Succeeding at Work With ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) impacts how you interact with pretty much every area of your life. Some qualities of ADHD, such as creativity, hyperfocus, and high energy can prove to be an asset at work. Meanwhile, the core symptoms of ADHD can lead to an array of workplace challenges, negatively affecting your ability to plan, focus, execute, and pay attention to details.

We spend a lot of time at work. Aside from the obvious financial needs, work also gives us a chance to create, grow, be challenged and contribute to things we care about.

This article will take a look at how ADHD might be impacting your work and some effective strategies you can try to minimize the toll these symptoms can take on your daily life. 

Published: August 10, 2023

Table of contents

    ADHD and the workplace: common problems

    You may not always feel like ADHD is having a major impact on your work. Due to the nature of ADHD symptoms and the disorder itself, it’s more likely your challenges will ebb and flow. Personal or work stress, mental health disorders (like depression), hormones, and changing demands can all heighten ADHD symptoms that interfere with employment. Some common work issues associated with symptoms of ADHD include:

    • Lower productivity: Although you may work as hard or even harder than your peers, certain symptoms of ADHD can make it more difficult to be as productive as a neurotypical coworker. Executive dysfunction in ADHD interferes with your ability to sustain attention on one task. Oftentimes, this can look like spending copious amounts of time on unrelated tasks or side quests that don’t bring you closer to getting the main task done. 

    • Missed deadlines: In addition to getting derailed, symptoms of ADHD can lead to major issues with deadlines. Missed deadlines may occur due to time blindness, procrastination due to ADHD task paralysis, or struggles with organization. 

    • Conflict with colleagues: Interpersonal conflict is a common issue with ADHD. Due to the areas of the brain impacted by ADHD, it can be hard to regulate your emotions and refrain from speaking your mind. Instances of reacting or overreacting, blurting out your thoughts, and being a little too blunt in the delivery of information can all lead to friction with coworkers.

    • Stress and burnout: People with ADHD are more likely to experience stress and burnout than their neurotypical peers. Since people with ADHD have to work much harder to do basic tasks like organizing, hitting deadlines, and paying attention, they are already at a disadvantage with the mental workload. Many people with ADHD also feel social pressure to fit in and please, which can lead to taking on additional gigs and working harder than others to prove themselves. All of this, combined with an increased incidence of comorbid mental health conditions, contribute to stress and burnout.

    • Loss of income: Difficulties at work, conflicts, and other challenges mentioned above can all lead to missed opportunities, loss of income and even loss of employment. Even during job application periods, minor mistakes on applications, late submissions, and other executive dysfunction-related errors can lead to being overlooked for jobs and promotions. 

    Self-guided strategies for managing ADHD at work

    Although ADHD does lead to some disadvantages in the workplace, it is possible to find ways to manage your symptoms and even thrive at work. 

    STOP! Take an inventory: Before you choose what strategies to focus on, it’s important to take an inventory of your challenges. Make a list of the types of experiences you are having that make your work life more difficult. To make it easier, try this sentence (make sure to choose a very specific task):

    If I had someone to do ________ for me at work, my work life would be _______% easier.

    Once you know what specific tasks and demands at work are dragging you down, you can be more precise and direct in your approach to managing them. 

    • Time management techniques: Don’t be afraid to get over-organized. You may already be using your phone calendar, but try taking it up a notch. 

      • Get visual: Use a wall calendar or whiteboard with lots of colours to help with deadlines, meetings and other important information. Make sure to colour-code everything. 

      • Apps: Try apps like Forest which locks you out of your phone browser while you’re working on a particular task and plants a tree. The tree lives if you stay focused and it withers and dies if you cave to temptation. Sometimes keeping an imaginary tree alive is all the encouragement you need to finally send that email to Cindy in accounting. 

      • Plan it: Grab a planner and put it on your desk. Make it fun to use by getting coloured pens, stickers, and any other planner-related supplies. Do your best to track everything in your planner — book meetings, write down deadlines, etc. The more things you write down, the easier it will be to fill those gaps in your memory should they occur. 

      • Declutter your brain shelves: One of the biggest reasons for time management issues with ADHD is the build-up of looming small tasks that leave you frozen. When you get a task you really don’t want to do, ask yourself, “how long will this take me to do?” If the answer is anything less than 10 minutes, do it immediately! You will spend way more time being haunted and stressed by the task sitting on your back and gathering its tiny task friends. Getting into the habit of just doing the minor (albeit not fun) tasks will make a massive difference in your work life and free up that much-needed brain space. 

      • Do it in bulk: People living with ADHD are more likely to do a task if it’s engaging and challenging enough. One email might feel boring, but responding to 12 emails? Now we’re talking. Lean into this challenge by doing certain tasks in bulk. Wherever possible, take a chunk of time to cram in all of that delayed work. It will scratch that “craving achievement” spot in your brain, plus you get the thrill of a cram session. Just make sure to schedule your bulk sessions and stick with them so that things don’t get pushed too far into the ether. 

    • Set goals: Give yourself permission to be mediocre. Many people with ADHD want to sprint ahead to the end and land among greatness every time. Although this method can work, it often also leads to being overwhelmed, stressed, and missing details. When it comes to work goals, start with smaller mediocre goals that are easily achievable and bring you closer to the end goal. It might feel like a foreign way to work, but it’s effective. Try this next time you have a deadline, break it up into smaller extremely achievable goals and do them one at a time. Just getting something done without complications and lofty aspirations can actually be quite refreshing. 

