Boredroom? ADHD’s rise in the workplace

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study indicating that there were nearly 64 million children, ages 4-17, diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the United States. Trends indicate that this incidence is rising. But what happens when these children graduate into the workforce?

A 2006 study reported that 4.4 per cent of American adults were living and working with ADHD. And, if more children are being diagnosed with ADHD, then one can only assume that we’ll be seeing more ADHD professionals.

The jury seems to be out in terms of adult ADHD diagnosis. In 2011, a study reported that adults are exaggerating ADHD symptoms. Thanks to Dr. Google, it’s easy to self-diagnose or (inadvertently) play up symptoms to gain special support and accommodations in the workforce.

Today’s marketplace is filled with tools marketed to help calm the ADHD mind. And while the hype behind fidget spinners claims they’ll help students focus, many educators are banning them from the classroom. Why? Because there’s no quantitative proof – only anecdotal reports.

Some professionals worry that spinners are giving authentic fidgets a bad name. There are reports to support the fact that small movements (fidgets) can help a person focus. Think of the last time you worked on a problem — ADHD or not  did — you drum your fingers? Or in a brainstorming session did you find yourself playing with your pen? There is a brain-fidget-focus connection. But, to be effective it needs to be deliberate and non-disruptive to others, who find fidgeting distracting.

So, what does ADHD look like in the workforce, and, perhaps more importantly, what are managers to do about it?

The symptoms of adult ADHD bear a striking similarity to those we hear of in the classroom. Fidgeting, late arrivals, missed deadlines, inability to focus, poor priority setting and distractability to name few hallmarks. No one has to demonstrate all characteristics to be diagnosed, and so it can be difficult to determine what you are facing. Is your employee simply aloof and lazy? Or, is there a reason for their actions?  There’s only one way to find out.

“It starts with a conversation,” says Dr. Gene Deszca, associate director of Lazaridis MBA programs and OB/HRM professor. “When you begin to notice a behaviour or pattern, it’s up to management to have a conversation to investigate what’s happening and provide reasonable accommodation.”

Of course, having these conversations is often easier said than done. “These conversations are often avoided like the plague,” says Deszca. “People worry about what they are going to hear, but it’s important to start the conversation in order to find a solution you can act on.”

Let’s use a case study to shed a bit more light on the situation. Tommy is consistently late for meetings. The result is a lot of lost time, and others are feeling put out for being kept waiting. While it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Tommy’s lazy, disrespectful and disorganized, an effective manager will call him into a one-on-one conversation and see what it is that’s causing him to be late, and what can be done to help him – and by extension your entire team.

“The key is to be consistently inconsistent, while being transparent,” Deszca continues. “You need to be counted on to act when situations arise, to investigate and explore, to act fairly and look for the most appropriate remedy given the situation at hand.” Transparency about this commitment to consistent inconsistency will help ensure other employees don’t fill in the gaps to the story and maintain morale.

ADHD is a reality facing our children and are boardrooms. What will it look like? It depends on the individual, their symptoms and the nature of the work. For some, it may be pacing during meetings. For others, an accommodated work day that incorporates breaks for activity. Or maybe even a new budget line for fidget spinners and other focus-inducing products.