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Thoughts on ADHD at Work

Over the last couple of years, remote work has put all of our work-life behaviors under the microscope. It didn't take long for parents to witness their children's struggles with concentration and behavior in a remote learning environment, and many parents have uncovered serious undiagnosed symptoms of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in their children.

Once they were sharing the same space with their kids 24-7 during the pandemic, they were suddenly directly exposed to the severity of cognitive challenges their kids were struggling with every day. So, many parents rushed their kids to psychologists for answers and found that not only did their children have ADHD, but they recognized the same symptoms in themselves.

This revelation is leading to a new perspective on workplace culture and how people work together. According to data from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R), about 4.4% of adults in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. That number was higher for males (5.4%) than females (3.2%), with a lifetime prevalence in ages 18-44. Those numbers are based on diagnosed cases. Experts estimate that about 75% of adults with ADHD are undiagnosed - meaning they have no idea they have ADHD. So chances are pretty high that if you don't have ADHD, someone on your team at work probably does.

Living with people on these spectrums is one thing, working with them is a completely different experience. Managing and leading teams of people who may have symptoms but no diagnosis, or who may have a diagnosis but are afraid to share that information with colleagues and supervisors, is a tricky business. As a leader, if you're not educated, informed, or empathetic to how these symptoms affect the team dynamic and productivity, you're in for a bumpy ride.

The roles of manager, supervisor, and team leader continue to evolve alongside human evolution. As we become more aware of these cognitive and behavioral challenges, leaders also need to become more empathetic, sympathetic, and creative when it comes to aligning team goals and expectations.

I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 53. After a lifetime of anxiety, depression, and constant self-criticism over my failure to "change," I decided to stop listening to myself and the triggers around me and seek professional help.

After a lot of research, talking to counselors and coaches, doctors and therapists, someone suggested I consider testing for ADHD. I went through at least 20 professionals, telling the same story, in the same sequence. I left no stone unturned. It was the first time I was grateful that my mother saved every report card, every parent-teacher letter, and every note about my in-class behavior over my entire K-12 career. I shared information from psychologists and performance reviews from my adult working career. I wanted to make sure the testing team wasn't just taking into account my own version and perspective, but they were able to glean information from other sources who were responsible for assessing my behavior and functionality in the world.

After a series of therapeutic sessions and intense cognitive testing, I received a four-page report that changed my life: not only did I have ADHD, I'd been living with a severe case of ADHD that had gone unrecognized and undiagnosed since childhood. Now - there are also other comorbidities that have probably exacerbated the ADHD symptoms, like PTSD and anxiety. We'll never know for sure how one initially affected the other, but now that I'm well into middle age, it's safe to assume that these have been the building blocks that have created the towering wall I've managed to build in front of me that I have never been able to tear down. It has been casting a shadow over my entire adulthood - over my career and personal relationships - and has felt like an insurmountable barrier to success and happiness for as long as I can remember.

I was beating myself up for years, wondering why I was burning out so fast, why I was unable to control my emotions, and why I was always falling behind on deadlines, and struggling to concentrate and focus, why I was getting bored so easily, why I always felt like I couldn't catch up, couldn't compete, couldn't reach my goals. I thought it was a character flaw, something that was entirely my fault and it was up to me to change who I was in order to be someone my parents could be proud of. I was unable to quiet the negative chatter in my head telling me I wasn't as smart as my colleagues, telling me I was a failure, I was doing things wrong, I was in over my head, I wasn't strong enough, and wasn't smart enough, I was lazy, unmotivated, and on and on. Nobody else was telling me these things. This wasn't feedback from team members or supervisors, this was just how my brain explained my challenges.

If in a performance review I was told "you struggle with follow through" or "you struggle to meet deadlines" my head translated that to "you're a failure, you're not as smart as everyone else, and you don't belong here." I always felt out of place. I was never able to conform to a specific culture or workstyle to fit in and feel accepted, and eventually, I would start to disengage and pull away from my coworkers. The depression and anxiety would set in, I would start calling in sick, come in late or sneak out early. I would eventually sabotage my own job and quit, or recognize that I was treading on thin ice and pull out all the stops to 'change" only to be fired within a couple of weeks.

