In an increasingly diverse corporate landscape, understanding and adequately supporting neurodiversity is not only a matter of compliance but a critical step towards cultivating an inclusive and productive workplace environment. Among the various neurodiverse conditions, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) stands out as a common yet frequently misunderstood condition.
In this article, we will explore ADHD, its manifestations in the workplace, and strategies for employers to provide effective support and adaptation.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder primarily characterised by difficulties in regulating attention, managing energy levels and controlling impulsivity. Although it is often diagnosed in childhood, an estimated 3-4% of adults have been diagnosed with ADHD in the UK1, with a higher diagnosis rate in males compared to females. Adult ADHD often goes unnoticed, lacking the structured observation environment like that of schools, where symptoms are more easily identified.
Despite the name, ADHD is not defined as just a deficit of attention but rather a complex condition relating to executive functions. This affects various cognitive processes, including memory, concentration, time management, and spatial awareness. The condition varies from person to person, making it more difficult to understand and accommodate in various life aspects, including the workplace.
ADHD in the workplace
ADHD impacts everyone differently, and an individual’s needs can change over time, especially as they develop strategies and routines to manage their responsibilities, or when aspects of their role change. Understanding these challenges is crucial in creating a supportive work environment and implementing effective adjustments. Some challenges employees with ADHD may face in the workplace include:
- Difficulty focusing: Some people may find it difficult to maintain focus, especially in busy or noisy environments. Similarly, they may only be able to focus with their own noise around them, such as white or brown noise, low-fi music, or even a podcast.
- Task management struggles: Individuals often have difficulty getting back on track quickly after being interrupted during a task. They can take much longer to complete something once they’ve been interrupted during the process. They generally also struggle with estimating how long tasks will take, prioritising tasks, and managing heavy workloads effectively.
- Hyperfocus: People who have ADHD often have the ability to hyperfocus, which means they can focus intensely on interesting or urgent tasks and typically lose track of time. While this can be great for productivity, it can also lead to an imbalance in work distribution and spending more time on these tasks than is reasonable for their priority level.
- Social challenges: ADHD can often cause people to misread social cues, leading to them feeling anxious in social situations, being socially awkward or to read into social interactions. This can lead to difficulty for that person in team dynamics such as meetings or discussions, unless managed effectively.
- Physical restlessness: In settings which require prolonged stillness, such as meetings, individuals may experience noticeable restlessness.
- Increased levels of fatigue: ADHD can trigger stress management and increased fatigue due to the additional mental effort required to manage symptoms during the workday.
Inclusive hiring practices
Supporting people with ADHD during the hiring process is more about implementing fair and inclusive practices for all candidates rather than adapting the approach specifically to people who have ADHD. Here are some tips for employers to take into account when starting a recruitment process:
- Structured interviewing: Keep the hiring and interview process structured and consistent for all candidates. This helps those with ADHD and other neurodiversities to prepare and understand what to expect and ensures that your hiring practices are inclusive and fair for all.
- Clear instructions: Provide clear and concise instructions and expectations for any tasks or activities candidates will be required to complete during the interview process.
- Processing time: Understand that some candidates may need a little extra time to process questions and articulate their responses. This is not a reflection of their intelligence or abilities. Some brains just work with information in a different way, and it can take a few more seconds to take in information, consider it, and produce a response.
- Flexible communication: Be open to repeating or rephrasing questions if the candidate asks for clarification. Be open to assistive technology or different ways of communicating, such as allowing candidates to use devices that reduce background noise or giving candidates opportunities to provide written responses when reasonable.
- Focus on strengths: Give candidates the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths and skills. Many individuals with ADHD have high levels of creativity, problem-solving skills, and the ability to think outside the box.
Workplace adjustments for ADHD
The support and processes which work for one person might not be effective or necessary for another. Providing fair and reasonable adjustments and support doesn’t provide an advantage, but rather levels the playing field so every employee has an equal opportunity to be successful in their role.
Many of these examples can apply to the workplace in general; to simplify ADHD to its most basic level, often open communication and simplified processes are all that are needed to manage someone living with the condition, both of which are cornerstones of good workplace environment practices generally.
- Never just assume: don’t assume what tools or accommodations are needed. Always ask if something would be helpful before implementation and keep all conversations about accommodations private and confidential. Work to create an open environment where all employees feel empowered to ask for support.
