Understanding ADHD at Work & at Home

By

Layla Team

February 16, 2023

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects millions of individuals worldwide. In Canada, about 5-10% of children and about 2-5% of adults have been diagnosed with ADHD (CADDRA, CAADAC, CAMH). Despite being a relatively common mental health condition, ADHD is often misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and stigmatized. Living with ADHD can make areas of life challenging, such as school, work and relationships. But here’s the good news - if you or a loved one struggle with the effects of ADHD in your daily life, a wealth of evidence-based strategies and individual and family supports can help you thrive.

Understanding ADHD

ADHD is a neurological disorder that impacts executive functioning - that is, the parts of the brain that help us plan, pay attention to, and follow through on tasks.  Individuals coping with ADHD may experience some or all of the following symptoms: 

  1. Inattention: Difficulty sustaining attention, forgetfulness, easily distracted, and disorganized
  2. Hyperactivity: Fidgeting, inability to remain seated, excessive physical activity, and impulsiveness
  3. Impulsivity: Acting without thinking, interrupting others, and making rash decisions.

These symptoms must be present from childhood and affect how an individual functions in important areas of life such as school, work, and/or relationships. Individuals with ADHD may struggle with, for example, managing time effectively, organizing space and materials, and efficiently completing tasks. This can lead to challenges with tasks like managing finances and paying bills, organizing and completing work or school tasks on time, and/or navigating relationship expectations. People with ADHD may also  experience low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, along with the practical challenges they face in daily life.  In fact, about 50% of people with ADHD also struggle with another diagnosed mental health issue (Silver, 2022).

ADHD can look different in kids compared to adults, and even in men compared to women. Girls are less likely than boys to show obvious physical hyperactivity, making them less likely to be diagnosed in childhood. In adults, symptoms like restlessness, inattention and impulsivity might be more noticeable than hyperactivity. This can make it harder to identify, diagnose and treat ADHD later in life, even when the impacts on work, school or relationships are significant.

Trained health professionals (such as a family physician, psychologist or psychiatrist) can diagnose ADHD after learning more about an individual.  An ADHD assessment typically involves behavioural and functional assessments, and a thorough review of medical history.

Misconceptions

Sometimes the varying symptoms of ADHD can lead to misdiagnosis and/or a lack of understanding about the disorder. For example, some people believe ADHD symptoms are simply a lack of discipline or “willpower,” or a disorder in children only.  However, neuroscience, brain imaging, and clinical research tell us a few important things about what ADHD is - and what it isn’t. First, ADHD is not a behavioural disorder or mental illness. Similarly, ADHD is not a learning disability (although its symptoms sometimes interfere with effective and efficient learning). ADHD is a developmental impairment of the brain’s self-management system, and both adults and children can be diagnosed with ADHD, although evidence of the disorder must be present in childhood for a diagnosis to be given. 

Here’s another common misconception: ADHD is not a serious condition. Given their frequent struggles with academics, employment, and personal relationships, people with ADHD are at higher risk for negative health outcomes, such as substance use, eating issues, sleep difficulties, more frequent suicide attempts, and lower life expectancy (CHADD, 2019). Sometimes, and because of overlapping symptoms (like difficulty with concentration, poor memory and mood issues), ADHD is misdiagnosed as other conditions (e.g., anxiety or depression). That’s why it’s important to talk to a qualified mental health professional who can correctly assess and diagnose different mental health issues, and develop a treatment plan that works best for you.

ADHD at Work

ADHD symptoms can create significant challenges for adults in the workplace, just as they do for children in school. Difficulties with communication skills, distractibility, procrastination, and managing complex projects can make life in the workplace especially challenging.  For example, people with ADHD may forget about tasks assigned to them, miss deadlines or meetings, procrastinate and/or struggle to get complete projects. Some people with ADHD also have a hard time managing strong emotions or impulses, which can contribute to outbursts or conflict with co-workers. People with ADHD may also change jobs more frequently than their peers, and and are more likely to be fired or miss work. However, it doesn't have to be that way: adults with ADHD can also learn to thrive in the workplace, once they learn to more effectively manage their symptoms, and ask for what they need.

Awareness is key: as an individual learns more about how their ADHD impacts their thoughts and behaviours, they can learn to effectively manage their symptoms. In other words, greater awareness brings better-informed strategies. Coaching and training can also help individuals with ADHD learn how to effectively manage their symptoms, and advocate for themselves in the workplace.

