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Understanding the Impact of Employees with ADHD in the Workplace

Valerie Christensen, an employee at Salt Lake City-based loyalty program provider Access Development, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in 2005. She has many of the hallmark signs of the disorder, including difficulty focusing.

“There are times no matter how hard I try to work nothing is going to happen, but I think there are times when I can accomplish so much more than most people,” Christensen says.

A couple of months ago, Christensen’s company began allowing her to work an alternate schedule. Her workday is now broken up into two four-hour blocks—she spends mornings at the office and works late evenings at home. The schedule was originally implemented so Christensen could spend more time with her children. But it has had a positive impact on her productivity as a marketing/media professional with ADHD.

“My boss and I have discovered I am much more focused as a result of having less time at the office to work with,” Christensen says. “I literally accomplish in my half-days at work close to what I used to in a full, eight-hour stretch.”

Christensen says that’s because she feels “a greater sense of urgency. I appreciate the flexibility and want my employer to feel like it is working, and I more clearly recognize distractions for what they are when the clock is ticking.”

What It Is

ADHD is a complex neurobehavioral condition—75 percent to 80 percent of the cause is ascribed to genetics—that should be diagnosed by a health professional. It’s typically treated with medication and behavior therapy.

“The symptoms of ADHD are chronic, pervasive and impairing and are relatively unchanged since childhood,” says Dr. David W. Goodman, M.D., an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland in Baltimore. “It’s not a condition that comes and goes.”

Employees with ADHD might display inattentiveness and distractibility, impulsivity, hyperactivity, chronic forgetfulness, difficulty with details and paperwork, poor time management and difficulties with co-workers.

“They may be fidgety and restless, so they click their pen or tap their feet or shuffle their papers around a lot more than anybody else,” Goodman says. “They have difficulty organizing and planning, so tasks tend to get thrown together at the last minute.”

According to the 2008 World Health Organization (WHO) World Mental Health Survey Initiative, 5.2 percent of working adults in the U.S. have ADHD.

Impact at Work

According to the WHO study, people with ADHD work 22 fewer days per year than non-ADHD counterparts.

A 2008 survey of adults with ADHD by Titusville, N.J.-based McNeil Pediatrics found that among employed participants, more than half (56 percent) said their ADHD “strongly impacts their ability to succeed at work.”

In addition, the survey found that a majority of adults with ADHD who are employed “feel they have to work harder and/or longer than their co-workers to accomplish similar work” and half of those employed “worry ADHD symptoms affect opportunities for promotions.” McNeil Pediatrics makes Concerta, a leading ADHD drug.

Meanwhile, three-quarters of respondents said they have the most trouble staying on task at work. Others listed work-related challenges such as concentrating on what others are saying, wrapping up projects, following through on tasks, sitting still in meetings and organizing projects.

Half of the participants said they had been terminated from a previous job; 60 percent of them believe their ADHD symptoms contributed to their dismissal.

“I can’t tell you how many people are about to lose their job, [but] they get treated and their performance improves and they get promotions,” Goodman told SHRM Online.

That’s why he says it’s important for employees to be identified, evaluated and treated.

Legal Issues to Consider

Lynne Eisaguirre, a former employment attorney and Golden, Colo.-based workplace issues expert, says employers should not “guess” that someone has ADHD, try to diagnose this disability or try to “help” someone they believe has ADHD.

“Many other conditions can mimic ADHD behavior,” Eisaguirre says. “To treat someone differently because you believe they have ADHD, or even if you know because they’ve told you that they have ADHD, would be discrimination and stereotyping based upon disability.”

Any request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act should come from the employee, not the employer. If you believe that an employee is not performing well—for any reason—Eisaguirre recommends asking: “Is there anything that I’m doing or that anyone else is doing here at work that’s interfering with your success?”

If the employee volunteers something, “you can, of course, be compassionate,” Eisaguirre says, “but again, wait for them to ask for what they need.”

If an employee indicates that he or she needs help getting tasks completed, employers can turn to the Job Accommodation Network for free guidance on accommodating employees with ADHD.

Careers that Work

Individuals with ADHD can certainly be successful.

In recent years, several high-profile people have publicly disclosed they have ADD/ADHD. They include swimmer and U.S. gold medalist Michael Phelps, “Deal or No Deal” game show host Howie Mandel, former quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and David Neeleman, former CEO of Jet Blue Airways.

Dr. David Whitehouse, chief medical officer for Santa Ana, Calif.-based OptumHealth Behavioral Solutions, says employees with ADHD should avoid jobs that require constant attention to details and minutia and should opt for jobs that require high energy and intelligence.

Goodman says a lot of these people end up in sales "because they’re great talkers,” but added that the problem is they often "drive their managers crazy because they don’t get their paperwork done" because they really like going from task to task.

In addition to sales, Goodman says people with ADHD can probably “do reasonably well” as teachers because teachers often have a time-limited period where they “have to be on” and then get a break to regroup and get ready for the next activity.

“Certainly you will run into problems with these people if you put them in a telephone call answering center and tell them they can’t move and have to answer one call after another,” Whitehouse says.

And because employees with ADHD frequently need more sleep, giving a senior executive with ADHD a 40-page report to read the evening before a major decision-making meeting is probably not a good idea. “Under that kind of deadline pressure working late at night, they are probably not going to do well,” Whitehouse adds.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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