ADHD @ Work: Why Mental Health is more than “depression prevention” and we need to support different brains.
October is ADHD Awareness Month, and with all the talk (platitudes?) about Mental Health in the workplace lately, I feel the need to talk about something that’s bugging me.
There is far too much focus on what I call “neurotypical depression prevention” in corporate-land, with no real conversation about a) how most depression is caused by structural problems and b) how we are supporting different brains that aren’t going to get better.
Not just for ADHD, but for other differences such as Dyslexia, Autism, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, or personality disorders… and designing workplaces that accommodate and celebrate — rather than discriminate and performance-manage — those who are not neurotypical.
I’m pretty good at what I do. Excellent in fact. But, every single full-time job I have ever had has made me painfully, and crushingly depressed within 6 months.
Not because I am not a top performer. Not because I am not intelligent or competent. Not because I struggle with depression (I don’t, really, it is more a secondary/situational thing and a sign I need to make a change), but it is because not a single one has ever been able to fit in with the way my (very smart and capable but different) brain works.
Because I have ADHD (… and on the spectrum, but that’s more a side note for the purposes of this article. There are overlaps and complexities… but ignore that…).
Yep, that funny “Dory” thing. Oh, look a squirrel… or, that thing that to some, doesn’t even exist despite being one of the most widely (and confirmed as real) disorders in the DSM.
Yep, it can be funny sometimes, for sure. Watching me try to bake, or crack the shits because my desk has finally gotten so messy I can’t take it anymore and suddenly drop everything to clean it, is funny (Pro tip: if you have ADHD, get a weekly cleaner, even if you have to eat noodles. Worth every cent.), and we laugh a lot at the madness that occurs at the Grith house (we all have ADHD and other “quirks”. Never dull.).
But in the modern world, ADHD is both a gift and a curse. It is also experienced differently for everybody. In my case, it works well, but for some, it is debilitating.
Remember: ADHD is a disability, not a personality trait.
ADHD is always there, in the background, in big and little ways. It is a disability, like any other, that I am medicated for, and manage quite well (I am very lucky to surround myself with people who complement/carry me and allow me to focus on my strengths).
ADHD manifests differently with different people, even within the different sub-types. Each person has their unique combination of impulsivity, distraction, emotional regulation problems, forgetfulness (e.g. with Inattentive types, in some it means “off with the fairies”, for others it is not. For me it is impulsivity, lack of patience, running at a million miles a minute and emotional intensity… and often getting crippled by overwhelm.).
It is not just “shiny haha Dory she put her keys in the freezer”. It’s very annoying and frustrating that I can do amazing intellectual gymnastics, perform amazing feats with my work and yet fail at basic things. It shatters my confidence often… I mean how the hell can I lead anything when I forget to pay my car rego?
ADHD is why I can get up early and give myself loads of time but STILL be late.
ADHD is how I can forget to eat, forget to pee until I am busting (yes this is a thing), rely so heavily on calendars and timers, and why I can be sitting here, writing this article instead of writing a simple thing about what I do, because this is absolutely the MOST IMPORTANT THING RIGHT NOW.
ADHD is why I can easily focus for 8 hours straight on Wikipedia that started with an article about Q-Tips… or accidentally stay up till 3am reading a book I am immersed in… but then struggle to focus on what I am supposed to be doing (today it is a page on our website advertising web consulting services), and have very little control over what I can focus on.
(Thankfully I have turned that into a strength. I work with that rhythm, and when I am procrastinating, I keep a list of things I can go look up… something I have been intending to learn that isn’t Q-Tips on Wikipedia, or write a blog article or something.)
ADHD is why I can’t do a 9–5 job, and have no choice but to run my own show in order to protect my mental health.
Traditional employers (and honestly, some clients) absolutely do not allow for people to work to their own neurological rhythm, or create (or even contribute differently) in ways beyond their JDF, their hours or the awful, awful culture of mediocrity rising and tenure determining value. Hierarchy and a lack of flexibility is incredibly smothering for most people, but add in ADHD, and it is SO much worse — almost always performance managed, or seen as laziness or an “attitude problem”.
Maybe it’s not an attitude problem. Maybe the system is broken (warning NSFW):
But, if you learn to work with ADHD, and accommodate it, there are great bits too.
ADHD is why I am excellent at a lot of different things — in a way that nobody (OMG… recruiters) ever believes till they see it in action.
ADHD is why I am able to see and cut through bullshit, call it out, tell the truth, formulate a plan forward. I have an extremely low threshold for boring and pointless tasks, which is why I am able to run leaner and faster projects, without stupid unnecessary meetings or PowerPoints or 50 page documents that nobody reads.
ADHD is why everything I do, I have to care passionately about (or delegate to someone else as we grow the business… because sometimes, boring stuff has to get done!). So, if you get to work with me, you can guarantee that I give a shit.
Because it won’t get done if I am bored with it. My brain will, against my better judgement, check out. Thankfully I work with fantastic people :-)
ADHD is why I am a polymath and look at things creatively, make connections others don’t, and think in a completely non-linear (but often profound) way.
It’s why I am funny and why I can sight read music, but only play a little bit of 8 instruments.
ADHD is why I fix messes, get excited about big ideas and the bigger picture, and handle chaos better than anyone else, because being (appearing?) calm with a noisy brain is normal for me, and there is nothing that I enjoy more than creating order out of chaos and making others happy (and it’s probably why people tend to come to us to fix their poison projects).
We need to support this, because you are missing out, and we are suffering unnecessarily.
For all the talk about mental health, ADHD is still mostly just a punchline, or a fast track to the corporate naughty corner… or… incredibly depressed and looking to leave.
A lot of us don’t care how you treat us, because we can just create our own gigs… but what about those in your organisation who can’t do that?
Do you think they’re going to be mentally healthy? Do you think they’re going to be engaged? Do you think they’re going to be contributing? Do you think you might have an untapped superstar that you are ignoring? Trust me, I work with them. They’re amazing when you give them a chance.
ADHD remains one of the most heavily stigmatised, and yet most studied (and well established) disorders in the DSM… yet some people STILL insist that it isn’t real and we are just speed heads.
To those people, pfft.
The best and brightest people I know (and look up to) have what I have, and I am completely kicking arse right now. Everyone should be supported to do that.
I care about this. I want to build a business that celebrates people’s differences, and nurtures their talents, and works with their rhythms. Because I know the current way of doing things is broken. Everyone is angry and afraid and fed up… and now that we can go off and make our own Q-Tip Consulting businesses… you don’t need to be worried about how many FTE you can fire this year… because the good people will be leaving you in droves if you don’t start supporting all kinds of diversity.
If you want more information, start with Jess of “How to ADHD”. She’s amazing.
Have ADHD? Know someone with ADHD? Want to learn more? You're in the right place! Most weeks I post a new video with…www.youtube.co