If you’re a young adult with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), what got you through university won’t necessarily help you at work.
After graduation, students move from an environment designed to help them succeed into one that Landmark College professor and learning differences expert MacLean Gander calls “decidedly unfriendly to ADHD”.
And not adapting quickly enough could cost you your job. People with attention-deficit are 61 per cent more likely to be fired, 33 per cent more likely to get laid off, and three times more likely to spontaneously quit.
As a result, the Attention Deficit Disorder Association says one out of every three ADHD adults is unemployed.
But this number doesn’t have to include you.
A diagnosis of ADHD does not dictate any individual’s opportunity for success. ADHD is just a neurological condition — one caused by an underproduction of dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that help the mind regulate focus. But don’t let that description fool you — people with the disorder are perfectly capable of paying attention.
In fact, we pay attention to everything: The woman one desk over who types too loudly, the guy in the break room grinding coffee, construction workers outside the window — every tiny stimulus the neurotypical mind screens out, the ADHD brain lets in. Left untreated, World Health Organisation research shows the average ADHD adult loses 22 days of productivity every year.
Fortunately, there is treatment. Depending on the severity of symptoms, ADHDers take medicine or develop coping skills to deal with the never-ending stimuli. And the latter, says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, co-founder of online coaching community ImpactADHD, is where recent grads need new strategies to survive.
Don’t put off tasks until the last minute
Let’s talk all-nighters. At 20, Taylor-Klaus says hyper-focusing on a single task to meet deadline “may be an effective tactic [but] it does not exactly elevate to the level of skill for lifelong success.” Unlike students, employees can’t crash the minute a project’s turned in. And groggy workers rarely impress the boss.
“College students tend to overuse urgency as a way to get motivated to get things done,” she explains.
“In the work world, you may need to rely on other motivators, such as choosing work that holds your interest, allowing for enough novelty and change to stay engaged, finding an appropriate amount of competition to keep things stimulated, or finding work that satisfies a need for creative expression.”
The latter’s hard, though, when you’re new to the workforce. Entry-level jobs tend to involve more grunt work. ADHDers tend to be creative, broad-picture thinkers, making us perfect top-level execs—take Richard Branson or JetBlue founder David Neeleman, for example — but we also have great difficulty performing rudimentary, administrative tasks.
Talk about your needs, not your diagnosis
It’s tempting to explain underperformance by telling your boss about your ADHD, especially since students are used to sharing their diagnoses with professors. But HR communications strategist Laura MacLeod says watch out: “Most people don’t have a clear understanding of ADHD.”
Unlike teachers trained to recognise different learning styles, your boss may not know what ADHD is, they may have a negative stereotype of the disorder, or — even worse — think you’re using your diagnosis as an excuse.
Instead, psychologist Maelisa Hall says to “focus on needs and what makes [you] productive. For example, instead of saying, ‘I have ADHD so I need to go sit in the conference room to focus and complete this project,’ it is just as helpful to say to a boss, ‘I really need to reduce my distractions so that I can focus on completing this project. I’m going to spend the next two hours in the conference room rather than in my noisy cubicle.’”
This way you not only solve the problem but impress your boss by suggesting your own ways to improve.
Gander also counsels young hires not to use the diagnosis as a crutch. Requesting more test time is very different from asking an employer to make provisions.
“The accommodations and supports mandated by federal law may be useful in many contexts,” he explains, but students shouldn’t “bypass the learning of essential skills and strategies.”
It’s precisely this focus on long-term strategies that Taylor-Klaus says makes the difference between success and failure. ADHD is a lifelong condition. It may be branded as a kids’ disease, but the brain doesn’t randomly make more neurotransmitters in adulthood. The key to surviving a life of distraction is developing larger competencies, not situation-specific tricks.
“A lot of college students use what I might call ‘tactics’ to manage ADHD,” she explains, as opposed to the skills Gander addresses.
“Tactics are situational and may not transfer,” Taylor-Klaus explains — take those all-nighters, for example — but skills, like finding your own solutions instead of leaning on a diagnosis, “set you up for long-term success and are transferable to different environments.”
This article has been updated since its original publish date.