Rethinking ADHD in the Workplace

This article originally appeared on Forbes

By Jill Collins

Research shows that employees with ADHD tend to be less productive. They may experience poor time management, procrastination, distractibility and more lost work days compared to neurotypical coworkers.

As a CEO who leads a neurodiverse team, I’m here to tell you that it’s not ADHD that’s the problem; it’s our perception and understanding of it. And our work culture. The standard work environment, which centers on neurotypical brains, can put neurodivergent employees at a disadvantage.

There is a real opportunity for improvement and inclusion when it comes to ADHD and the workplace — and with that, the potential for better outcomes all around. This ADHD Awareness Month, I want to emphasize the importance of offering a supportive workplace environment for employees with ADHD by considering the following:

Stop assuming that employees are just being lazy.

It’s time to recognize that common character judgments made about employees, such as laziness, may actually reflect underlying ADHD symptoms, such as struggling with attention to detail and time management. Negative feedback is common for employees with ADHD to hear, and it is not surprising that they are 60% more likely to be fired and 3x more likely to quit impulsively.

Instead, we should be understanding of our team members’ unique challenges and strive to create an environment where they feel supported and can do their best work without fear of judgment or reprimand. A good beginning step is to clearly communicate to your team that you’re a neurodivergent-affirming company. This means verbalizing that you are open to working towards solutions that meet the individual needs of your team members, and following through on that promise. From there, it may be helpful to evaluate how your team members communicate and process information best (for example, in person vs. in writing) so that you can establish a work foundation that prioritizes clear communication and understanding.

Having an understanding of executive dysfunction and ADHD can help employers have a more compassionate response to workplace challenges. When managing a neurodiverse team, negative consequences tend not to be effective, because a negative consequence assumes that what happened was a choice and that the employee knows how to address it. However, it is likely a neurodivergent employee may already be aware and even ashamed that they are struggling, so it is better to see these moments as an opportunity to offer support. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that employees are not invested, managers should look for solutions that enable employees with ADHD to complete their tasks successfully.

In one case, as reported in an SHRM article, an employee whose manager was going to terminate him for failing to complete tasks ended up proving worthy of promotion. All it took was working with a supervisor to develop a daily written checklist instead of being verbally assigned daily tasks. In fact, this approach worked so well that other employees, ADHD or not, adopted this practice.

Help employees work smarter, not harder.

ADHD brains fundamentally work differently than neurotypical brains. For ADHDers, their nervous system is wired for an ICNU framework—they engage best when a task is an Interest, a Challenge, Novel, or Urgent. For neurotypical workers, their driving force comes from the concept of importance, rewards, and consequences intrinsic to the task rather than the ICNU framework. This is why many people with ADHD are procrastinators: they know a task is important and they know the consequence, but the only thing that kicks their abilities into gear is the urgency of time to finish it.

One way of working is not better than another. However, if the work environment is only optimized for a neurotypical brain structure, it can impact mental well-being and even lead to burnout for neurodivergent brains. This is because on the outside, some adults with ADHD may look like they are fine, but in reality, they are making an excessive effort to keep up.

At my company, where we work remotely, some employees have harnessed the power of the ICNU framework by scheduling power hours” as needed. Team members work on camera together, a technique called body doubling, in timed work sprints and breaks, called the Pomodoro technique. By creating an immediate sense of challenge and urgency, employees work with their brains to manage workloads and prevent the stress that comes with the organic urgency of an impending deadline.

It may be helpful to keep time at the forefront of projects by utilizing a series of smaller internal check-ins, rather than a single firm, unmissable deadline. As an example, for a written project, moving from outline, to draft, to finalized copy is one way that you can break down a project into smaller chunks with clear targetable deadlines. In addition, leaning into the interest side of the ICNU framework is where many employees with ADHD shine. Consider starting a dialogue with your team about what excites them. You may find there are roles or responsibilities they are both well equipped for and passionate about, which you can keep in mind when assigning tasks.

Focus on strengths and differences.

Depending on the industry, anywhere from 22 – 37% of managers reported feeling uncomfortable recruiting and managing an employee with ADHD. Many managers may be focusing on the potential negatives, and that has resulted in challenges for neurodivergent folks to find employment.

What managers may not realize is that they could be missing out on tangible strengths. For example, research suggests that those with ADHD may be better suited to entrepreneurial action and that goal-directed motivation can drive enhanced real-world creative achievements.

There’s a reason major employers like Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase, and Hilton have launched specific programs focused on interviewing, hiring, and onboarding neurodiverse workers. With the right support and accommodations, there is incredible potential and value to be gained from team members with unique perspectives and abilities.

Embrace and celebrate neurodiversity.

Organizations should take the time to understand what neurodiversity means in the workplace and look for ways to embrace and celebrate it.

Training initiatives focusing on understanding and sensitivity can help create a more inclusive environment that supports neurodivergent individuals. Additionally, organizations can consider providing resources such as flexible working hours or remote work opportunities that will make their workplace more accommodating for neurodiverse employees. Ultimately, the goal should be to create an environment that not only supports and understands neurodiversity, but celebrates it and its advantages for everyone.

By fostering a more inclusive and positive work environment for all brains, we can help employees have the freedom and energy to focus on exploring creative solutions, produce better work, and experience better outcomes.

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