ADHD in the Workplace: Overcoming Obstacles and Getting the Job Done
In this section:
One of the major areas of focus for adults living with ADHD is learning to manage the disorder in the workplace. Without accommodations, the disorder can be equally as impairing for the chief executive as it is for the person working in the mailroom. If you’re living with ADHD, you may struggle in the workplace because your symptoms cause difficulties in some or all of the following areas:
organizing paperwork, prioritizing tasks, estimating the amount of time it takes to complete tasks and getting started on projects in a timely manner;
focusing, sustaining and shifting attention from one project to another;
staying alert, sustaining effort and processing information (usually through reading and writing) in a reasonable amount of time;
remembering facts while actively processing other information; and
regulating impulsivity and picking up on the nonverbal cues from others.
As for jobs, at first I mainly worked in offices. But I didn’t last very long anywhere because I would forget where I would put things. The more stress and pressure from my job, the more I would forget. I would flip from one job to another usually after six months to a year and then I realized that I wasn’t looking for the right kind of jobs. I needed something that was good for me, so I worked at a library for eight or nine years. It was heaven.
Before I started working in the library, I thought I was a flop and that was bad for my self esteem. At the library, I was in my glory. From there, I discovered NAMI and found out about my disorder.
I live with ADHD and bipolar disease, but I only take medication for bipolar because of the interactions of the medications. I am used to it, I live with it. It’s not easy, but I learn to go with the flow. Read more.
The most important first step is to be under the care of a knowledgeable health care professional. You and your treatment professional will then need to decide on the kind workplace modifications you will need. Before you approach your employer, you will need to know your legal rights.
ADHD is covered under the two major laws that protect people with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace. What follows is an explanation of the laws and the protections they afford:
- The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in federal agencies and other federally-subsidized entities. This law extends protection to people working for any group receiving federal funding, including public schools, colleges and, in some cases, even private schools.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) expands the rights from the Rehabilitation Act to private entities by requiring employers with 15 or more employees to provide qualified individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from the full range of employment-related opportunities that are available to others. It requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities, unless the accommodations would result in an undue hardship for the employer.
You should familiarize yourself with your state laws, which may provide you with more protection and rights than federal laws. Your doctor or therapist may be able to provide you with more information about the laws in your area. You can find telephone numbers to state agencies by using the blue pages located in the middle of your phone book. A call to a state information line could help you locate the information you are looking for.
Because the majority of court cases filed under the ADA are won by the employer, it is crucial that those seeking accommodations work as collaboratively and diplomatically as possible with their supervisors before considering litigation. Since both Section 504 and the ADA require self-reporting of disabilities, employees should carefully consider whether or not they wish to disclose that they have ADHD. If you have decided to approach your supervisor, this section will provide you with a list of steps you will need to take in order to receive accommodations.
- Plan. One of the best avenues for success at work is to implement your own strategies (see tips below) and see how effective they are before involving your employer. Once you have done that, talk with your treatment professional and decide on the specific accommodations you will need in the workplace. Be realistic about your requests and be sure to outline for your employer the steps you have taken on your own that will help you perform at work. Have a game plan and alternatives in mind for when you meet with your superiors.
- Document. Before approaching your employer, you must first document that you qualify for accommodations under the current law. You should ask for a report from a qualified treatment professional (e.g., a clinical social worker, psychiatrist, psychologist, family doctor, etc.) that states that you have been diagnosed with ADHD and that the disorder represents a “significant” impairment to one or more of your major life activities. The report should enumerate the specific areas that are impaired by the disorder. It should also include specific accommodations that you will need in order to effectively perform the duties of your job.
- Negotiate. Ask to meet with your supervisor to talk about the accommodations you will need. Explain what ADHD is and how it impairs your work. Provide your boss with the report from your treatment professional. Be sure to emphasize that your goal is to do the best possible job for your employer and the accommodations you seek are not meant to be burdensome, but to maximize your productivity. Seek his or her ideas on ways you can receive the accommodations you will need. The two of you can then develop a work plan that is realistic and helpful for everyone involved.
- Evaluate. Once you receive the needed accommodations, take stock of what works and what does not. This will place you in a good position to negotiate changes with your supervisor if you need them. If you find you no longer need a particular accommodation, let your supervisor know. Conversely, if you find that you need additional changes to your work environment, then see if you can include them in your work plan.
Deciding to disclose that you live with ADHD to your supervisor requires a great deal of consideration. In some cases, it may not be the best direction to go because of a supervisor’s preconceived beliefs about people with disabilities in general and ADHD in particular. The best solution may be to implement basic accommodations on your own that do not require disclosure. On the other hand, if your job is at risk because of your ADHD, then it may be absolutely necessary to disclose your diagnosis with your supervisor in order to take full advantage of all of the accommodations you are entitled to under the law.
- Debrief. Circle back with your treatment professional or coach to report on how well the accommodations are working for you and if they are not working, try to figure out why. Be sure to follow through with any treatment regimens that you and your health care provider have agreed to. Medication can be very helpful in alleviating the symptoms that hamper workplace productivity.
There are some practical steps that you can take that will ensure your success at work. This section includes many of the accommodations that you can implement on your own.
