ADHD in the workplace: Routines, rituals and techniques

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    ADHD in the workplace

    Managing ADHD at work can be hard. 

    Getting distracted easily and struggling to prioritize tasks can feel like game over in a working world obsessed with open-plan offices, deadlines and maximum productivity. 

    But we know there’s more to ADHD than that. 

    We’ve gathered together ADHD research and interviewed FLOWN members who have ADHD to create this resource for managing ADHD in the workplace (and how you may even be able to use it to your advantage…).

    With one-fifth of the population having some kind of neurodiversity, we think it’s time to recognize the brilliance of neurodiverse brains, and how our differences actually improve the quality of our work. 

    So let’s jump into talking all about how different brains have different needs, where someone with ADHD might struggle at work, how they can be successful at work and how to manage an employee with ADHD.

    Perhaps you’re reading this and questioning whether you have ADHD. You might have read a few articles where you recognize the symptoms, but haven’t wanted to go through the trials and tribulations of getting a formal diagnosis. 

    Some specialists have suggested the following lists of symptoms for ADHD in adults:

    • carelessness and lack of attention to detail

    • continually starting new tasks before finishing old ones

    • poor organisational skills

    • inability to focus or prioritise

    • continually losing or misplacing things

    • forgetfulness

    • restlessness and edginess

    • difficulty keeping quiet, and speaking out of turn

    • blurting out responses and often interrupting others

    • mood swings, irritability and a quick temper

    • inability to deal with stress

    • extreme impatience

    • taking risks in activities, often with little or no regard for personal safety or the safety of others – for example, driving dangerously

    To be diagnosed with ADHD as an adult is tricky as this is not a definitive agreed list of adult symptoms, as there is an agreed list for symptoms in children.

    Some people get diagnosed as adults if they present at least 5 of the symptoms listed in the diagnostic criteria for children for either inattentive or hyperactive and impulsive ADHD. 

    If you’re trying to get a diagnosis as an adult in the UK you also have to prove that you’ve had these symptoms since childhood as its not currently believed that ADHD can develop later in life.

    You also have to show how they’re having a moderate effect on certain areas of your life such as underachieving at work or difficulty in making or keeping friends. 

    Remember ADHD presents differently in everyone, as other aspects of your character, history and personality will affect how you interact with your brain chemistry.

    “It’s like having a Ferrari engine for a brain, with bicycle breaks.”

    - Dr Edward Hallowell, ADHD psychiatrist and author

    When it comes to the workplace it’s easy to assume ADHD must be profoundly unhelpful, but there are definite positives that come with having an ADHD mind.

    Creativity and out-of-the-box thinking

    It’s long been thought that people with ADHD are more creative than their peers, and recent studies are starting to support this claim. 

    It’s important for people with ADHD to recognize creativity and diversity of thought are unique skills that not everyone has. Having someone on your team who thinks creatively and innovatively can only be a good thing!

    Hyperfocus

    Hyperfocus is the experience of complete focus and absorption in the task at hand. It usually occurs when someone with ADHD is performing a task they’re genuinely interested in and may even find fun. 

    Workers with ADHD can leverage hyperfocus to their advantage by getting to know what causes their hyperfocus and finding ways to use it at will.

    Be aware hyperfocus can also be a problem if you hyperfocus on something that’s not that important or urgent. You can easily become completely absorbed in something that’s not that important, and forget about that piece of work due in 2 hours.

    Divergent thinking and problem-solving

    You know how we said diverse thinking improves the quality of our work? 

    Problem-solving is a huge example of that. Whether it’s a sudden crisis that pops up on launch day, or a brain teaser other teams have been trying to solve for months – people with ADHD will often be able to look at things from a different angle and come up with innovative solutions.

    Enthusiasm and energy

    We all know the draining feeling of running a Zoom call where no one else wants to contribute so much as a ‘good morning’. 

    But having someone with ADHD on your team can infuse any zoom or real-life meeting with a bit more energy. This can encourage greater communication and connection among teams.

    Bias to action

    Sometimes getting things done at work can feel like an uphill struggle, with ideas stuck in development hell or repetitive roundabout meetings where nothing is actually decided.

    No one wants to put in the effort to try something new or suggest a new idea. 

    But as a person with ADHD, you might have a desire to put new ideas into practice, and dive straight in.  

    “The level of creativity and ideas you get from the ADHD mind… You’ve got this brain that can see the whole forest really clearly, but really struggles to see the trees.”

