ADHD in the Workplace
Whether it’s the CEO or an employee who has the condition, harnessing the energy of trendsetting, out-of-the-box thinkers can boost productivity and job satisfaction.
For entrepreneur Kevin Lofgren, 41, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder has been both a blessing and a curse.
Although he got along just fine socially by being entertaining and the life of the party, he wasn’t well respected for his intellect or performance in school. He got a job after college, then later founded Farstar, a technology-based creative marketing firm in Frisco.
“What I found was when I was employed I could get away with doing things half-assed, but when I [started Farstar] and was not quite focused, I was cheating myself,” he says. “I made up for my lack of focus by working more. It would take me eight hours when it should have taken me two, so I worked 80 to 90 hours a week.”
He also remembers drifting off during meetings and not remembering when he promised clients he’d do something.
“It looked like I had a memory problem, but it was a listening problem,” he says. “It shows up like you don’t care or don’t respect them.”
About 9 million adults have ADD or ADHD, but nearly 90 percent don’t even know it.
Sports heroes like Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler and Olympic medalist Michael Phelps have spoken openly about their ADHD diagnoses, as have businessmen Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s, and David Neeleman, founder and CEO of JetBlue Airways.
Clearly, they’ve found ways to successfully channel their ADHD, and their message is that others can, too.
Kinsler isn’t concerned about the public perception that often comes with the diagnosis. In eighth grade he began taking Adderall, a medication that helped him focus better, and he hasn’t looked back.
“I think if it’s affecting the people around you and they notice it, you need to check yourself out and look in the mirror,” he says. “It’s absolutely OK to get help and no one is going to make fun of you.”
But getting help and speaking openly in the workplace about the disorder are two very different situations.
“There is a stigma to it and even though people joke about it, ADHD can be unpredictable and unproductive,” says Plano psychologist Susan Fletcher, Ph.D., author of Working in the Smart Zone, which addresses ADHD issues at work. “Adults in the workplace want to be seen as a professional and taken seriously. I heard [Dallas media personality] Kidd Kraddick on the radio today, and he joked that he hadn’t taken his Adderall. In that format it’s entertaining, but in the classic business setting, it’s not something that’s typically disclosed or made light of.”
WHAT IS ADHD?
ADHD is a neurobiological disorder that affects the parts of the brain that control attention and activity. Despite the name, ADHD is not just about hyperactivity; it’s more about struggling to stay focused.
Most ADHD people are highly intelligent, creative, and innovative, and once they learn to manage their symptoms, their “unlimited energy and laser focus on important goals can be a secret weapon that most ordinary folks” can only envy, says Koy Roberts, Ph.D., a child, adolescent, and family psychologist in Coppell.
Those who come out on top typically pick a profession or career they’re passionate about to channel all of their good qualities. Many are attracted to sales or creative jobs because of the variety of the work. Those with ADHD are easily bored, so a job where they’re sitting in a cubicle all day isn’t a good career choice.
Entrepreneurs who are trendsetters, impulsive, and willing to take risks are more apt to have ADHD, Fletcher says. She points to Kinko’s founder Orfalea and television host Ty Pennington of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition as examples of how creative thinkers have changed industries or introduced new markets. “To be an entrepreneur, you need to be able to have some of those skills,” she says. “If they think about it too much, they might talk themselves out of it.”
Typically the high-level CEO with ADHD functions well in the workplace and isn’t bothered by his or her ADHD. But it’s the people who work with him or her who suffer the most and will be most bothered by it, Fletcher says.
These executives need to have good people and systems surrounding them to compensate for their deficiencies; otherwise, they can expect frequent turnover and conflicts.
“It can be a nightmare for some people who desire structure and predictability, but it also can be wonderful if that person enjoys the creativity and spontaneity of an ADHD person,” she says.
WHAT IT’S REALLY LIKE
Most of us have joked one time or another about having ADHD. Being tired or stressed out from overscheduled lives, too little sleep, and lack of exercise can trigger ADHD-like symptoms. But those don’t hold a candle to the real deal.
Although not every person has all of the symptoms, the disorder is characterized by hyperactivity and difficulties following directions, concentrating, organizing tasks, remembering information, and controlling behavior. A failure to address these difficulties can lead to problems at work or with relationships, addiction issues, and underachieving.
Dave R. (not his real name) knows that story well. In 1999, he left a 17-year unfulfilling career in accounting to launch a Johnson County furniture store. He says he was tired of the detail work and wanted to focus on the sales and marketing aspects of the business. He has since opened a second store in the Fort Worth area, but is realizing he needs a competent office manager to keep him organized.
The paperwork struggles he faced at his accounting job followed him to his new venture, and now he’s facing decade-old income tax issues.
