ADHD News & Research

Context Matters: How Work Environment Helps to Manage (or Exacerbate) ADHD Symptoms

High-stress, challenging, or rewarding jobs may help adults with ADHD control their most difficult symptoms, recent research shows.

July 14, 2016

We hear it all the time: The best job for an adult with ADHD is a job he or she loves. Passion and interest drive sustained focus, productivity, and an overall decrease in symptoms, according to many ADDitude readers. Now, this anecdotal evidence is backed up by a new study that finds that ADHD symptoms in adults may actually vary drastically in different work environments.

The study, conducted by a team at the University of California, Los Angeles, looked at 125 young adults participating in long-term longitudinal ADHD research. Researchers conducted interviews with each subject on past work environments — where they had felt the most successful, where their ADHD symptoms seemed strongest, and where they had been challenged the most.

Fifty-five percent of the respondents felt that their ADHD symptoms decreased in work environments that suited them — particularly those that were high energy or inherently challenging, the researchers found. Stressful workplace situations “forced them to pay attention, overcoming their propensity to become distracted,” the authors wrote. Conversely, the environments that seemed to exacerbate ADHD symptoms were described as low-energy, boring, or too dependent on routine. The researchers said this distinction actually helped some subjects come to terms with having the disorder, as they attributed challenges to their environment — not to personal faults.

“Believing the problem lay in their environments rather than solely in themselves helped individuals allay feelings of inadequacy: characterizing ADHD as a personality trait rather than a disorder, they saw themselves as different rather than defective,” the researchers wrote. “Viewing their symptoms as contextual shifted some individuals’ conceptualizations of ADHD in another way: Rather than seeing it as an overall attention deficit, they characterized the disorder as an issue of interest or motivation.”

The key takeaway, researchers said, is that finding the right job could serve as a form of treatment, in and of itself. “Providing adult patients alternative or adjunctive non-pharmacological interventions is especially relevant in light of the ongoing debate about efficacy of stimulant medication, the typical first-line treatment for ADHD,” they wrote.