- Find an ADHD Coach. ADHD coaches are available to work one-on-one or in groups with adults with the disorder. Coaches help people develop ways to focus, organize and succeed in every area of life. Coaches can be particularly helpful working with adults on their challenges in the workplace. If you want to learn more about ADHD coaches, visit the ADHD Coaches Organization.
- Choose a Job that You Enjoy Doing. PET brain imaging, a technique which produces a three-dimensional image or picture of functional processes in the brain, has shown that there is decreased activity of the reward system in people with ADHD. It is believed that this makes it harder for people with the disorder to engage in activities that they do not find inherently interesting. To stay engaged, people with ADHD need to be involved in activities they enjoy doing. Make sure you are pursuing work that you enjoy. In many cases, people with ADHD do not do well in jobs that are repetitive or require great attention to detail. Think about the kind of work you like to do and pursue jobs that will allow you to do it.
- Think About Your Work Environment. The physical space you work in every day can make a huge difference for you. If you are a very active person and enjoy the outdoors, perhaps you should choose a job that will allow you to be out in the elements. If you enjoy structure of a real office, then you will want to pursue a position that puts you indoors. For many people with ADHD, a fast-paced environment keeps them stimulated, focused and productive.
- Use a Reward System. After you tackle a significant number of tasks that are inherently uninteresting to you, try to reward yourself with something you enjoy doing. For example, an hour of work could translate into ten minutes of checking a personal email account or taking a walk outdoors. Think outside the box when it comes to tapping your reward systems. Remember: First you work and then you play.
- Prepare Lists. Keep a running list of your tasks and deadlines. Quickly review them and prioritize the list based on the deadlines and the amount of work they will require. The list can be kept on something as simple as a sticky note. The important thing is to always know where you last placed the list.
- Plan Each Day the Night Before. Take 30 minutes every night to think about the next day. With your planner in front of you, walk yourself through the day. For every meeting, visualize what you will need. Start with basic items, such as pens, paper, etc. Drop those items in a sack or box as you think of them. Place the bag with your belongings in front of the door you walk through each morning. That way you will not forget the items you will need that day.
- Surround Yourself with the Right People. One of the most helpful coping mechanisms for people in the workplace is to have a support system. You should identify co-workers who have strengths that will complement you and try to work closely with them. If you have the knowledge about a particular issue but are a weak writer, work collaboratively with a colleague who has strong writing skills. If you are in a leadership role and can do it, hire a good administrative assistant who can help organize your day. The key is to surround yourself with good people who can help you make the contributions that only you can make.
- Exercise. Research shows that regular exercise is good for us physically and mentally. It can relieve stress and provide focus for people with ADHD. People who exercise regularly often report that they feel a sense of accomplishment, which builds self-esteem and instills discipline, both of which are extremely important to people with ADHD. Exercise can also make you feel more disciplined and on task at work. Visit NAMI Hearts & Minds to learn more about exercise and living with mental illness.
- Utilize Technology. There are so many technological devices now that can help people with ADHD. From checking your spelling to organizing your day, technology can play a useful role in ensuring success in the workplace. If you have one, consider using your iPhone or Droid to schedule reminders for yourself, to keep track of contact information or to record meetings.
Schedule Office Hours. To avoid constant interruptions from your colleagues, consider designating time during the day for meetings. Of course, if your boss wants to meet with you, then you have to meet. But for other people, it may be a matter of blocking out a window of time during the day for meetings and then dedicating the rest of your day to getting your job done.
Be sure to brainstorm with your doctor, therapist and coach about other ideas that may help you perform your duties more effectively.
Once you have implemented measures on your own, there are some reasonable accommodations that you could request at work and they include:
Organization, prioritizing and time management
- Scheduling regular meetings with supervisor to prioritize tasks;
- Developing a checklist of assignments;
- Developing a workflow chart that provides an idea of time required for each project;
- Moving to an electronic filing system; and
- Extending deadlines on projects and tasks.
Focus and sustaining attention
- Providing a distraction-free workspace;
- Breaking up big assignments into smaller tasks;
- Providing structured breaks; and
- Integrating interesting projects with more mundane tasks.
Memory and processing
- Allowing the employee to audio record instructions and meetings;
- Providing written instructions on projects;
- Allowing more time for training; and
- Providing written instructions from trainings.
- Allowing the employee to work from home;
- Engaging the help of a job coach;
- Allowing the employee to skip social events; and
- Assigning a mentor to assist the employee.
Keep in mind that you will want to talk with your supervisor and ensure that these accommodations will not cause an undue burden on your place of employment. You can find more information about accommodations by visiting the Job Accommodation Network website.
If you feel that you have been discriminated against because of your disability, either while seeking employment or on the job, you can file a complaint by mail or in person at the nearest office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You can find the EEOC office closest to you by calling (800) 669-4000. You will want to file a complaint with the EEOC before filing a lawsuit. Review answers to frequently asked questions on the laws prohibiting discrimination at the EEOC website. Of course litigation is also an option after the EEOC complaint has been filed. But, again, it is best to work collaboratively with your supervisor, if at all possible, before pursuing any legal recourse.
Visit the Resources section for additional information and references.