    - Theo Smith, Speaker and co-author of Neurodiversity at Work

    There are always two sides to the same coin, and that energy, vibrancy and creativity can sometimes come at the cost of other skills.

    Poor planning and organization

    Experts describe the ADHD brain as being in a “reward deficit” meaning it’s always looking for the next dopamine hit in the current moment as opposed to thinking about the future. 

    Delayed gratification is a bit of a foreign concept for the ADHD brain, so planning for the future doesn’t sound appealing until the future is right on your doorstep.

    At work this can be a problem when bosses want to plan for the next quarter, whilst someone with ADHD just wants to get on with the exciting task they can do right now.

    Struggle to estimate time accurately

    The ability to estimate time is called your temporal processing ability. This includes things like being able to separate the day into morning, afternoon and evening, accurately estimating how long a task will take you and being able to tell how much time has passed. 

    People with ADHD tend to struggle with temporal processing and see time as now, and not now. Rather than have an understanding of the rhythm of the day, week and month.

     This can lead to problems at work like:

    • Missing deadlines

    • Not being able to prioritize time

    • Procrastinating 

    • Not being able to give accurate estimates on how long tasks will take

    • Lateness

    Which doesn’t always make you the most popular person…

    Interpersonal conflict

    There are a few reasons why people with ADHD might clash with their colleagues. 

    The way the ADHD brain communicates can be frustrating for others, as you might often get off-topic when talking which can derail meetings. Listening might also be harder for someone with ADHD if the conversation is taking place in a busy distracting environment.

    The way you complete your own work also has an impact on your team. As someone with ADHD you might have made your peace with completing deadlines in a panic, coffee-induced burst the night before. 

    But there’s a good chance your colleagues haven’t. 

    High absenteeism

    There are lots of different elements that play into potential high absenteeism among people with ADHD. A large part of it can be to do with the mental toll that comes with not feeling like you fit in.

    Missing deadlines or procrastinating may be frustrating for the colleagues of someone with ADHD, but in today's hyper-productive world it can feel downright shameful for the person struggling with it. 

    People with ADHD also often feel the need to hibernate and recharge, as their usual switched-on mode takes up lots of energy.

    All of these factors can mean individuals with untreated ADHD are overlooked for promotions or high-paid positions and have a higher rate of unemployment. 

    But we think the key word here is untreated

    There are plenty of incredibly successful people with ADHD who’ve learnt how to manage the things they struggle with, and play to their strengths.

    “Where we tend to come unstuck is on the details… the paperwork, the processes, the meetings… but the actual execution and delivery of our work, we tend to be brilliant… and that’s a horrible feeling, because those things are apparently so simple to everyone else, but they’re so hard for us to get right, and often we feel a lot of shame around those things.”

    - Pippa Simou, Psychologist and ADHD coach

    You absolutely can. 

    We’ve outlined 6 steps to follow so you can take ownership of your work life and set yourself up as a successful person with ADHD!

    1. Pinpoint the positive or useful parts of your ADHD

    One of the most important things is knowing and understanding how your ADHD uniquely works. 

    Why not try going through this article and writing about the symptoms you do and don’t connect with? 

    Try and remember specific examples of a time you experienced something, like missing a deadline or experiencing hyperfocus, and what happened beforehand.

    Nobody knows you better than you know yourself, so having your strengths and weaknesses crystal clear in your head will help you know what you need to use and manage them.

    2. Recognize the conditions you need to succeed

    Once you know what your strengths are it's all about finding what helps you harness them. 

    Do you find hyperfocus when you work in your own private space or can you listen to colleagues better when you have a walking meeting instead of a sit-down one? 

    Some people with ADHD swear by listening to a certain musical track on repeat so it drowns out background sounds.

    Start observing what helps you find your focus, and noting it down in one place.

    3. Talk to your boss about reasonable adjustments 

    It’s up to you whether you want to talk to your boss about reasonable adjustments, and how much information to disclose if you do.

    You may just want to ask for a specific adjustment and explain the reason without mentioning it’s an ADHD symptom or using the language ‘reasonable adjustments’ (as your boss will probably take note of the legal language and start to make assumptions.)

    Try framing the conversation with a specific solution-focused approach. 

    Open with how much you enjoy working for the company, and that you’re confident you’re going to make a huge impact in your role (ideally referencing specific projects you’re working on and goals you’re hoping to achieve.)

