More than one million South African adults with ADHD[i] represent an “untapped opportunity” for businesses to enhance inclusion, advance workforce diversity, and improve their performance and competitive advantage.
Employees with ADHD might need some adaptations in the workplace for how they think and work differently, but in exchange, they bring positive qualities of innovative problem-solving, out-of-the-box thinking, high energy levels, focus under pressure, and an entrepreneurial mindset, says Prof Renata Schoeman, head of the MBA in Healthcare Leadership programme at Stellenbosch Business School.
ADHD is a condition that affects not only children but often continues into adulthood and, if not properly treated, impacts the ability to find and keep work.
“However, adults with ADHD can be highly intelligent, creative, and out-of-the-box thinkers, with high energy levels, and the ability to hyper-focus when under pressure or really interested in and engaged with a task,” she said.
Employers who show understanding and are willing to make simple, non-costly accommodations can reap the benefits of “brains that are wired differently” to foster diversity of thinking and different approaches to work, enhancing collaboration, creativity, and innovation in solving business challenges.
“Research has shown that ADHD has low treatment rates, which can come at a cost in productivity losses, reduced quality of work output, and increased sick leave. However, studies have also shown that companies that purposely hire a neurodivergent workforce and, most importantly, support them, outperform their peers on the bottom line,” Prof Schoeman said.
Most children with ADHD will carry it through to adulthood, but the symptoms in adults differ, she said.
Childhood hyperactivity shifts in adults to being disorganised, easily distracted, and impulsive. Adults with ADHD tend to have poor time management and are often running late; they are forgetful and lack attention to detail; have poor listening skills and struggle to focus and concentrate, for example in long meetings.
“Although they have the potential to be highly productive, adults with ADHD can be sabotaged by their own behavioural tendencies. Paralysing procrastination, poor time management, being disorganised, poor financial management may be evident. Their constant activity and talkativeness can also cause interpersonal tension.
“They are often described as good starters, but bad finishers,” Prof Schoeman said.
She said that ADHD in adults has low rates of diagnosis and treatment, resulting in reduced work performance and increasing the risk of developing other mental health conditions such as depression.
Depression may also be the result of the struggle to cope with ADHD symptoms and not understanding the underlying cause of failure, while some adults with ADHD develop negative coping mechanism such as substance abuse.
Adults with ADHD may be workaholics, tending to overschedule themselves, which in turn leads to feelings of being overwhelmed, and depression or mood symptoms.
“ADHD is not a disease that can be cured. But treatment with medication, various forms of behavioural therapy, and training in skills such as time management, can help employees to function optimally in their social settings and at work."
“Untreated ADHD is costly, with a significant impact on the adult’s quality of life, family, and ability to stay in employment, as well as costly for the employer. Encouraging a person to seek diagnosis and treatment can change their life journey in a positive direction,” Prof Schoeman said.
Accommodating or adapting the workplace for an employee with ADHD asks employers firstly to equip themselves with knowledge and understanding of the condition, with information from reliable sources (www.additudemag.com is recommended).
Employers seeking to engage a more neurodiverse workforce should rethink recruitment and hiring practices, she said – including casting the net wider, adapting screening criteria and processes, and adapting interview methods to take into account the needs of people with conditions such as ADHD.
A conducive work environment that respects individual differences needs to be created, with a culture that accepts flexibility, and a mentor, “buddy” or coaching support can also help the adult with ADHD to adapt and cope with work challenges.
Physical changes to the work environment for the employee who is easily distracted or struggles to concentrate could include a separate office or noise-cancelling headset, allowing for the employee to have time offline or reroute phone calls, and allowing for flexi-time or telecommuting.
Assistance with poor time management, disorganisation, and memory could include providing written notes, visual or electronic reminders, breaking down goals and targets, providing regular supervision and feedback, and rewards or incentives for completed tasks.
Prof Schoeman recommends a visual reminder of coping strategies for both employee and their manager, called “the Rear Disc Brake” or RDB:
R: Realistic goals. Rewards. Relax.
D: Declutter. De-distract. Delegate.
B: Book it (scheduling/note-making). Buddy up. Breaks.
Sometimes, no matter how hard they try, adults with ADHD may find that a change in career is the only answer, but this does not have to mean resignation if the employer is willing to find alternative placement within the organisation, with the assistance of a professional such as a coach, occupational therapist or psychologist.
“Find out what the person’s interests (professional and leisure) are. Focus on the individual’s skills (mental, interpersonal and physical). Understand their aptitude and personality. Tap into their strengths and consider the lesser-developed aspects as developmental opportunities, not weaknesses,” she said.
Allowing employees to play to their strengths includes considering tailored career journeys or customised opportunities for career development, as well as customised performance management systems.
“ADHD is not a disability, and with the right treatment it should not be. Nonetheless, employers should be guided by the Code of Good Practice on Employment of People with Disabilities in creating equal opportunities and ensuring fair treatment for all differently-abled people. It would be sensible and ethical for employers to support employees with ADHD and make reasonable accommodations not only for them to perform the essential functions of a job, but to perform optimally,” Prof Schoeman said.
[i] Schoeman, R. (2019). ADHD in the workplace. ADHD in Focus, 7(2) Schoeman R & De Klerk M. (2017). Adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: A database analysis of South African private health insurance. South African Journal of Psychiatry. 23, a1010. https://doi. org/10.4102/sajp.v23.1010