- Organisational tools: provide tools such as organisers or apps that assist with time management and prioritisation. Provide assistive technology like speech-to-text software for creating documents or AI notetaking/summary tools to allow people to focus on discussions rather than on keeping notes. Consider also providing opportunities for professional development in areas like time management and project planning. These can be valuable for the entire team, not just people who have ADHD.
- Quiet workspaces: offer a quiet, low-distraction workspace or noise-cancelling headphones to help minimise distractions and allow greater focus. Consider establishing ways that all employees can indicate that they’re in a focused work period and set the expectation that they only be disturbed for urgent matters. This can improve the focus and productivity of the entire team!
- Written instructions: provide instructions and expectations in writing to help those who have challenges with verbal processing or working memory.
- Flexible schedules: allowing for flexible working hours and/or the ability to work from home (when possible and reasonable) can help individuals create a work schedule that makes effective use of their most productive periods and increase efficiency by creating a work environment that’s tailored to their needs and how they work best.
- Task breakdown: break down large tasks into smaller, manageable steps with clear deadlines to help with focus and task completion. Establishing milestones and accountability can be very helpful for keeping on track with long-term and/or complex tasks and projects.
- Simplify meetings: during meetings, limit the amount of crosstalk and side conversations to reduce distractions and limit verbal processing challenges. Allow doodling or the use of discreet fidget items to provide an outlet for restlessness and encourage focus.
- Be upfront: this is absolutely key, and definitely not just for managing people with ADHD. Never send a message in the morning saying, “Are you free for a quick chat at 3pm?” The employee is likely to spend the entire day worrying about that chat and what it will be about, and immediately catastrophise and imagine it can only be the absolute worst-case scenario. Instead, try being upfront and open about the topic of discussion, such as “Am I okay to schedule a 10-minute catch up this afternoon? Would love to go through our work for XXX.” This allows the person to continue with their day without the anxiety of the unknown afternoon chat, and they can effectively schedule time to go over the discussed work beforehand, which allows for a much more informed discussion for both of you.
Effective leadership of employees with ADHD
Effective leadership is critical in supporting employees with ADHD. Leaders should foster an inclusive environment where employees feel empowered and supported in their unique work styles and needs. It may be that your employees living with ADHD need more positive feedback from you as a leader, so that they know they’re on the right track or are meeting expectations.
People with ADHD often do things a bit differently, so providing them with the opportunity to establish their own processes and environments (when possible and reasonable) will allow them to be more productive, efficient, and successful. For example: rather than taking one long lunch break, they may work better with several shorter breaks throughout the day, or adding extra steps into a standard process may save them more time overall by reducing the opportunity for errors.
There are simple things every leader can do to make the workplace comfortable, not just for those with ADHD but for everyone, with or without neurodivergences.
- Open dialogue: engage in open and respectful communication to understand individual needs and preferences.
- Resource provision: offer tools and resources for time management, prioritisation and project planning.
- Distraction-free environment: provide low-distraction workspaces to minimise external stimuli.
- Confidential discussions: ensure all conversations about accommodations are private and handled with the utmost respect.
- Regular check-ins: have frequent check-in meetings to discuss progress, provide guidance and constructive feedback, and adjust accommodations as needed.
- Flexible work arrangements: encourage flexible working hours and the possibility of working from home to enhance productivity.
- Personalised processes: understand that one size does not fit all. People with or without ADHD are going to have their own way of working, so take the time to understand how that looks for each person and let the employee guide you to understand how they work best.
Supporting ADHD in the workplace goes beyond making adjustments and accommodations. It’s about recognising and valuing the unique perspectives and strengths that neurodiverse individuals bring. By fostering an inclusive and considerate environment, we not only adhere to legal and ethical standards but also enrich our workplace with diverse talents and viewpoints. This inclusive approach not only benefits individuals with ADHD but enhances the overall productivity, innovation, and morale of the entire workforce.
1 Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, August 2023
Becky Ward is the Education Experience Specialist at Tutor Doctor. She is a certified teacher, qualified SEN educator, and has been a tutor for over 16 years. She is also the mum of two sons who both have SEN needs and are supported by the SEN system in school.