Great Job! A Career Happiness Formula for Adults with ADHD
Career satisfaction is often viewed as a distant, unattainable goal, especially for individuals with ADHD, whose symptoms can pose problems in managing workplace demands. A recent ADDitude survey, however, toppled our expectations, as many of our readers report tremendous job satisfaction not in spite of ADHD – but because of it.
Forget everything you’ve read about ADHD brains falling short on the job. We are not too disorganized, too distracted, or too bored to succeed at the workplace. As it turns out, the vast majority of adults with ADHD are satisfied with their work and feel their current positions showcase and leverage their strengths. We love what we do, and we are good at it.
This finding comes from a new ADDitude survey of nearly 1,450 adults with ADHD, in which half said they are “extremely” or “very” satisfied with their job (only about 10 percent said they were very dissatisfied or miserable).
ADHD-related challenges, like procrastination, poor time management, distractibility, and boredom, absolutely exist and form part of our readers’ workplace struggles. But do these challenges prevent us from enjoying successful and satisfying careers? Absolutely not.
The keys to happiness in the workplace, according to our readers, are:
- Finding work that you love
- Harnessing your strengths
- Accommodating your shortfalls
Background: ADHD Stereotypes Fall Away
The majority of the ADDitude survey respondents — 70% — were officially diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives. Another 26% suspect they have the condition. More than half have overlapping conditions like anxiety and extreme sadness, which can also compromise productivity and success on the job.
A pervasive assumption is that ADHD prevents individuals from building a happy and successful lives. Studies on long-term outcomes of ADHD do indicate difficulties in education, the workplace, interpersonal relationships, and other facets of life.1 But ADDitude readers have, by and large, reported a different experience at work.
Most ADDitude readers love and take pride in their work. What’s more, nearly a third of the respondents had an annual household income of $100,000 or more, and greater than half earn more than the U.S. median income ($61,937 in 2018). And though some studies do indicate that young adults with ADHD are less likely to enroll into college2, 72% of our respondents completed an undergraduate degree and more than one-third have an advanced degree.
Happiness at Work Rule #1: Do What You Love
Find a job that sparks happiness: This was the most popular piece of advice from ADDitude readers who report successful careers. “Find and choose work you love. Do not rely on willpower alone to get through,” one person wrote.
About half of ADDitude’s survey respondents have a full-time job and 12% are self-employed; their work spans a huge number of professions, ranging from baristas, to teachers, to nurses, magicians, and engineers.
They work in varied positions and industries, including:
- Health care (23%)
- Education (20%)
- Government/public service (9%)
- Technology (8%)
- Sales or retail (6 %)
- Legal (5%)
The job diversity reflected in these responses proves there is no one “perfect job” for people with ADHD. More critical to job satisfaction is that the position taps into your passions. “It’s not you or your job, but the fit between the two,” wrote one reader.
Happiness at Work Rule #2: Capitalize on Your Strengths
More than half of those surveyed said their current position showcases and leverages their talents and strongest traits “extremely well” or “very well.” Only about 15% don’t feel that their job is well suited to their skills.
“ADHD can be an asset or a liability,” said one reader. “You have to know your own strengths and set yourself up for success. The same goes for your challenges,” said another. “Accept that your brain works differently; it is incredibly freeing,” another added respondent. “Find a job that suits your personality and plays to your strengths.”
Strengths vary from person to person, but the survey revealed a short list of job qualities that bring out the best in ADHD brains:
- Variety. Boredom is kryptonite for ADHD brains. More than half of survey respondents cited tedium as a work problem. Work that offers an ever-changing variety of tasks keeps adults with ADHD from slipping into the doldrums, and losing their motivation in the process. “Retail has been great for me because of all the cross-training I’ve accumulated,” wrote one reader. “It changes enough from day to day to keep me from being bored,” added another.
- Creativity and problem solving. ADHD can be an asset in industries that value innovation and problem solving — technology, product design, and computer engineering. One reader said he’s lucky to work a job where “thinking out of the box is allowed and encouraged.” Another appreciates dictating the types of projects he tackles, and the strategies he uses to complete them. “My own creativity — what they hired me for — is not stifled at all,” said one respondent. Problem-solving is a source of great fulfillment. “The most gratifying rewards were solving a long-lost research problem, and learning more as I worked,” wrote one reader.
- A sense of purpose. It’ s rewarding to help others, and our respondents said they feel proud and accomplished when they make a difference in another life. “I love feeling like I am helping people; it is very rewarding,” one reader wrote. Another, who works for child protective services, said her reward comes from seeing “families being reunited or children being adopted by loving families.”
- Continuing learning. People with ADHD seek stimulation that triggers dopamine production. When they dive into something truly interesting, they often harness the ability to “hyperfocus” — intensely concentrating their attention on the subject at hand. One way to achieve this kind of focus regularly is by learning new things about your passion, whether it’s the latest state-of-the-art computer technology or a health breakthrough. “I get to deep focus on interesting and challenging topics every day,” one reader wrote.
- Movement and independence. Children and adults with ADHD fidget to release pent-up hyperactivity and focus the ADHD brain. For this reason, survey respondents rated favorably the roles that afford them more freedom, independence, and movement — such as tour guide, ecologist, hairdresser, and oyster farmer. “It keeps me physically active enough to not be bouncing off the walls,” explained one ADDitude reader.
Happiness at Work Rule #3: Devise Workarounds to ADHD Challenges
ADHD does affect job experience and performance. Survey respondents measured the effects of ADHD on their job using a scale of 0 (ADHD is an advantage) to 100 (ADHD is a detriment). The average score was 58, which suggests that ADHD impacts day-to-day career performance, but not in a way that’s insurmountable.