    You’re then in a great position to start requesting specific changes that could help you achieve those goals. An example of this could be:

    “This quarter I really want to focus on improving my productivity and hitting the sales conversion target. I was wondering whether I could work from home on Thursdays because I find it easier to concentrate away from the office in a quiet environment, and want to develop our sales funnel.”

    There’s a good chance your boss will say yes based purely on the strength of your reasoning, but that depends on your workplace’s culture and values.

    4. Deciding whether or not to share your diagnosis 

    It’s a personal decision whether to share your diagnosis at work as it could have beneficial or negative consequences.

    The main benefit of sharing your diagnosis is it gives your request more weight, and a company has to at least consider reasonable adjustments for a disability. Though what the company culture, values and history are like also plays a massive role in whether your request is granted.

    Before you disclose your ADHD think carefully about:

    • What exactly you’re hoping to achieve from sharing your diagnosis

    • Whether you need to share your diagnosis to get those results

    • Whether you believe your workplace is understanding and supportive of neurodiversity

    Lots of ADHD coaches counsel against sharing your diagnosis as there can still, unfortunately, be a stigma around the condition. Many managers aren’t equipped or don’t have the resources to support you in developing your relationship with ADHD in the workplace. 

    Bear in mind you can always disclose your ADHD at a later date if your boss doesn’t understand how much those adjustments would help you without initially knowing about your condition. 

    5. Plan your day beforehand and create a routine

    Routine can help people with ADHD improve their productivity, manage their symptoms and give them a better sense of time passing.

    Incorporate what you’ve spoken to your boss about in your calendar and start planning your tasks the night before, with your most important tasks first thing when you’re likely to have the most attention. 

    Planning things the night before improves your sleep, reduces decision fatigue the next day and jump-starts the next day with productivity. It also forces you to visualize what you’re going to do in advance, which helps increase motivation, and the likelihood of you doing it.

    6. Get support specifically designed for ADHD

    Make sure you’re leveraging technology, professional support and medical help to your advantage. 

    Apps like freedom will help you block distractions, whilst things like RescueTime will track how you spend your time to help you become more time aware. 

    We, of course, also recommend FLOWN for Flocks, AKA deep work sessions, that use body doubling and intention setting to make it more likely that you’ll be able to focus.

    If you’re struggling to make changes by yourself, an ADHD coach can help walk through the specific areas you struggle with and use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and other techniques to help make things more manageable. 

    CBT examines the cyclical relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and helps you find ways to break those cycles. Which can be really useful for ADHD symptoms like procrastination and improve your ability to plan ahead.

    Finally, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor, especially if medication is something you want to try, or if you’re on medication that isn’t quite working for you. They can also point you toward other ADHD resources in your area.  

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    “Hyperfocus… If you get someone with ADHD to focus on the thing they’re really interested in and passionate about, and eliminate distractions… they could spend 12 hours straight working on it… If I’ve got a track to go down, and a clean line, and I’ve got touch points like a marathon runner, I can just go, go, go, go… the mind being hyperactive can be really positive.”

    - Theo Smith, Speaker and co-author of Neurodiversity at Work

    This is a completely personal judgment call based on how you think your workplace would treat you as a result. 

    A workplace cannot discriminate against an employee based on them having ADHD. It's worth weighing up the benefits and drawbacks you’d get from sharing.

    Do you think your direct manager would be supportive? Or are they the kind of person who’d make lots of assumptions about your character? Is the overall environment a place where you can thrive? Does the HR department create a supportive company culture?

    Answering these questions might help you make a decision as to what you want to share about your condition. 

    When it comes to choosing a career as someone with ADHD the most important thing is it’s something you’re passionate about. You have to find the work you’re doing interesting and exciting to be able to focus on it. 

    You can then develop strategies and routines that’ll help you complete the aspects of your job you find more challenging.

    There are certain things you can look for in a job that will help you play to your strengths. When choosing a career consider whether it has: 

    • Creative elements that will excite and intrigue you

    • Movement so you’re not always sitting behind a desk

    • Problem-solving so you’re kept on your toes

    • A limited amount of tedious or repetitive tasks 

    • A forward-thinking HR department and excellent coaching culture from management

    As a result of this lots of people with ADHD have found success in hospitality, the arts, education, or healthcare industries.

