ADHD in the Workplace
By Doug Pentz, PhD, co-director and co-founder of The Affinity Center
You may know someone like this. You may even be someone like this. A smart, competent, creative person that may be fun to be around, but is just as likely late for work, late for meetings and unable to meet deadlines. The work space or desk looks like it should be declared a federal disaster area. This person has trouble listening, blurts things out or appears spaced out in conversations. Their being easily distracted may be driving coworkers crazy. Confounding their employers and coworkers, these individuals make careless mistakes, constantly forget things and appear chronically stressed and overwhelmed on the job, even though the sources of stress seem self-inflicted (by all of the above).
This is what it’s like to be an adult with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Since at least 5% of adults have the disorder, even small businesses are likely to have employees who have ADHD. Because it can occur among all social and occupation levels, it’s also just as likely to be the boss or the CEO with ADHD as much as anyone else in the organization.
As children with ADHD (with, or without, hyperactivity) mature into adulthood, there are a wide range of emotional, behavioral, and even health-related problems that persist. Several recent studies have helped us to better understand how untreated ADHD can negatively impact adults in the workplace. The most comprehensive to date – done in 2008 by Russell Barkley and Kevin Murphy – found the details of work life sobering. Research prior to this study had documented that adults with ADHD changed jobs more often, were more likely to have been fired, quit jobs impulsively, and had more chronic employment problems. Though having employment was not significantly different between those with or without ADHD; the Barkley and Murphy Study found that employment records of adults with ADHD were worse: they functioned at a lower level, with more behavior and performance issues, and they had more problems getting along with co-workers. On the job adults were rated by employers as more negatively affected by their ADHD symptoms in performing assigned work, being punctual, using good time management and managing daily responsibilities. Overall, employees with ADHD were rated as having poorer work performance compared to the control groups of adults without ADHD.
The good news is that treatment can make a big difference. Early treatment in childhood was shown to be a key factor in two studies of adults with ADHD that were done in 2009 and 2011 (details are at www.theaffinitycenter.com). Though unemployment rates for these adults were staggeringly high (up to 80%), the adults with ADHD who had been treated as children with medication were found more likely to be employed as adults. From our own experience at the Affinity Center treating people of all ages with ADHD, we also know the positive impact that medications, coaching and psychotherapy has for adults.
The effects of treatment can be profound; but, often, just identifying the problem as ADHD can be a relief for the employer and employee alike. At the Affinity Center, we find that working with employers to provide reasonable accommodations to improve the workplace environment is enormously beneficial. Often, only a few changes are needed. Increasing structure, stimulation, and the variety of work tasks, as well as regular performance feedback, can make a big difference. By providing a more functional work space, assistance with organization, minimizing paperwork through technology and (when possible) offering more flexible work hours, employers can create an environment that the adult with ADHD can thrive in – helping to turn a marginal or problem employee into a real asset for an organization. When it comes to improving the quality of life and productivity for the millions of adults still suffering from ADHD, this is a sound investment – for the employee, for their coworkers and for their employers.