Paperwork, office politics, and noisy colleagues ranked high on the list of annoyances among respondents, who said the following ADHD symptoms affect them most at work:
- Distractibility: 88%
- Difficulty managing time: 77%
- Disorganization: 65%
- Concerns with working memory: 62%
- Boredom: 54%
- Heightened emotionality: 49%
- Impulsivity: 47%
- Social challenges: 40%
- High energy: 29%
Despite these challenges, nearly 82% of survey respondents said they haven’t asked for formal workplace accommodations. In fact, more than half had not told their employer about their ADHD. Instead, they devised some creative and effective workarounds to manage ADHD on the job.
Work Challenge #1: Distractibility
A noisy environment can aggravate inattention and act as a distraction. Co-workers distract by acting “loud, chatty, and catty” or by spreading “rumors” and “gossip.” Respondents who struggle with social skills also reported frustration with “useless meetings” that force frequent interactions with annoying colleagues.
- Noise-cancelling headphones
- Listening to white noise or ambient music
- Requesting a desk in a quiet part of the office.
- Coming into the office early to gain quiet work time
Work Challenge #2: Difficulty Managing Time
Procrastination is a hallmark symptom of ADHD. Fighting this tendency — under the pressure of a heavy workload and harsh deadlines — overwhelms many ADDitude readers. “I’ve blown a couple of release dates due to inaccurate development timelines,” wrote one reader who reported time management struggles. Another complained that there are “never enough hours to finish my work.”
Reader solutions: Use timers, alarms, and to-do lists. These time-management tools can help you stay on schedule and prevent you from forgetting important work tasks and deadlines. Today, they’re all available on your smartphone for easy access and use.
Work Challenge #3: Disorganization and Working Memory Problems
Disorganization and poor working memory are both common ADHD liabilities. “The level of detail that is required of me is hard to manage at times,” wrote one ADDitude reader. “So many details!” another despaired.
- Write absolutely everything down. To combat disorganization, take thorough notes. “I make sure to always have a notebook nearby to write down things I need to do or ideas I have, so I don’t get stressed out trying to hold it in my mind when it gets busy,” one ADDitude reader wrote. Note-taking approaches range from old-fashioned pen and paper to voice-to-text or note-taking apps like Evernote.
- Use a planner. Keeping a daily planner or calendar and blocking out specific times for each task can help those with ADHD stay organized and on-schedule. “I use both a paper planner and electronic calendar,” one reader says.
Work Challenge #4: Boredom
Boredom drains ADHD brains, which are stressed by performing the same task over and over again. One reader lamented work that is “uninteresting, routine, and frustratingly mundane.” Positions that involve repetitive work or sitting in one place all day can be onerous. “Working on a screen all day is really hard on an ADHD brain,” one reader complained. “By the end of the week, I can barely function cognitively.”
Tedium exacerbates ADHD symptoms, which can further compromise productivity. Some people lose focus when they’re bored, or they become too fidgety to complete the task.
Reader solutions: Add structure. Our readers find it more difficult to stay on track with their responsibilities (especially boring ones) when their work lacks structure. It helps to transform long-term projects into a series of task-based deliverables with hard deadlines. “I always ask for deadlines when I’m asked to do something,” one respondent wrote.
The Bottom Line on Happiness in the Workplace
ADHD is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time, in many cases. Job success flows naturally when the advantages of ADHD are allowed to blossom and the disadvantages are recognized for what they are: opportunities for creative solutions. “Accept who you are,” one reader stressed. “Cut yourself a break when all seems lost,” suggested another. And if you can, “ask for what you need to get your job done.”
The most important thing? “Do your utmost to work in an area you love,” wrote one reader. “Then you will thrive.”
To Tell or Not to Tell?
Standout Quotes from the ADDitude Work Survey
- “Be yourself. Embrace how ADHD gives you a unique perspective and skill set. From experience, I know that you’ll be miserable and set yourself up for failure if you force yourself to be like everyone else when in reality you approach and do things very differently.”
- “Know what drives your hyperfocus and attention. Find what interests you the most. Volunteer or intern a little to see if your interest will stay your interest.”
- “Look for a job that allows you to have multiple responsibilities or a variety of actions. Working in a factory where your job is to put widget A with widget B probably is NOT for you!”
- “Take the time to invest in getting to know yourself. Allow yourself freedom to job shadow, travel, and volunteer in the areas you are passionate about.”
- “Accept the fact that you will likely have to work harder than everyone else to get the job done. Do not use your ADHD as an excuse.”
- “Be honest. And normalize your ADHD. It’s a part of you that’s not going anywhere.”
50 Great Job Titles from the ADDitude Work Survey
- Graphic Designer
- Occupational Therapist
- FBI Agent
- Software Engineer
- Harp Instructor
- Social Worker
- Job Coach
- Web Designer
- Tour Guide
- Oyster Farmer
- Lab Technician
1 Shaw, M., Hodgkins, P., Caci, H., Young, S., Kahle, J., Woods, A. G., & Arnold, L. E. (2012). A systematic review and analysis of long-term outcomes in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: effects of treatment and non-treatment. BMC medicine, 10, 99. https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-10-99
2 Kuriyan, A. B., Pelham, W. E., Jr, Molina, B. S., Waschbusch, D. A., Gnagy, E. M., Sibley, M. H., Babinski, D. E., Walther, C., Cheong, J., Yu, J., & Kent, K. M. (2013). Young adult educational and vocational outcomes of children diagnosed with ADHD. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 41(1), 27–41. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-012-9658-z