    • Schedule self-care: ADHD symptoms can make minor day-to-day activities feel overwhelming and exhausting. You won’t be at your best unless you schedule yourself some downtime because you also have a beautiful unique mind that deserves maintenance. During the work day, you can schedule small blocks of downtime, where you listen to a favourite song, sit and think, or do breathing exercises. At home, try scheduling appointments with yourself for self-care. This might be a fun hobby, face mask, bath, bike ride, or your favourite meal. Treat yourself and do it regularly. 

    • Be kind to you: Show yourself compassion. Mistakes happen. Always look deep at your intentions. If your intentions are good, you should focus on that, despite the results. For instance, when you speak your mind, you don’t intend to hurt feelings, you're just speaking your truth. You are worthy of forgiveness, compassion, and ample space to be human. You should also consider looking around you for a little assistance on those more challenging days! Ups and downs are a normal part of ADHD. 

    Can I get accommodations for ADHD at work?

    ADHD is considered a disability which means you may qualify for accommodations at work. You will likely need to provide a medical report to your manager or Human Resources Department. Some places of employment may also have disability services who will be able to guide you along every step of the way. 

    Disclosing does come with some risks. For instance, people at work may wrongfully assume how your ADHD impacts your work. In worst-case scenarios, it may also lead to you being overlooked for promotions or special projects. 

    Your decision to disclose your status is personal and may also depend on the severity of your symptoms and the environment you work in. Rather than fully disclose your ADHD status, you may want to try asking for certain accommodations because “you prefer it.” For instance, asking for accountability buddies, reminders for deadlines, and extra office supplies like a whiteboard may give you everything you need without needing to disclose your personal information. 

    If your symptoms are so severe that you need fairly extensive accommodations, disclosure might be in your best interest. 

    Common accommodations for ADHD at work

    As mentioned, you may not need to disclose your ADHD status to get accommodations at work, sometimes your boss will view these requests as you being a diligent employee. Whatever route you decide, here are some common accommodations you could potentially request at work:

    • Quiet working space: Whether it’s noise-cancelling headphones or moving to a quieter area of the office, ensuring you have a distraction-free workspace can make a major difference

    • Working in bulk: Tasks like responding to phone calls or entering numbers might feel daunting and tedious. Requesting that your workflow include blocks during the week where you do work in batches (i.e. respond to all outstanding emails) can be a nice compromise. 

    • Accountability help: Whether it’s reminders of deadlines getting emailed out repeatedly, coworkers who keep you on task, or daily check-ins, there are many ways you can use your company structure to implement accountability for your work which frees up brain space and can help you stay on task. 

    • Supplies: You can request supplies like planners, calendars, scheduling software, apps, tape recorders, notebooks, whiteboards, noise-cancelling headphones or other tools that can aid in productivity. 

    • Time accommodations: When possible, you may be able to ask for extensions on deadlines, assistance with meeting deadlines, or even the ability to work from home if it allows you to better meet your goals. 

    • Mediator: If you have someone you trust at work they can help you with mediating any interpersonal conflict. This may be as simple as describing how ADHD works and apologizing for hurt feelings or it may take more delicate work. Either way, finding an advocate at your workplace can be helpful for addressing issues and helping you talk through them as they occur. 

    Suitability of your job 

    An odd thing about careers is that we are often pushed to decide what we’ll be before we even know ourselves. Today, give yourself permission to loosen that grip you feel, relax the definitions of success, and take some time to think about what you want. 

    Start by asking yourself a few questions:

    • If money were no object, what would I be doing for a career?

    • What parts of my job do I love?

    • What parts of my job do I loathe?

    • Is there a career I think would suit me better?

    • What is keeping me from moving toward that career? (Try writing out a list of the pros and cons of pursuing a new career)

    Although it can be scary, it’s OK to start over. All of the skills and abilities you’ve acquired will come in handy along the way. Even if you can’t leave your day job, you can try taking classes, doing side gigs, or even just networking with people in your desired field. You never know where those roads will lead! 

    It is entirely possible that your strengths and challenges with ADHD make your current work not suitable for your wellbeing. It’s also possible that the challenges you face are too big for you to handle alone, and it’s time to seek professional help!

    ADHD treatment can help

    Getting treatment for your ADHD can make a considerable difference to your work life. For instance, medications can reduce the strain it takes to organize, plan and execute work tasks. You can also find many effective strategies for dealing with your personal and work challenges by working with a therapist. Talk therapy can help you gain insight into your patterns and develop strategies and coping mechanisms for work. 

    The first step is to get a diagnosis if you don’t yet have one. Frida offers expert adult ADHD consultations, diagnosis and treatment from the comfort of your own home.

    Learn more about how Frida can help →

    The bottom line on working with ADHD

    Living with ADHD means that you are presented with many extra challenges at work which can leave you exhausted and even disadvantaged. By exploring your personal challenges and finding ways to better manage those difficulties, you can help reduce the stress you feel at work. Additionally, you can seek out accommodations or help from the workplace, even if you don’t disclose to them that you have ADHD. Finding effective treatment is also essential to ensure you are able to thrive in your career. 

    At the end of the day, it may also help to take an honest look at the work you do, the gifts you have, and where you see yourself moving forward. It is perfectly healthy to seek out career changes in the never-ending quest to pave the path you want to walk in this life.

    Lisa Batten, PhD, CPT, PN1

    Lisa Batten is a clinical scientist, therapist, and writer specializing in neuroscience and clinical pharmacology. She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology.