ADHD in the workplace: stigma to strength

Overlooking the value that neurodiverse individuals can bring to a workplace team is to the detriment of both affected employees and companies.

Overlooking the value that neurodiverse individuals can bring to a workplace team is to the detriment of both affected employees and companies.

Published Jun 26, 2024


Debbie Goodman

Globally, there is an increasing awareness of the impact of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the workplace.

Yet in South Africa, the challenges and opportunities associated with neurodiversity in adults, and specifically adults in the workforce, remain comparatively under-examined.

Overlooking the value that neurodiverse individuals can bring to a workplace team is to the detriment of both affected employees and companies.

According to WebMD, ADHD is a brain disorder that affects how you pay attention, focus and control your behaviour. Despite being one of the most common mental conditions or disorders seen in children, it often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Even when diagnosed in children and teens, the condition and its associated challenges often continue into adulthood.

It can’t be prevented or cured, and is not a coping mechanism. However, with the proper treatment and lifestyle changes, people with ADHD can lead normal lives.

According to a 2020 analysis from the National Centre for Biotechnology Information that assessed the global prevalence of adult ADHD, persistent adult ADHD stood at 2.58% and the prevalence of symptomatic adult ADHD was 6.76%.

This means a significant part of a given company’s workforce may be affected by ADHD.

Neurodiverse talent

While recognition of and support for children with ADHD have increased significantly in the past decade or two, something that often goes undiagnosed and underreported is the prevalence of ADHD symptoms in the workforce. Professionals with ADHD face unique challenges during hiring processes and assessments, and they may be overlooked for promotions despite their talents and capabilities.

This reality negatively impacts both the employee and the company seeking to attract and retain top talent. However, this can be effectively addressed with greater awareness of the positive potential contribution of individuals with ADHD and by supporting neurodiversity in the workforce.

In the past few years, there has been a rise in ADHD diagnoses occurring later in life – especially among women.

Challenges associated with unreported or undiagnosed ADHD therefore often get conflated with non-optimal workplace behaviours, including poor timekeeping and organisation as well as distractedness.

According to medical journals, the term neurodivergent can refer to a person on the autism spectrum, but it is more generally used to refer to someone whose brain processes information in a way that is not typical of most individuals. Through a neurodiversity lens, such conditions reflect different ways of being that are all normal human experiences.

For individuals with ADHD, whether diagnosed or not, concealing their neurodiversity becomes a coping mechanism that frequently perpetuates work-life challenges. High-functioning individuals may mask their symptoms by overcompensating and organising meticulously; leading to significantly increased stress. Additionally, fear of stigma and potential career limitations discourages disclosure.

It is important to understand that ADHD is not a disability, but a different way of processing information.

Furthermore, many professionals with ADHD are exceptionally talented and creative innovators.

To overlook these high-impact contributors is a missed opportunity for employers.

Flexible support

Awareness and acceptance of neurodiversity are essential for creating supportive work environments, and a step in the right direction for companies to ensure they retain and get the best out of these employees.

The best way in which employers can support employees with ADHD is to find out about the condition and show understanding by implementing a reasonable degree of flexibility in relation to the difficulties it can cause.

Here are a few examples:

  • Agreeing a 15-minute start and finish time window, rather than a rigid fixed start time with sanctions for being slightly late.
  • Allowing the employee to delegate non-core aspects of their job that they find particularly difficult to complete (such as completing paperwork / timesheets) – which otherwise might make the whole job unachievable.

Environment modifications

Reasonable adjustments that employers might make to help people with ADHD include:

  • Visual prompts such as wall charts for routines, checklists, post-it notes for reminders.
  • Physical reminders such as laying out everything needed for tomorrow at the end of today.
  • Larger computer screens so everything is clearly visible –reducing the burden on memory.
  • Visible clocks – allowing for and encouraging the use of alarms and timers.
  • Reducing distractions by allowing the employee to use headphones / earplugs with music or ambient noise; or if possible, providing them with their own space with reduced levels of distraction.

Management practices

Modifications that can be made to working and management practices include:

  • Increased supervision or more frequent check-ins and feedback (for example, daily or weekly planning and progress meetings with the line manager);
  • Tasks broken down into clear, bitesize steps;
  • Instructions and meeting notes provided in writing rather than verbally;
  • Operate a buddy system for tasks to help maintain focus;
  • Allow regular movement or stretching breaks.

If organisations and leaders are truly supportive of diversity, inclusion and equity as a fundamental value, then neurodiversity and ADHD must become part of the conversation. By learning and understanding more about it, employers and HR teams can play an active role in destigmatising the condition and modelling how to work in supportive and functional ways with people affected by it.

* Goodman is CEO at Jack Hammer Global

Cape Times

Related Topics:

mental healthcareers