What Does It Take for Someone with ADHD to Be Successful at Work?
The factors that together create the perfect conditions for an ADHDer to thrive at work fall into three categories:
employer fit and
When working with my clients who struggle with burnout or stress-related issues, I usually start by ensuring the employee is performing to the best of their ability. Here are some of the factors that improve employee fitness:
To achieve maximum performance, an adult with ADHD must adopt ADHD-friendly health habits. You have unique brain wiring and so you need to take care of your brain first by improving your sleep habits and quality, adopting a more physically active lifestyle and ensuring you have good eating habits.
ADHD is not one-size-fits-all, so you’ll get better results if you learn how you work best and increase your productivity by adopting ADHD-friendly approaches to overcoming your work challenges:
Do you know when and under what conditions you focus best? Do you optimize your productivity by choosing the right tasks to do at the right time of the day for you?
Do you use a calendar to keep track of appointments with others AND with yourself instead of just relying on the never-ending to-do list and on your (likely poor) memory. Rather than using a long to-do list that serves only as a constant reminder of everything you haven’t done yet, use project task lists that list only the next few tasks that can be accomplished in the next week or two for each project.
Use alerts to remind yourself of your commitments and commit to responding to them. Consider your alerts like it’s your brain calling you and you must respond. Change the sound you use for your alerts if you begin to ignore them.
Creating routines and habits that support you reduces decision fatigue and increases your mental capacity. Many ADHDers avoid developing habits and routines because they think they’ll be boring and intolerable. However, making the same decision day after day, now that’s boring! In addition, making decisions and constantly thinking about what to do next are brain tasks that are performed by your prefrontal cortex, the structure in your brain that is most affected by ADHD. If instead, you transform repetitive tasks and decisions into habits and routines, you’ll take less time to accomplish these tasks and free up more mental capacity.
Manage distractions that are under your control, especially during your peak performance times (the times of the day you’re most energetic and able to concentrate), reduces the time lost in transitioning from one task to another. Many employees don’t think they have much control of their day, but if you choose to take control, you’ll often find that in most cases, you do have more say about when and how you accomplish tasks than you think. Often, your boss and coworkers care far more that you are able to deliver than they do about how you go about getting your work done.
Manage procrastination at the source. Procrastination is caused by many possible culprits including fear, limiting beliefs, problems with planning and organizing, lack of interest, lack of clarity, challenges with decision making and more. To conquer procrastination, you need to delve into the real reason why you’re procrastinating and attack the problem at the source.
As an employee with ADHD, you understand your ADHD and can self-advocate.
You maintain good work-life balance, guarding your time and energy at work so to have enough left over for family, friends and personal projects.
Once we have created strategies for successfully managing ADHD symptoms, many of my clients realize they’re not the problem. Once their challenges with work are eliminated or dramatically minimized, their improved productivity allows them to see that there are also challenges with employer compatibility.
You can tell your employer is ADHD- compatible when:
Objectives and desired results are clear. Without clearly defined results, ADHDers procrastinate. But with clear, attainable objectives, you usually function well as long as…
Your employer allows you to choose how you’ll accomplish your work, while remaining available if guidance is required. The ADHD brain works differently and imposing a rigid approach to work can stifle you.
Your employer recognizes and develops your strengths and is open to accommodating or reducing work that requires focus in areas where you’re weak. I strongly believe (and the research backs me up on this) our greatest potential lies in developing our strengths and managing our weaknesses just well enough.
Your employer allows you to delegate, to systems, to other employees, or to outside contractors, in your areas of weakness.
Your supervisor provides quick and consistent feedback about your performance. ADHDers need more frequent feedback about their performance. If you’re not quite meeting expectations, you’ll benefit from constructive criticism and affirmation of your ability to complete the work.
Your supervisor and your employer are respectful and tolerant of differences and they understand that providing accommodations is not favouritism but instead provides you with the tools you require to complete your work to the best of your ability.
Your supervisor is open to and encourages short meetings when you require help with prioritizing. Adults with ADHD struggle with prioritizing. Too many demands can be overwhelming. The successful supervisor is willing and available to provide guidance when there are too many priorities, and will even act as a “gatekeeper” to protect you from your tendency to over-commitment.
On long projects, your supervisor will help you stay on track by working with you to co-create targeted checkpoints and milestones to ensure you’re progressing in all projects.
Once you put in place ADHD-friendly ways to manage your productivity and you’ve worked with your employer to create a workplace where you’re able to give your best, you’ll very likely overcome your performance challenges. In the right environment, ADHDers tend to perform as well as or better than the performance levels of their colleagues. Unfortunately, once these issues have been addressed, we often discover that you’re not in a career that is suited for you.
Often as a result of struggles in school, poor self-esteem, or a general lack of self-awareness and difficulty making decisions, ADHDers often abandon dreams of a higher education and follow a career path they “fall into” or that is pushed on them by others. It isn’t unusual to find adults with ADHD working in positions where, instead of focusing on their strengths, they are constantly confronted with their weaknesses.
You can identify the right career for any ADHDer using the following criteria:
Your career is based on your strengths and passions and your work allows you to use and develop these strengths for a large percentage of your workday.
Your career does not make significant demands of you in your areas of weaknesses and allows for delegation, bartering or the opportunity of using systems to reduce your need to work much in your areas of weakness.
You love what you do and feel you are making a strong contribution.
If you find yourself in the wrong career even though your employer is great, you may not need to “throw the baby with the bathwater.” There are often options for reorganizing your work within the same career, changing careers within the same organization. You can always look internally for something that is more compatible or look at what educational opportunities there are within your company. Employers often prefer to work with an employee they know for new positions, even if they need to offer training or accommodations.
The good news is that many adults with ADHD are very successful in the workplace. Given the right coaching to upgrade your performance, improving your self-care and making sure you’re working with the right employer and in the right career, you’re destined for success.
Coach Linda Walker, PCC, author of With Time to Spare: The Ultimate Guide to Peak Performance for Entrepreneurs, Adults with ADHD and other Creative Geniuses and creator of The Maximum Productivity Makeover , and creator of Thrive! The Natural Approach to Optimal Focus and Effectiveness, coaches and trains entrepreneurs and adults with ADHD in the workplace.