By Naomi Osahon
This article is not JUST for those who have ADHD. for their employers, coworkers, parents, friends, partners… the list can go on. Work makes up a huge fraction of a person’s life and usually impacts personal life factors outside of the professional space. The lack of understanding of what ADHD is and how it affects work creates avoidable challenges because it limits the progress of making everyday life accessible to neurodivergent people, namely those with ADHD. I will be writing this from my experience as an insight to what it feels like to have ADHD as an adult starting out my career.
Let’s start with diagnosis; this might not seem relevant to work life, but bear with me. I have always been super entrepreneurial; for legal purposes the following may or may not be a lie *wink wink* but when I was younger, I sold cookies and doughnuts at School. I would get to the shops earlier than my peers and purchase the freshest, yummiest looking baked goods – I’d resell these at break and lunch time – business was always booming. As soon as I was of age, I worked at a nursery; it was super fun, engaging and positive. I was usually early and this was the same happened for my first retail job, I was always super early – as you can imagine, my manager loved me for it! I had the right work ethic, and this is important for me to point this out because when you have ADHD it’s easy to label yourself as lazy. But as I’ll explain soon, it’s a lot more about executive function than it is the amount of energy you put into getting a task done.
As life tasks started to pile on and I took up a different part time role whilst at uni, ADHD symptoms really started to sneak their way into my work life. From showing up to work 4 hours early, to arriving 2 hours late and literally missing days or coming in on the wrong ones – I was completely confused at how I kept ending up in these positions. I would forget important information about company training days and watch my supervisor spell my name wrong but not say anything until she had spelt it wrong the third time (she was very annoyed about that). Even at that stage, I hadn’t been diagnosed – but being an adult and having to balance a variety of tasks made my symptoms come to the forefront. The diagnosis story is one for another day, but let me say this – you’d think finding a name for why you have been going through the things you have been going through, provides a sense of relief; and it did for a second, but as the realisation set in, I felt set up for complete failure.
As I read the adult ADHD symptom list and could tick off almost all, I couldn’t help but think I won’t ever be able to do anything like an adult should with this condition. It just sounds like I’ll come across as a person with bad personality traits.
- 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
- 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
It’s no wonder mental health conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and more, often affect adults with ADHD. There’s no easy way to cope with a brain that has a hard time doing the things that every adult has to learn to do. My initial response was understandable, but I learned with time, medication and a lot of hard work that like with most conditions, symptoms can be managed. And ADHD is actually one of the most medically treatable mental health conditions.
My hope is that whoever reads this doesn’t label themselves or a person with ADHD with these symptoms – it’s always good to remember that conditions manifest differently in different people. Even when struggling, most people with ADHD don’t disclose their diagnoses at work for fear of being discriminated against or judged. Those who might ask for what they need could likely face bias. There are so many pieces of writing out on the internet that suggest people with ADHD feel that they don’t need help and shouldn’t seek a single accommodation – this in turn leads to a lot of potential not being met. Accommodating an employee with ADHD is usually cheap and easy. Here are the things that are helping me with navigating through ADHD in my career journey.
How you view yourself can make or break your workplace experience; you are not a list of symptoms. It’s important to not look at the symptoms and decide that that’s all there is to you. You are a multi-faceted human being and your value doesn’t lie in your accomplishments; they’re nice to have and they will build your esteem over time, but at the core; you have the same potential as everybody else around you. It’s just a matter of identifying the right accommodations that will help you develop yourself. Also try to remember you’re never going to be perfect, so don’t try for perfection, just try for a little bit better. One step at a time.
When I am in a specific environment it really sets the tone for me contextually. An office lets me know I need to be in work mode. I always have to be sure to sit away from social areas because I definitely will get distracted but a desk, chair and minimal distractions are a good set up for me. I have heard other people with ADHD speak about how they prefer to do work in pubs so they are mentally stimulated. Or with some kind of sound in the background – which leads me to my next point. I like to wear headphones because not only does it block out distractions but it also lets all your lovely co-workers know you’re in the zone. I personally like listening to specifically ‘focus music’ on YouTube.
My relationship with work like for many other ADHD brains is a tricky one. I often do really well when my mind is engaged and fail super bad when it isn’t, which has definitely affected my self esteem in the past. But I have had to practice practical patience with myself. What can I do to make a task easier for myself? I learnt to break it up in steps, do what’s easiest first and where I can, I pair a fun thing with the ‘boring’ thing. For example, listening to upbeat music whilst doing design work or lo-fi hip hop instrumentals whilst reading. Anything that doesn’t require too much focus is something I make more enticing by offering something fun along with it.
There are things an employer can do to help such as providing clear deadlines and clear instructions. Also having a well known structure in place for reaching out in case a person with ADHD needs support. It’s often the unknown that a lack of clarity makes tasks harder and more tedious for people with ADHD because these tasks require a lot of exciting function magic – which is where we fall short. As a person with ADHD it can also be good to let your employer know about your condition. Ask about support equipment that could help like noise cancelling headphones and being expected to hand work in earlier than others. Other ways I like to accommodate myself is with a fidget toy. Meetings can be hard but splitting your focus with the use of stimuli is a great way to make long focus requiring tasks a lot more accessible. A personal thing that also works for me is reading out loud or in accents – it sounds bizarre I know but its always worked wonders!! Also having someone you’re accountable to is great, object impermanence can make remembering things challenging but a work buddy can help with that.
Every person who is neurodivergent has their own experience and their own ways that can help them in their work life. Be open to trying things out, letting things go and picking things up – and the things in question here are tips for being ‘more productive’. Cut yourself slack where its fair to do so and try your hardest not to be defeated by stumbling blocks. It might seem tedious but you can find a way to enjoy your career as you keep on trying to figure out what works for you!
Naomi is a digital marketer and content writer who enjoys writing informative and opinion pieces about social topics mainly to do with inclusion and diversity. Her passions lie in coming up with creative campaigns and using digital means to make positively affect change.