SUPPORTING THE GROWING NUMBER OF WORKERS WITH ADULT ADHD
Adult ADHD is a growing point for discussion on social media. While ADHD used to be largely associated with elementary-aged boys who couldn’t sit still in class, we are now seeing a growing group of adults, particularly working-aged women, who are just now discovering that they may, in fact, see the world through ADHD-coloured glasses.
What is Adult ADHD?
Adult ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a neurological disorder affecting approximately 4.4 per cent of US adults and a similar proportion of Canadian adults . Adult ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in men than women, although women have been woefully underdiagnosed for decades due to diagnostic criteria that was originally designed to diagnose young boys. ADHD is a divergence in how the brain processes information and is classified as a disability in Canada if the impairment is severe enough. While ADHD can certainly be a disability, it doesn’t have to mean exclusion from the working world; ADHD workplace accommodations can prove very successful in helping workers manage their ADHD.
Is Adult ADHD Different From Adolescent ADHD?
As many as 80 per cent of children diagnosed with ADHD will see their symptoms continue into adolescence and adulthood . However, the way ADHD presents in adults may be different than what we typically see in younger individuals. This, compounded by testing protocols that are designed for children and the varying ways ADHD can present, particularly in women and non-binary people, can make identifying ADHD particularly challenging.
Younger individuals may present more traditional ADHD symptoms (fidgeting, inability to sit still, disruptive behaviour), while adults, particularly those who were not diagnosed until adulthood or who remain undiagnosed, have often developed coping skills and masks to act “appropriately” in educational and work settings. This can look like detailed and complex personal organizational systems, moderating the tone and volume of their voice to align with those around them, or taking on fewer stretch assignments and staying close to job functions that have been previously mastered.
This doesn’t mean adults with ADHD aren’t still struggling, but it may be harder to notice, or it may have been long ago chalked up to a personal failing, rather than a neurological difference.
Symptoms of Adult ADHD
While the core symptoms of ADHD in adults broadly resemble the common signs of ADHD in children and adolescents, the intensity of symptoms, particularly as it relates to hyperactivity, often decrease overtime.
Common Adult ADHD symptoms can include both inattentive (executive dysfunction) and impulsive (hyperactive) symptoms.
Inattentive symptoms are often the ones associated with “Executive Dysfunction,” including challenges with getting started on and completing tasks; difficulty focusing and procrastination; poor time management and organizational skills; forgetfulness; and poor attention to detail.
On the impulsive side of the equation (the side most often associated with hyperactivity in children and youth), we often find restlessness, fidgeting, excessive talking, and frequently interrupting others.
Finally, ADHD can also result in challenges with broader mental wellness, including an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression, and with regulating emotions, which may lead to increased frustration and, at times, anger.
Recognizing Adult ADHD in the Workplace
Adult ADHD can result in significant workplace challenges for individuals with ADHD and their employers. These can include poor time management and concentration, procrastination, and/or forgetfulness. It can make maintaining a consistent level of performance in the workplace challenging or impossible for those who have ADHD.
Adult ADHD can also result in challenges with relationships, safety, and other comorbid health conditions, such as anxiety disorders. These challenges can be particularly burdensome when an individual is undiagnosed, untreated, or ineffectively treated.
Adult ADHD in the workplace may present as missed deadlines, work riddled with typos, and strained relations with colleagues.
But, at the same time, adult ADHD may also look like someone who is high-achieving, innovative, and able to crush short deadlines, but feels like they’re drowning and failing at every turn.
This can make it hard for an employer to identify who in their workplace has ADHD and therefore who may need ADHD accommodations at work. This is why it’s so important to create a culture of inclusion and psychological safety, so that employees who may need ADHD accommodations can share that with their employer without fear of facing ADHD-related discrimination in the workplace.
Other workplace challenges for individuals with ADHD can include risk of job and income loss, stress-induced illness, and stigma. In fact, a review of a US-based set of data collected over the span of 20 years found that unmanaged ADHD has a huge economic impact:
Overall national annual incremental costs of ADHD ranged from $143 billion to $266 billion. Most of these costs were incurred by adults ($105B – $194B) compared with children/adolescents ($38B – $72B). For adults, the largest cost category was productivity and income losses ($87B – $138B).
Supporting Adults with ADHD in the Workplace
If you are an employer and you either suspect one of your employees has ADHD, or if an employee has disclosed their ADHD to the employer, there are ways to manage ADHD in the workplace.
Here are five (and a bonus!) workplace strategies for employees with ADHD.
1. Inclusive Benefits Programs. Ensure you have a benefit plan that provides both adequate prescription drug and mental health benefits. ADHD medications can be expensive (over $200/month without coverage) and ongoing regular mental health support, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or ADHD coaching, can cost over $200/session, with 12 or more sessions required each year. Without benefits, your employees may be on the hook for upwards of $5,000 a year in necessary support.
2. Encouraging Employees to Engage in Behaviours that Help Manage ADHD Symptoms. Ensuring your employees have the freedom to balance their work and personal lives in ways that make sense for them is critical for those who have ADHD (and for all employees). Allowing employees time to get physical exercise, to afford and consume healthy food, and to get adequate sleep and rest are fundamental components of an effective ADHD management approach.
3. Look for an Individual’s Unique Set of Symptoms. Get to know your employees, consider both where they struggle and where they excel. Not everyone with Adult ADHD responds the same to a common situation. By understanding individual strengths and limitations, you can assign work based on those strengths and provide supports to overcome some of the existing limitations.
4. Consider Flexible Scheduling. Some individuals with ADHD will find their focus and executive function will ebb and flow throughout the day. Some people are better first thing in the morning while others take a while to get going. Wherever possible, allow individuals to plan their own schedules or work on a schedule that is natural to them (i.e., if they are not morning people, you will likely encounter fewer issues with lateness if you don’t expect them to start work promptly at 8am).
5. Adapt Your Management Approach. Put instructions in writing, rather than just verbally telling someone with ADHD what to do. Set clear deadlines, allocate time for regular project check-ins, and work toward mini-milestones. Allow those with ADHD to work in spaces that are conducive to focus by minimizing potential outside distractions, but simultaneously allow the same employee to listen to music or have some other stimulation on in the background (which can help deliver much-needed dopamine to an ADHD brain).
Bonus Strategy: Ask.
First, last, and at all times in between, ask your employee what they need. Come prepared with some ideas yourself of what you can offer, but have the conversation to co-create a solution that is tailored and targeted to the employee in question. Don’t assume you know what they need, or that their needs will be the same as another employee with ADHD. Keep the lines of communication open and be flexible and agile if strategies and accommodations need adjusting. Work as partners, and you’ll reap the benefits that ADHD can bring together.
If you’re struggling with how to support your diverse workforce, reach out to Canadian Equality Consulting. We offer customized and tailored solutions to all inclusion and equity-based workplace needs. Whether you need training, leadership coaching, or a detailed strategy and action plan, we can help you find the right path to a more welcoming and inclusive workplace.