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Managing ADHD in the workplace

by Shannon Walsh


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What do Richard Branson, Justin Timberlake, David Blaine and reportedly Bill Gates, Walt Disney and even Albert Einstein have in common?

Other than the fact that they are probably not people you’d want to manage, they all have either been diagnosed with ADHD or are reported to have had it.

Managing somebody with a condition you are not familiar with can be a challenge. It’s important to be able to rely on an employee to fulfil their role and trust that they know what they’re doing, and yet occasionally you’ll lose all faith when you catch them staring out of the window at a particularly well-fed pigeon as though it’s a riveting nature documentary or clicking their pen so wildly you wonder whether they’ve taken up song writing using the office stationery.

However, while there are challenges and frustrations involved with ADHD, it doesn’t mean that someone with it is any less of a good employee or a less productive person than anybody else. In fact the creativity and thinking process of someone with ADHD can be advantageous if nurtured correctly. People with ADHD often think outside the box, and have a creative element that helps them to solve problems in a way that others may not immediately think of.

Now, most people with ADHD are acutely aware that they have the condition and, as adults, have systems and structures in place to help them maintain control and productivity. While self-management is key, there are ways a manager can provide extra support, without the dreaded micro-management or adapting your management style too much. Here are some tips to maintain a healthy employer/employee relationship:

  • Follow up face-to-face chats or phone calls with an email with any actions that came from the conversation. Short-term memory can sometimes be an issue with ADHD, as can feeling overwhelmed with lots of information. If you’re speaking to someone regarding a task, or something that needs to be actioned, a quick follow-up email afterwards saying “Thanks for agreeing to do x and y, it needs to be done by Friday lunchtime.” is really useful.

  • When giving them a task, give them a clear deadline. Vagueness and ADHD do not go well together, if something needs to be prioritised or is urgent, be clear in your delivery. Instead of “If you have time at some point this week could you do x?” say “X needs to be done by Thursday at 4pm.” It’s blunt, but it takes away ambiguity.

  • Give feedback. Feedback is important to all employees, but some people really thrive on it. Everyone is different, but as ADHD often is partnered with low esteem and Imposter Syndrome it can be very reassuring to receive frequent feedback. Equally, well delivered constructive feedback is also appreciated.

  • Focus on the outcome, rather than on their processes. Sometimes, people with ADHD have some unusual ways of working. They might take frequent breaks, they may appear to have a nervous energy and fidget, they might write notes that seem completely unnecessary, or doodle. As long as their processes are not negatively affecting anyone else or the company in general, let them have the freedom to work in a way that makes them comfortable.

  • If the employee is ok with it, talk about it. If the employee is comfortable with it, talk about it with them and open up a line of communication. This means that if they are struggling with something, they will feel more comfortable talking to you about it.

  • Remember that even if someone might lack focus or get distracted at times, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. ADHD can be confused with laziness, lack of motivation and carelessness. Often those who have grown up with the condition are used to dealing with these labels and they can feel very demoralised. If you are managing someone who is finding it hard to focus, communication is the best course of action.

ADHD is by no means the only condition that can cause people to think and work differently. Neuro-diverse conditions come in many forms and affect different people in different ways, but often with very minor adjustments both the employer and the employee can feel secure and listened to. Conditions like ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Autistic Spectrum Disorder can cause people to feel shame or embarrassment, but hopefully an increasing openness in workplaces with these conditions can help to both educate people and remove the stigma and create both a diverse and productive working environment.

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