ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder categorized by trouble with focus, attention, organization, task management, punctuality, adherence to deadlines, impulsivity—as well as mental, emotional, and social challenges resulting from the aforementioned symptoms. Essentially, people with ADHD produce fewer neurotransmitters, like dopamine and norepinephrine, that reward the brain and help focus, says Marcy Caldwell, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and ADHD specialist. And when someone's brain has less "feel-good" and "focus" chemicals, it’s easy to get distracted by things that do offer dopamine. This is the crux of ADHD, but the impact it has on one's life is much broader than just not being able to focus, Dr. Caldwell adds.
When your brain works differently and you experience challenges, you can accumulate emotional and physical consequences, Dr. Caldwell says, adding that people with ADHD are more likely to have a hard time financially than their peers and even have higher divorce rates. Mental health challenges are also high because the condition can be hard on self-esteem.
The implications of ADHD absolutely extend to the professional realm as well. On one hand, people with ADHD can struggle with rudimentary job requirements but they also bring out-of-the-box thinking that can challenge teams to think differently. Below, 12 professionals with ADHD share a little about what they wish their employers understood about the neurodevelopmental disorder.
1. ‘I usually have a bunch of extra steps to organize my brain’
"Even though my employer is very cool and says I'm doing a good job, I feel like I'm cosplaying being a linear neurological worker. I always get nervous that they think I'm slacking off if I take longer than it usually takes someone else to do the task. I usually have a bunch of extra steps to organize my brain and the work. I take a lot of breaks to get water or be near a window. It helps me reset when my brain is like a car that refuses to start, as opposed to staring at my screen and crying." —Sofia, 29, medical research coordinator
2. ‘Not everything needs to get done in a linear fashion’
"I would like for my manager to know that not everything needs to get done in a linear fashion. If I have five independent projects with the same due date, I probably won't finish one and then the next and then the next. I will probably work on each of them piece by piece, and sometimes that doesn't make sense to people, but it's how my brain works. Splitting my work up like that: planning stage, execution, finishing touches for all projects at once helps my brain to conceptualize what it is I have to do." —-Ronnie, 27, librarian
3. ‘I can be a self-starter when expectations are communicated upfront’
"I want all of my employers to know that giving me a list of tasks is doable and easy to execute for my brain. I value that structure and can check things off while getting the satisfaction of completing a step. I can be a self-starter when expectations are communicated upfront—but falling into a structureless ether is a prioritizing nightmare." —Mack, 26, director and production assistant
4. ‘Variety and novelty keep me engaged in my work’
"I can only really speak on this in hindsight. I was diagnosed in my 40s, a few months before the pandemic started. I've worked freelance ever since. Looking back on my work history, specifically, jobs spent in offices, I would want managers to know that variety and novelty keep me engaged in my work. The sameness of showing up and completing the same cycle of tasks, day-in-and-day-out, was so bad and boring for my ADHD.
Also, specifying when managers needed something done with, ‘whenever you get a chance,’ or ‘soon’ are not real quadrants I can work with. I needed ‘Thursday at 4 pm’ to log it in my digital and paper calendars, in my Bullet Journal, and on a post-it on my desk. Also, if I was wandering around the halls and not sitting at my desk from time to time, it was because I needed to be in my body to excite my nervous system. I wasn't being lazy or disruptive." —Ryan, 45, freelancer
5. ‘ADHD is an actual medical condition’
"I wish they knew that ADHD is an actual medical condition and not the token lazy or unorganized employee. If managerial mindsets could change to that of compassion and include support for the employee, people with ADHD could thrive with a more level playing field." —Christen, 33, business administration professional
6. ‘I wish my educators would have had more flexible and realistic rules’
"Now that I am in the academic workforce, I retroactively wish I hadn’t failed assignments as a high school and undergraduate student when I submitted them late, with the excuse that 'you can't be late in the real world.'
You can usually talk to your employer and arrange something that works for everyone. Getting things done, and done well, is usually more important than being on time—especially provided initial deadlines are set well ahead of when something is actually needed." —Karl, 24, biomedical engineering doctoral candidate
7. ‘Honest conversations about workplace structure can give everyone the support they need’
"I'd like more intentional conversations about workplace accountability. I think many workplaces tend to either micromanage (which is anxiety-inducing) or be hands-off (which puts too much pressure on individual employees to create structure). Also, explicitly acknowledging that support and structure needs won't be the same for everyone is super important.”
Finally, I think there needs to be space for supervisors to have support needs as well! Assuming that support only comes top-down implicitly means that people believe that folks in supervisory roles don't have ADHD or other executive functioning issues. In reality, honest conversations about workplace structure can give everyone the support they need." —Sam, 23, nonprofit professional
8. ‘Lack of structured deadlines…actually makes it harder to start’
“One thing that occurs to me is that a lack of structured deadlines, which might be given with the expectation that it makes an assignment or task less stressful, actually makes it harder to start and triggers procrastination tendencies.” —Blake, 27, tech industry professional
9. ‘My brain is just wired differently, and sometimes I forget things’
“I am not very good at managing details and small tasks and often have people repeating things they've said to me before. I get frustrated and upset about this sometimes because I want to be able to hear something once and remember it, but sometimes that just isn't possible. I would want my supervisor to know that my brain is just wired differently, and sometimes I truly forget things—not out of disrespect, though. I am lucky to have a job that is very creative and in my control, but the smallest things like filing for vacation or (big things) my materials budget forms are where I run into trouble.” —Marcella, 23, middle school art teacher
10. ‘It's hard to ask for room or support when I need it’
“As a person of color with ADHD, I feel like I have had to work a lot harder than my peers, and I continue to face different challenges than the troubles I see ADHD people facing. I rarely ever make mistakes because of my fear of assumptions and the pressure to be perfect and exceptional. That said, since I also have ADHD, I am more likely to make mistakes and feel more pressure to be perfect. It’s a cycle that causes me to burn out. It's hard to ask for room or support when I need it, and I never truly know what someone is thinking—so making a choice to disclose my ADHD is always a risk and not one I am always comfortable taking.” —Isa, 25, book publicity
11. ‘People with ADHD have unique abilities that go hand-in-hand with the fact that certain things are harder’
“I know that my ADHD can sometimes get in the way of my organization and task management, but I don't think I would have such good deas if I didn't have the brain that I have. I can troubleshoot solutions, come up with short-term and long-term project ideas, and navigate situations on the fly really easily.
People with ADHD have unique abilities that go hand in hand with the fact that certain things are harder for us. The way society is currently structured can be hard, and the fact that we have a hard time navigating it doesn’t mean we're inherently worse. I, for one, feel grateful for the ways that my brain is different, as long as I can still keep my job, though.” —Jamie, 28, video production and editing
12. ‘I don't think I will disclose in this new position’
“My current workplace doesn't know that I have ADHD because my last workplace pretended like they were accommodating until it came to their bottom line. There was a lot of talk about inclusivity, and I tried to open up about having ADHD. It was taken seriously at first, but in my review—all of the feedback I got was exceptionally disappointing. It didn't take into account what I had said about my work style and support needs. I met a lot of expectations, but it was a total letdown because the exact areas of criticism were the areas where I struggle because of ADHD. Even though we talk about ADHD a lot, I don't think I will disclose in this new position because I'd like to keep things on my own terms.” —Sami, copywriter
These interviews were edited and condensed for clarity.
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