How (Not) to Manage an Employee with ADHD

Filling out forms, drinking coffee, working on laptops, and playing chess all at the same time — do these people have ADHD??

The corporate world is not an easy place to exist — especially if you have ADD, better known as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Employees with ADD are described as ‘difficult but talented’ and ‘hard to work with’ — even the condition is used as shorthand for someone who is easily distracted and unreliable. So, how do you manage an employee with ADD?

In ‘How To Manage Employees With ADD/ADHD’, Victor Lipman recommends five areas you can change your management style to better manage employees with ADD:

  1. Time Management: Managers should check in more frequently verbally or with computer based reminders.
  2. Office Configurations: If practical, more privacy and quiet can be helpful to keep someone with ADD/ADHD on task.
  3. Reward Systems: A manager may want to use rewards, either tangible or simply verbal, more frequently than normal [sic].
  4. Team Dynamic: Though there are of course exceptions, employees with ADD/ADHD tend to be more effective in individual contributor rather than team leader roles.
  5. Closer Supervision: Managers should provide somewhat closer supervision than they might normally provide.

Overall, Lipman’s advice can be broken down into two themes — micro-management and isolation. As much as I love working alone, working without the support of my peers while my manager checked in on my work every day would cause endless frustration. It’s a strategy I’ve seen used on undesirable employees to get them to quit — so why is it being advocated for employees who find the corporate environment hard to begin with?

Lipman’s breakdown of the science presents an overwhelmingly negative picture. In Lipman’s summary, ADD is a disorder that affects approximately 4 to 6 percent of the population. It is characterised by distractability, impulsivity and hyperactivity, and clearly causes work place problems. In short — ADD is bad news for an employer and will cause you extra work. Even shorter? Lipman is wrong. His approaches will not work. Why? Because they’re driven by management without the consultation of the employee.

I’ve worked in the corporate world for 5 years and was diagnosed with ADD 5 months ago. I’ve had to develop a lot of coping mechanisms to survive as well as I can — and oddly, not one of them was created by my manager. In fact, none of my managers had any idea I had ADD — they just thought I was young and impulsive, if a bit day dreamy. How did they not notice? Surely I was bouncing all over the office? Well, I don’t match the stereotype at all!

Here’s a few facts you may not know about ADD

There are 3 types of ADHD!

  • Predominantly inattentive (ADHD-PI or ADHD-I) ← The type I have
  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive (ADHD-PH or ADHD-HI)
  • And combined type (ADHD-C)

Not every symptom of ADD is negative

  • Many people with ADD often have almost endless amounts of energy. We work well in active or high paced environments.
  • We’re often spontaneous, which is a great advantage when something breaks unexpectedly and we want to fix it.
  • This spontaneity means we’re open and willing to try new ways of doing things, particularly if they’re a break from the status quo. Want to train an employee in a process that’s new to the business? We’re great for that job!
  • Many people with ADD are creative and inventive. We flourish in challenging design situations.
  • We have a great attention span for tasks we find interesting. Sometimes, it’s too great and we hyperfocus — but even that can be an advantage. We will work on that task until it is done and forget to eat or have a break because we can’t break concentration.
  • We flourish in high pressure environments that require us to be creative. A number of ADD resources point out that many people with ADD work in sales, emergency services, and other high pressure environments.

As with all generalisations, not every ADD person has these strengths — but not all of them are hyperactive to the point of disrupting the office either! As someone who’s worked in the corporate world and not only functioned, but flourished with proper diagnosis, it is totally possible with the right strategies. Here are a few recommendations from an ADD employee (your mileage may vary).

How To Manage An Employee with ADD, By An Employee with ADD

Please Don’t Put Our Desk Near The Kitchen or Bathroom

Distraction central. Constant movement, disruptive smells, conversation, ‘just a quick chat’, every time someone goes on break. You just lost half a day of work and are frustrated almost to tears because your employer doesn’t understand why you haven’t delivered yet. We can work in an open plan office — just not in high traffic areas. Face our desk away from the line of traffic.

Yes, We Need To Wear Headphones A LOT

Working in an open plan office is very distracting. Wearing headphones is a great way to muffle sounds and indicate that we are not open to being distracted by colleagues.

We Can Be Really Sensitive To Light, Sound, Touch, and even Smells

I need to wear sunglasses in semi-bright light, turn my monitor brightness down, and I hate wearing scratchy fabrics. I can’t stand hearing buzzing noises coming from our computer room or the sounds of people chatting — so I wear my headphones. We may need extra provisions to deal with sensitivities that may seem a bit weird. Just go with the flow and don’t make a big deal out of it if your employee is wearing shades in the office.

We Do Not Sleep Well — Encourage Flex-Time

Getting to work at 8am may be a hard task for your employee with ADD — many of us have trouble sleeping. If you have flex-time structures in place, encourage ADD employees to take advantage of them. We work better when we’re awake and less distracted.

We are capable of Working From Home… if we have a list.

If you have work from home structures in place, encourage ADD employees to take advantage of them. We work better when we’re less distracted. If you’re worried we won’t meet deadlines, get us to create an objective or task list in the morning, and send a report to you at the end of the day. Setting my own objectives made me far more productive.

Encourage Employee Use Of Private Conference Rooms

Within reason, of course. But if we have a high pressure deliverable and need less distraction, being able to book a room, and sit for a few hours in relative peace is a great help.

We LOVE Organisational Tools — Tell Us What The Business Can Provide

I make lists everywhere. I have regular meetings with the managers I report to where I keep a list of all action items we need to work on. I thrive with a balanced combination of calendars, list making apps, and physical notebooks. If your employee wants a large planner or a subscription to a list making app, this could benefit them immensely. It’s worth the business investment and may even help your neurotypical employees.

Universally Define Impulsive Behaviour and Inappropriate Behaviour

Yes, we’re prone to impulsivity — but that doesn’t mean we have to be inappropriate. Make sure staff are clear on impulsive behaviour (interrupting, getting up to pace in meetings, buying something ridiculous) and inappropriate behaviour (yes, some of us are actually a**holes). ADD doesn’t give you a green light to treat your colleagues awfully.

If you have a corporate psychologist or health plan we can use — TELL US

Getting access to health services is incredibly difficult. Having support from our employer to access these services is a great benefit for employees that may need help managing their ADD or want to try to get diagnosed.

If we’re on medication, DON’T shame us or out us to our colleagues

Medication is a strategy that helps many people living with ADD/ADHD. It is a small step to helping us have greater control over our lives. Do not shame us for taking medication or tell others that we are. Like any medical knowledge you have about your employees or colleagues, the reasons we are using this course of therapy are none of your business.

While this isn’t anywhere near all the ways you can help an employee with ADD, it is definitely a few. If you’re looking for strategies based on specific symptoms, I found Healthy Place’s ‘Top 10 ADHD Traps In The Workplace’ really helpful, and it’s specifically targeted at people with ADD/ADHD. Remember, each employee will have different needs and employers should consult them about how to balance work expectations with their capabilities.

Do you have ADD/ADHD? Do you have any tips for ADD folk that are struggling in the workplace?

Word summoner and queer researchtrix. Dresses like a punk poet. Wishes they were a medieval alchemist. Editor & Curator of the Story Seed Vault [they/them]