Thursday, July 1, 2010

Is ADHD Being Ignored in the Workplace?

When I was in second grade, I had the Wicked Witch of the West as a teacher. With cat-eye glasses, hair in a viscously tight bun and always sucking a cough drop, this woman terrorized 30 children every day -- including me. (I once ate an entire eraser before school in an effort to make myself sick so I wouldn't have to go to school. It worked.)

I managed to stay below her radar for the most part, but several kids had to take her bullying every day. One kid was named Lance, and he couldn't sit still. Today he'd probably be diagnosed with ADHD, but in those days -- my teacher ruled. And she ruled that he should be tied to his chair with his own belt. It still makes me sick to think about it.

Thank goodness we understand much more about ADHD and have ways to treat it. But I think that in the workplace today, there is still a lot of misunderstanding. While employees may not be tied to their chairs, they may still be held back by those who don't understand their disorder. Here's the story I did for Gannett/ on the issue:

Daryl Wizelman was diagnosed at age 6 with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when he couldn’t concentrate in class and was judged to be “hyperactive” by teachers. His pediatrician put him on medication, which he considered a “real life-changer.”

Fast forward a couple of decades. Wizelman founds his own company, but employees say he doesn’t seem to listen to them, rushing through meetings and showing little interest in their ideas. Again, his ADHD has come into play, and he struggles to find ways to take a childhood disorder and make it fit into a working world that expects top performers to be focused and organized.

More years pass. Wizelman now says, despite his ADHD symptoms still existing, he has learned to be more aware of the appropriate way to behave – and even sees the “positive” aspects of his disorder.

“It gives me a lot of empathy toward other people, with whatever struggles they may be facing. It teaches you to treat others how you want to be treated,” says Wizelman, a Calabasas, Calif., speaker and author.

Mental health professionals estimate that 9 million adults in the United States have ADHD. Symptoms of ADHD and attention deficit disorder (known as inattentive ADHD) include difficulty paying attention; being easily distracted; trouble finishing paperwork; fidgeting; talking too much; and procrastination. All these issues can cause workers with the disorder a lot of problems at work – and possibly even get them fired.

Michele Novotni, a psychologist and coach who specializes in workers with ADHD, says that the disorder is “tremendously undiagnosed” in adults, because in the past it was viewed as only a childhood disorder. Any adult not following through on work, for example, was simply seen as lazy, she says.

“Some of the criteria for children with the disorder are that they have trouble sitting still – they get up and move around a lot,” she says. “But with adults, they may learn to sit still – but their brains are in a hyperactive mode.”

Novotni says adults in the workplace with ADHD often may not stop to think before they say or do something – they may commit “social faux pas” and “hurt people’s feelings,” a detriment to their workplace success since social interaction often is critical on the job.

While many adult ADHD sufferers use medication to help them control their symptoms, learning to cope in the workplace often also takes coaching, Novotni says. “Pills aren’t skills,” she says.

Novotni and other experts say some coping skills for those workers with ADHD include:
Getting an assistant. “Workplaces have cut out secretaries and assistants, and that’s been deadly for those with ADHD,” Novotni says. “Those people provided them with needed structure. I suggest people get someone to help them – rather it’s a college student or a virtual assistant.”[rather?]
• Understanding priorities. Check with your boss to make sure you understand what tasks should be done first. Novotni suggests two white boards: one that serves as a “parking lot” for thoughts and ideas and a smaller one with only three priority items. Until the three priority items are done, you can’t move on to other ideas or projects, she says.
Being honest. Wizelman suggests that if you’re a boss, let others know about your ADHD. “Being transparent and vulnerable is important. It draws people in, and they get a greater understanding of you and you become a relatable leader,” he says.
Eliminating distractions. Try to sit near the speaker in a meeting or presentation so it’s easier to stay focused, and take notes to keep you on track. Getting an agenda beforehand can make it easier to follow along.
Finding ways to fidget appropriately. Taking a walk on a break or exercising at a gym during lunch can help you relieve restlessness that you must contain during other parts of your workday.

Novotni points out that employers should provide training on ADHD, both for those who suffer from the disorder and those who work with them. “These people are often great employees – they have so many ideas, so many things going on in their heads,” she says.

Feel free to share your thoughts about this issue in the workplace...


Nathaniel said...

I am so glad that you wrote about ADHD in such a positive way. You noted the difficulties that we face with out ADHD. They quickly addressing the struggle with practical solutions to get on top of the ADHD.

Great article!

I have had ADHD since I was like Lance. I was never tied to my chair but I receive some unpleasant punishments.

That was 20 years ago and now I am adult and I have started to give beck as best as I can. I started a website about ADHD called:

It has been my change to tell some of my stories. The process of writing them helps me and I hope that the process of reading them heps others.

I liked your spin n ADHD,
Thanks Anita.


Anita said...

Thanks for offering a valuable link for readers!

Gina Pera said...

Hi Anita,

That's a very helpful piece. Thank you.

It's great that you selected psychologist Michele Novotni as a source. She has a solid grounding in this topic and is considered a top expert.

I think it's important to emphasize that, especially in this economy, a person with ADHD needs to be realistic about how much acccommodating an employer can be expected to do.

Some "ADHD gurus" have persistently promulgated the message that ADHD is an asset in the workplace, that it's just a question of finding the right job.

And while that might be true for some, for others this kind of thinking only leads to unemployment.

I meet people with ADHD who come to our local meeting. They've embraced this message, and so they tend to blame former bosses for not accepting their "creativity" and "free spirit." Most of these people stay unemployed until they realize their bosses have other things to do than manage this employee's "creativity."

Many other people with ADHD come to our meetings ready to learn about evidence-based strategies. The ones who face their challenging symptoms squarely are the ones who go on to get better jobs or promotions -- and soon don't need to keep coming to meetings.

The bottom line: It's important to be realistic about ADHD symptoms. Much was tolerated in previous years' "go go economy" that is not tolerated now. We all need to stay on our toes and take steps to short up our strengths while mitigating our weaknesses.

thank you,

Gina Pera, author
Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

Anita said...

I think you add a very real-world perspective to this issue -- job seekers with this disorder would be very smart to heed your advice. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

Patricia said...

I have worked for super organized bosses and others who can't seem to concentrate and are procrastinators. Your article definitely gave me another perspective on it as they may have more of a problem than at first glance.

I do like your first point and agree wholeheartedly. Some bosses who have an assistant love that they have someone who can keep their worklife organized. Others have an assistant, but don't know how to use one. It is very important in the interview to set clear expectations so each person knows what they are expected to do and whether it is something they can and want to do especially if the boss is disorganized. Not everyone will be able to work with a distracted boss, but some people are great at it.

Anita said...

If a boss does have ADHD, it may be helpful to let an assistant know that -- then the challenges and expectations can be clearly addressed. Thanks for commenting.