Are you always late to work? Are you so distractible that you have trouble completing projects on time, or do you get bogged down for hours on some minor task? Maybe you can't find your phone under the mountain of paperwork on your desk.
From time to time, everyone confronts such things on the job and could use a little career advice. But for adults with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), staying on top of details at work is an endless struggle — one that brings conflict with managers, missed promotions, and a stalled career.
On average, studies suggest, college graduates with ADHD earn $4,300 less per year than their peers who don't have ADHD. People with ADHD change jobs frequently — often impulsively — and are more likely to be fired, to miss work, and to have troubled relationships with co-workers. It doesn't have to be that way: Adults with ADHD frequently excel in the workplace, once they adapt to their disability and develop coping skills.
"When people with ADHD come to me for treatment, they're often unhappy in their professional life, and have a very low self-image," says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., a Silver Spring, Maryland, psychologist and the author of ADD in the Workplace. "I help them see that having ADHD is not a negative thing. A lot of entrepreneurs, entertainers, politicians, and business leaders have ADHD, including the CEO of JetBlue, David Neeleman. In fact, Neeleman invented e-tickets because he kept misplacing his airline tickets every time he flew. So he created a system that wouldn't require paper tickets."
The key to succeeding at work despite ADHD is to tailor your workplace environment so as to take the best advantage of your strong points (such as your creativity or your people skills), while minimizing the negative impact of your weaknesses.
Playing to your strengths, says Michele Novotni, Ph.D., a psychologist in Wayne, Pennsylvania, "is really about figuring out how to be efficient and effective in your job. There's usually some creative way to do it. This may involve shifting your responsibilities, or hiring someone to do tasks you find difficult." Knowing how to delegate is a valuable but often overlooked skill. "People don't mind hiring someone to clean their house," Novotni points out. "Why are they so often reluctant to do the same with their job-related work?"
Poor time management, difficulty setting priorities, and other job-related difficulties bedevil workers with ADHD. These problems all have to do with executive functioning, a set of cognitive abilities arising within the brain's prefrontal lobe.
"This is the part of the brain that does self-monitoring," says Nadeau. "Your executive functioning tells you whether you're on time or not, whether you're doing what you're supposed to be doing and doing it in an efficient way - basically, the skills that we expect most adults to have. In people with ADHD, the prefrontal lobe is chronically under-aroused, and so the ability to monitor behavior is impaired."
Poor executive functioning explains why a person with ADHD can waste hours on a minor task or get distracted by the slightest interruption. It's why papers never get filed and the office is always a mess.
To their colleagues, workers with ADHD may appear to be irresponsible, disorganized, or downright lazy. In fact, people with ADHD often work harder than their colleagues in a desperate attempt to keep up. "Often, the patients I see are smart enough and capable enough to do their jobs, but they find they're not working up to their potential, and that their attention span seems to fluctuate," says Novotni. "Sometimes they'll do brilliant and amazing things, but other times they're just not there. Everything seems to come harder for them. They're like ducks, appearing to swim effortlessly, but paddling furiously under the surface."
Workers with ADHD typically do best with a combination of medication and counseling to develop strategies for dealing with problems that arise on the job.
"If you fit the diagnostic criteria of ADHD — hyperactivity, distractibility, or compulsive behavior in two or more settings on a chronic basis, going back to when you were six years old - then it's virtually certain that you'll need medication," says Larry Silver, M.D., a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. "With the right medication, you'll find you're able to sit quietly and work, focus on a task without getting distracted, and control your impulsive behavior."
Next: ADHD at Work, Part 2