For example, problems with distractibility from external noise are often a tremendous challenge for people with ADHD. Working with an employer to make adjustments in the work environment can be especially helpful in setting up an employee for success (e.g., requesting a private office or cubicle, working in an unused space such as a conference room, using “white noise” to drown out external noise). Other tips for managing ADHD symptoms in the workplace include:

  • Get exercise throughout the workday: Building in breaks to take the long route to the water cooler, run up the stairs or walk around the block can improve your focus when you’re back at your desk.
  • Leverage organizational tools: Using tools like a calendar and a running to-do list can help you keep track of tasks and appointments. Technology can also be a big help in this area. Apps and programs for managing time and tasks are plentiful, and many are also free!
  • Break down tasks: Taking a big project and chunking it into small, manageable tasks can make it feel more achievable and rewarding. Speaking of rewards, building in small rewards (like 10 minutes to enjoy a latte, or a cuddle with a pet) to keep yourself motivated can also help!
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques like controlled breathing or meditation can both improve concentration and support overall well-being.

ADHD in Relationships

ADHD can also have an impact on relationships. Maintaining relationships with someone with ADHD symptoms can be draining - you may feel underappreciated and even lonely. It can be frustrating to feel like the person you care about struggles to follow through on promises, or consistently meet mutual expectations.  In a partnership, it can be frustrating if your spouse struggles to consistently help with household management tasks like paying bills or doing paperwork. In response, a partner without ADHD might assume the majority of chores and household responsibilities. In turn, they may start to feel overwhelmed, and as if they are “parenting” their spouse.

The partner with ADHD may also feel frustrated. They may feel they have too little control over their environment and are being treated like a child. Similarly, individuals with ADHD may feel their loved ones are overly controlling or difficult to please, which can be frustrating and disheartening - and contribute to feelings of sadness or anxiety. 

Over time, these kind of relationship dynamics can put a tremendous strain on friendships or partnerships. This is especially true when the symptoms of ADHD are poorly managed by the person and poorly understood by the people in their life.  Again, awareness is key, as is healthy communication to address patterns and expectations.  Consider the following:

  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: Try taking a beat to consider how your actions, even if they’re unintentional, might be hurtful to the other person. Acknowledging the impact of your behaviour on the other person can help your loved one feel more heard and validated. 
  • Break down misconceptions: Many people have incorrect ideas about ADHD. It may be worth sitting down with the person to discuss your experience of ADHD and how it impacts your relationships. They may leave the discussion with a greater appreciation for what you’re going through and a clearer view of your perspective. 
  • Encourage your loved ones to learn more about ADHD: All the explaining doesn’t have to fall to you. You can also ask your loved ones to learn more about ADHD which can foster greater awareness and understanding of your experience. 
  • Ask for their help and support: Bringing your loved ones into the fold of your ADHD management (if you are comfortable doing so) can not only strengthen your own support network, but also make them feel loved and included. Trusting others with a supportive role in your well-being can strengthen relationships and help you feel closer.

Treatment Options

The good news is that there are several evidence-based treatments for ADHD, backed by decades of research. Typically, the most effective treatments include both medication and behavioural strategies. Behavioral therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can also help individuals learn strategies to manage their symptoms.

Other supports that may be beneficial for individuals coping with ADHD include:

  1. Education and coaching: Individuals coping with ADHD can benefit from learning about the disorder and strategies for managing symptoms. Coaching can also help to build organization, time management, and goal-setting skills. 
  2. Exercise: Regular physical activity has been shown to improve symptoms of ADHD. Exercise can help with reducing impulsiveness, increasing focus and attention, and reducing overall stress.
  3. Healthy meals and sleep: Prioritizing eating nutritious foods and getting adequate sleep can help reduce symptoms of ADHD. Chaotic sleep patterns, and consuming high amounts of processed foods (think sugary drinks and pre-packaged meals) and/or caffeine can often worsen symptoms.

A path to wellness for someone with ADHD will look different, depending on the individual, and what works for one person may not work for another. Working with a mental health professional is key to understanding what works best for you or your loved one.

Leaning In… 

Finally, it’s also important to remember that living with ADHD can bring some tremendous gifts. People with ADHD often report being energetic, creative, courageous, and resilient. Similarly, individuals with ADHD are frequently described as deeply passionate and committed to the people and projects they love. Being spontaneous and having a great sense of humour also tend to go hand-in-hand with living with ADHD. Learning to leverage these gifts while effectively managing symptoms can help you thrive and live your best life at work and at home.