The biggest problem was always that people generally liked me so I think people would overlook these failures and challenges because I was a nice person who was clearly struggling with something. The people I worked with empathized for as long as they could until they couldn't anymore.

What I've learned since my diagnosis is that people with ADHD struggle with the most important part of the brain needed to be productive: Executive Function.

Psychology Today defines Executive Function as:

A set of cognitive processes and mental skills that help an individual plan, monitor, and successfully execute their goals. The “executive functions,” as they’re known, include attentional control, working memory, inhibition, and problem-solving, many of which are thought to originate in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

For people with ADHD, this is the part of the brain that malfunctions. Leading clinical psychiatrists and neuroscientists who have been researching ADHD for decades agree that individuals with ADHD have difficulty organizing, starting and completing tasks, remaining engaged, remaining alert, maintaining a level of emotional balance and stability, applying working memory and recall, and self-monitoring and regulating actions.

We are easily distracted. We struggle with impulse control. We struggle with self-awareness. We interrupt and dominate conversations. We lose our train of thought. We suffer from "time blindness" meaning we have a distorted concept of time, and we're usually always running late. We may seem like master multitaskers from the outside, but we rarely ever complete any of those tasks. At work, we feel left behind; like we can't catch up to everyone else. We feel like slackers even though we're working so hard. It's a constant, silent struggle that if undiagnosed feels like recurring failures over and over with no way out and no light at the end of that dark hopeless tunnel.

Another important thing to note: ADHD has no correlation to intellect. Einstein had ADHD. Richard Branson has ADHD. Bill Gates has ADHD. It's a cognitive disorder. Yes, it is "incurable" - there's no way to reverse ADHD in adults. That part of your brain is done developing. But what IS possible is learning new skills and training yourself with the right tools and support system to overcome the complications and symptoms.

Like any other kind of "disorder" you can live with it, but in order to function, you have to do the work, ask for help, learn and engage as much as possible.

  • Work with a therapist who specializes in adult ADHD, who can help you identify the symptoms, obtain a diagnosis, and learn new skills to address and manage your challenges.

  • Educate yourself. There are books, videos, workbooks, lectures, and countless resources available to help learn about ADHD and finally get some clarity around your symptoms and behavior. It's hard to accept at first - but it is also a relief to finally understand the "why."

  • Be transparent. Don't hide it from your family, friends, and coworkers. It's nothing to be ashamed of. The people in your life will be so relieved because they've been watching you struggle and they feel helpless. Even your boss and your coworkers will be relieved to know that there is a reason you struggle, and they will rise to support you once they understand what you're dealing with. And chances are, based on the statistics, as soon as you disclose your ADHD, at least one person you work with will raise their hand and share that they have it too.

  • Use whatever tools are available to help you stay organized. Use project and time management software to help you stay focused. Use your smartphone and your smartwatch for alarms, reminders, to-do lists and notes. Don't worry about what people might think about your system. If it works for you, go for it!

  • Pursue a healthy lifestyle. Diet and exercise, family time, nature, traveling, etc. Doing things that bring you joy will increase the hormone levels in your brain that help keep you engaged, reduce anxiety, reduce inflammation, increase your immune system, and just make you happy.

The next big question: how do we deal with this in the workplace moving forward? Do we disclose this in an interview? Do we fold this into team goals and objectives so we all understand how we work to get things done? Do our HR teams need to start including ADHD and ASD in leadership training, so the people responsible for team performance, raises and promotions can ensure that everyone has a road to success?

Once the stigma of ADHD is removed and the realization of just how many people are living with ADHD, we can start incorporating this into how we train and educate our leaders, how we assess performance, how we develop teams and mentor employees. It's not going away, in fact, it's becoming more mainstream every day.

We're here! We're distracted! Get used to it!


You can find more information about Adult ADHD on any of these websites:

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