    But never limit yourself because you have ADHD or you may end up choosing work you ultimately find unfulfilling. You’re an individual and ADHD is only one part of you. Whether you succeed or fail at a job is based on all the different parts of you, and the nature of the organization that hires you.

    “There’s a 300% chance of ADHDers becoming entrepreneurs, and it’s not really just because they have an amazing product or idea, or because they want to change the world. It’s because they just can’t work the way the offices are set up, and really because no one really got them.”

    - Kim Allingham, Neuro-inclusive design consultant & ADHD coach

    ADHD has been linked to both entrepreneurship and famous creatives

    From Richard Branson to Simone Biles, people with ADHD can be found at the top of their field in lots of creative innovative areas. 

    Entrepreneurship and working for yourself can be a really good move for people with ADHD as it allows them to do something that excites them and set up ways of working and routines that work for them.

    Meanwhile, creatives like Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel use their ADHD to give outstanding comedic performances. 

    If you’re reading this as a manager or boss of someone with ADHD who’s looking for advice then welcome!

    First off we’d advise not to assume you know what your employee needs or how their ADHD presents. There is a vast range of ADHD symptoms and treatments that you might not be aware of, that are different from popular media portrayals or stereotypes. 

    If your employee has opened up to you about their diagnosis then start a dialogue about how they experience their ADHD and what would make their working life easier. Encourage them to read this article or to share articles with you they’ve found helpful in the past. 

    Consider reasonable ways you could implement any of the tips from this article. This might look like letting your employee work from home on days they need to focus or making it a company habit to follow up any meeting with an action list.

    Find ways to support your employee to overcome the challenges they face, and you’ll soon reap the rewards of having an empowered neurodiverse team.  

    The answer is… it depends.

    According to the 2010 Equality Act, in the UK a disability is:

    A physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term (12 months or more) negative effect on a person’s ability to do day-to-day activities.

    So if you’re someone who already has a formal diagnosis of ADHD, then it could be considered a disability if it satisfies the “substantial” and “long-term” negative effect that the Equality Act states.

    If someone’s ADHD is considered a disability then an employer or school has a responsibility to make those reasonable adjustments or else they could be liable for disability discrimination.

    Of course, you might not be comfortable with identifying your ADHD as a disability. It all depends on whether you view, and can prove, it has had a substantial and long-term negative effect on your life.

    Get the UK government to pay for FLOWN membership

    If you're based in the UK and you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, you may be eligible for an Access To Work Grant. The UK government offers it to anybody who needs support to work effectively.

    See if you're eligible and learn how to apply.

    It’s a similar conclusion in the US. 

    The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)  states that as well as a formal diagnosis, a person with ADHD must prove that they can perform the essential duties of a job if given reasonable accommodations. (Though smaller companies are not immediately required to provide reasonable accommodations in the US).

    In both cases, it depends on how both an employer and someone with ADHD interprets the word ‘reasonable’.

    If you’re trying to establish exactly what reasonable adjustments look like in your place of work then look no further. 

    Reasonable adjustments for someone with ADHD could look like:

    1. Financial support to buy software that aids focus

    2. A separate space away from an open plan office or permission to work from home

    3. Support to buying physical equipment like noise-cancelling headphones 

    4. Normalizing peer review for detailed work

    Of course, not all companies are made the same and what is entirely reasonable for a company like Google, may be impossible for a small family business.

    As an employer ask yourself the following questions:

    1. Will it effectively reduce or remove the disadvantage?

    2. How practical is this to implement within the context of your working environment? (For example, it's unlikely a waitress can work from home)

    3. Is it affordable for the employer or business?

    4. Could it harm the health or safety of others?

    As a business, you’re expected to act in good faith when considering these questions and answer fairly about what’s affordable for you and reasonable for you.

    If a business and an employee disagree about a reasonable adjustment for ADHD then it’s best to discuss and see if there are other solutions or a compromise to be made. If you’re a person with ADHD then your next steps would be to make an informal or formal complaint to the company.

    If the results of this are something you’re not happy with then you could consider making a claim to an employment tribunal.

    It may take some time for you to truly understand your ADHD. From how to manage the symptoms you struggle with, to making use of others to help you thrive.

    Try and be as compassionate towards yourself as possible whilst you figure out what works for you. Experiment with different techniques and be curious when things don’t work, rather than be judgemental or cruel, and you never know what you may discover.

    Remember you deserve the time and the space to find the best working environment for you. 

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