How to support employees with ADHD at work

·6 min read
ADHD Female professional giving a high five to her colleague in conference room. Group of colleagues celebrating success in a meeting.
The symptoms of ADHD are often acutely felt at work but with some simple changes employers can make workplaces more inclusive of neurodiverse people. Photo: Getty

If you work alongside colleagues, there is every chance the person next to you may have ADHD.

An estimated 1.9 million adults have the condition, but this is likely a conservative figure — and charities suggest as many as 2 million have ADHD but are undiagnosed.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by excessive amounts of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Far from the tired stereotype of the child who can’t sit still, ADHD is complex. Research has shown that ADHD brains are both structurally and functionally different — meaning the condition affects people in varying ways.

With more people aware of the symptoms of ADHD, the number of people in the UK seeking an assessment for the condition has reportedly increased dramatically. Demand for medication has also risen, with NHS stats showing a 20% increase in the number of identified patients and the number of ADHD drugs being prescribed between 2021 and 2022 compared to the previous year.

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It’s no surprise that the symptoms of ADHD are often acutely felt at work.

While some may struggle with distraction and communication, others may find themselves procrastinating — making completing tasks more difficult. ADHD can affect job security, career options, work relationships and self-esteem, creating barriers to happiness and success.

With some simple changes, however, employers can make workplaces more inclusive of neurodiverse people.

Ellen Cole, who has ADHD and is a public speaker on disabilities and a PR and social media expert at Little Seed Group, has first-hand experience of working in non-supportive environments.

“After university, I spent five years in employment and although I enjoyed my work, I experienced daily ridicule from my department colleagues for my need to use assistive technology to do my work,” she says.

“Colleagues would poke fun at me and complain about my special equipment which included text-to- speech software — and I was asked to stop using it because it was ‘sucking the energy out of the room’.”

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Cole found herself masking — when someone with ADHD tries to cover up their symptoms by copying the behaviours of people without it — which was exhausting. Eventually, she left her job and built-up her freelance business in marketing, PR and social media.

“I was quite fortunate that I took to freelancing like a duck to water and quickly ended up being fully booked out with clients within a few weeks,” she says.

Supporting neurodiverse workers is beneficial to businesses too.

“Not only does it bring different talent, thoughts, and ideas to raise innovation within business, but it can also enhance employee productivity, increase business profits and remove alienation from the workplace,” Cole says.

Under the Equality Act 2010, an employee with ADHD may be considered to have a disability if the condition has a “substantial” and “long-term” negative effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Despite this, little progress has been made to support neurodiverse people in the workplace, such as those with invisible disabilities such as ADHD and autism.

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Myths around ADHD — and socio-cultural norms around behaviour and performance — can lead to employers labelling neurodiverse employees lazy or disengaged. While meeting the needs of individual workers can be complex, some organisations are unwilling to make reasonable adjustments for people to be able to work to the best of their abilities.

“Meeting the needs of all disabled employees can be overwhelming for employers, especially if they don’t have the knowledge or expertise to know what to do,” says Cole.

“They may fear discrimination charges if they don’t get it right. This can result in employers becoming reluctant or passive to make reasonable adjustments in an attempt to protect themselves.”

Unfortunately, Cole adds, this approach breeds unhealthy working environments and reduces productivity. “The best course of practice is to work collaboratively with people to ensure that they can thrive within the workplace,” she says.

Side view of a woman computer programmer working at her desk at a startup company. Businesswoman wearing a headset looking at computer monitor and thinking while coding at coworking office space.
Noise-cancelling headphones could help an employee with ADHD work better in a noisy environment. Photo: Getty

How to create ADHD-friendly workplaces

There are many ways that employers can make workplaces more ADHD-friendly.

“Firstly, it’s important to note that every person with ADHD is different, so a bespoke plan is required,” says Cole.

“Employers must also be aware that ADHD employees may also have other neuro-divergences such as dyslexia or autism which need to be taken into account.”

Create a zero judgement working environment

Many ADHD adults will likely have experienced being stigmatised or shamed for expressing themselves in a way that they feel most comfortable with. It’s important for employers to create judgement-free workspaces so people are happier, which will improve productivity, engagement and retention.

“When someone with ADHD feels they cannot be themselves, it is common that they will mask — which means they will hide part of themselves to conform to social pressures,” says Cole. “Masking is exhausting and can reduce the quality of a person’s work and can result in anxiety.”

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Leading by example is the key to creating judgement-free work environments.

“Leaders need to be actively involved in encouraging everyone to have meaningful conversations on a human level,” says Cole.

“They should provide EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) training which has an emphasis on understanding and empathy. The organisation’s strategy on disabilities in the workplace should be presented to everyone.”

Distraction-free workspaces

Noisy environments and bright lights can be quite distracting for some people with ADHD, which can result in sensory overload and exhaustion.

“Providing a quieter space with fewer people may be an ideal option for ADHD employees,” says Cole.

“The key, however, is to provide them with the option and allow them to decide where they wish to work without feeling pressured. This will ensure they feel heard, valued and empowered.”

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Other suggestions could include offering remote working opportunities, asking if they would like noise-cancelling headphones, or simply asking someone what they need.

“This will help build a working relationship and enable them to feel more comfortable discussing work challenges with you,” she adds.

Create schedules for meetings

Planning work activities such as meetings in advance can help people with ADHD.

“This approach can help ADHD colleagues to remain focused on their work without distraction and prepare for upcoming appointments with colleagues,” says Cole.

“Everyone has their own approach to get tasks done and this is the same for ADHD employees,” she adds. “The best thing you can do as an employer is to allow people to be independent, while being available should they need help.”

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