With the right tools and knowledge, HR can help employees with ADHD to use their neurodiverse perspective to their advantage.
According to a 2019 report by the Australian ADHD Professionals Association and Deloitte, approximately 533,300 Australian adults live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Rebecca Perkins, ADHD trainer and CEO of My Special Child, is one of those Australians and she understands how frustrating it can be when managers don’t understand ADHD.
“Some people [living with ADHD] can be perceived as lazy or disorganised, or they might appear to procrastinate a lot,” says Perkins.
“But what’s actually happening is that they can have a hard time starting tasks. Their executive functions are impaired.”
Common criteria for ADHD include patterns of persistent inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity that interferes in some capacity with an individual’s ability to function – i.e. they might become forgetful, daydream, squirm, fidget or have difficulty maintaining focus.
“People [sometimes] think of ADHD as something where people are just a little bit hyper or distracted,” says Perkins.
“It’s much more than that. ADHD also impacts emotional regulation and executive functioning in the brain.”
Research suggests ADHD stems from deficiencies in the brain’s neurotransmitter systems, in particular dopamine (which regulates motivation, risk and reward) and noradrenaline (which regulates our capacity to pay attention).
Employing people living with ADHD can be advantageous to an organisation. These employees often offer creative ideas; they can work well in high-pressure situations; and they might be able to offer out-of-the-box solutions to problems.
It all depends on the kind of support their employer provides. HRM asked Perkins to share some structures organisations can put in place to support employees living with ADHD.
Importantly, HRM acknowledges that people living with ADHD will all have different skills, needs and circumstances. This article isn’t designed to offer blanket advice that will pertain to all employees living with ADHD – this is just a conversation starter. Employers should always ask the individual how they can best support them and seek expert, external advice from organisations such as ADHD Australia for more information.
“They can be very driven, motivated and loyal. They just need to be supported in the right way. I’d hire another me in a heartbeat.” Rebecca Perkins, My Special Child.
Full steam ahead
Employees living with ADHD can produce high-quality, creative work. Sometimes they’re already in the ideating stages while others are still catching up. They’re also often well-equipped to draw links between ideas that others might have missed.
However, at the same time, their brain might be operating at a thousand miles an hour, sometimes unsustainably. It’s kind of like driving your car as fast as you can until you run out of petrol. This puts them at a high risk of experiencing burnout.
Burnout can cause a range of health problems including fatigue and insomnia, both of which are already more common in adults living with ADHD. It’s important that managers and HR professionals are aware of this so they can put helpful frameworks in place and view the actions of employees with ADHD through an understanding lens.
For example, while an employee with ADHD might struggle with attention to detail or to meet a specific deadline, perhaps they were up all night or they’re tired from overextending their brain all day.
Rather than reprimand them for not aligning with your original expectations, you should instead look for projects that play to their strengths – maybe they’re the best person to include in a creative brainstorming project, for example, or they might bring the right energy to an important presentation.
Another challenge for some people living with ADHD is what’s called ‘rejection sensitive dysphoria’. Rejection sensitive dysphoria is a strong emotional reaction that can lead to a mental tailspin. For example, someone experiencing it might immediately assume they’re going to lose the job when their boss invites them to an impromptu meeting.
Rejection sensitivity can be set off in different ways. Criticism is one common trigger, but other things, such as feeling micromanaged, can also throw them for a loop.
Of course, nearly everyone finds poorly executed criticism and micromanagement triggering, so Perkins suggests managers learn how to deliver feedback appropriately. Consistent praise and recognition, when it’s called for, can aid in helping these employees to flourish and feel supported in the workplace, she says.
“Everybody I’ve ever met with ADHD has the ability to be 100 per cent dedicated, loyal and able to get to the top of their career, but it makes a huge difference when managers build up their self-esteem to help them get there.”
If you’re looking to improve your D&I knowledge then make sure you register for AHRI’s D&I conference taking place in May. Tickets available now.
How HR can help
It’s possible the recent increase in flexible working arrangements has benefited those living with ADHD.
In a 2014 paper, psychologist Dr Elias Sarkis noted that flexible work hours could allow employees living with ADHD to work in short bursts of highly productive periods or, if they experience hyperactive symptoms, they can take short breaks to “burn off” excess energy through exercise.
Perkins is quick to point out that these initiatives need to be created in consultation with the employee.
“Some individuals with ADHD need routine and structure. My solution would be allowing them to have a later start time in the morning, but have this fixed so they can maintain a sense of routine,” says Perkins.
Personal coaching can also help employees to work on their time and stress management skills. In two studies involving university students with ADHD, those who received coaching reported an increased ability to reach goals and decreased anxiety over academic issues.
It’s near impossible to completely eradicate distractions, but Perkins says it can make a difference if you offer a workstation in low foot traffic areas where the employee is less likely to be interrupted.
Noise can hamper productivity – even for neurotypical workers – so allowing employees to block out the rest of the workplace with headphones can be extremely beneficial.
“Some people with ADHD can also be very sensitive to light,” says Perkins. “Letting them wear shades indoors can help, so can wearing a cap or hoodie. If possible, limit the use of fluorescent lighting.”
Perkins tries to give her own employees with ADHD the space to be creative and find solutions to problems in their own way.
“Giving them free reign helps them feel successful, respected and trusted, which in turn will bring out the best in them.”
Perkins strongly believes adults can be a real boon to an organisation.
“They can be very driven, motivated and loyal,” she says.
“They just need to be supported in the right way. I’d hire another me in a heartbeat.”
A version of this article appeared in the February edition of HRM Magazine.