“Overall I’m happier than I was before, but it’s still very frustrating that I don’t have everything organized the way it should be,” he says. “That part is a constant struggle and stress, and the income tax issue is serious business. It’s not like I don’t know the importance of that. I’m getting better with meeting deadlines of all the different reports, but I am real lax when it comes to deadlines.”
The entrepreneur says he didn’t notice the ADHD symptoms until after college, but family members and peers often call him on it. He struggles with chronic lateness, time management, and procrastination, and is easily distracted—all of which have negatively affected his work and home life. “It’s a heavy weight; something you fight every day of your life,” he says, admitting he is considering medication and ADHD counseling through a North Texas Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) support group.
His employees know he’s “kind of scattered,” but they roll with it. “They would prefer to have somebody more on top of things, but I think that’s where employees are supposed to pick up the shortfall,” he says.
MANAGING ADHD EMPLOYEES
For company leaders, managing employees with ADHD requires a philosophy that embraces the workers’ diverse needs and a willingness to harness their strengths in a way so they can be successful, says Jeff Kaye, co-CEO at Kaye/Bassman International Corp., an executive search and recruitment firm in Dallas.
“With an ADHD employee, ask what are the inherent competencies that are higher and how can I allow that condition to manifest itself in the most productive way,” he says.
An ADHD employee with unbridled energy and passion and an interest in working on many different projects could excel in a sales job if paired with another employee who is good at research and administrative work. Offering an accommodation rather than expecting the individual to do all of the paperwork and computer time will likely improve productivity and job satisfaction.
There’s a fine line between accommodating an employee, however, and letting him use the disorder as an excuse for not improving.
“Your responsibility as a leader is to help the person see that they have these issues, but show them they can still work on them,” Kaye says. Leaders can suggest techniques—such as turning off notifications or only checking e-mail at certain times of the day—that will help minimize distractions.
Kaye believes our multitasking culture is grooming new generations of workers who will continue to struggle with ADHD-type issues, so leaders need to be prepared to deal with it, whether employees are diagnosed or not.
“I do truly believe this is something that’s not going to get better in time; it will get worse,” he says. “There’s a percentage of the Gen Y-ers who will be higher [in this area]. We can’t argue that their brain chemistry has changed [significantly], so it must be environmental conditions. It’s like throwing kerosene on the match.”
Adults are better than children at developing coping skills and organization and management skills to deal with ADHD, and some may not require medication for it. For the 85 to 90 percent of those who take medications for ADHD, they say it practically changes their lives. The remaining 10 to 15 percent find the medicines don’t work or they have too many side effects, such as difficult sleeping, decreased appetite, and decreased emotions.
Although it might seem counterintuitive to use stimulants to treat a hyperactive person, that’s exactly what their brains need to help control impulsive behavior or concentration.
“People with ADHD tend to have fewer neurotransmitter stimulators, so they’re under aroused and they can’t focus or get much done,” Roberts says. “The medication stimulates the neurotransmitters so they can do their jobs.”
Most of the Class C controlled substances —Ritalin, Metadate, Concerta, Daytrana, Adderall, Desoxyn, Dexedrine, and Dextrostat—used to treat ADHD haven’t changed much in the last few decades. But a handful of nonstimulates, including Stattera, are newer to the scene, as is the use of neurofeedback, where repetition trains the frontal lobe of the brain to produce the desired brain waves.
Treatment all depends on how significantly ADHD is affecting the adult. Licensed professional counselor Dulce Torres, who offers ADHD coaching and treats patients in her North Texas practice, says she evaluates the whole picture. Often there is a learning disability, such as dyslexia, or an anxiety disorder or depression linked to an individual with ADHD.
Through her practice and volunteer work with the North Texas CHADD group, Torres helps show people that ADHD is a real condition, but one, like diabetes, that can be managed. CHADD offers support groups and programs in Tarrant County, Grapevine/Southlake, and Dallas.
Business owner Lofgren stayed on Adderall for four years until he made some diet and exercise adjustments that he says transformed his life. Two years ago, he kicked his 14-Diet-Cokes-a-day-addiction, quit smoking, and eliminated dairy and gluten from his diet. His pants size has dropped from a 34 to a 29, he doesn’t need an alarm clock anymore, and he says he recently sat through a three-day executive seminar without any issues.
“I couldn’t have done that before,” Lofgren says. “Nobody is saying the doctors aren’t saving lives every day, but there are many things we wouldn't have to turn to drugs for if we would just be responsible for how we feed ourselves.”
Although Adderall made him productive, he says a “clear mind” now has inspired him to creatively look for ways that he and his business can make a difference in the world.
Roberts, the psychologist, reiterates that ADHD is a brain disorder, but agrees that reducing or cutting out processed foods, junk food, too much sugar and red dye, and stepping up exercise can all help improve ADHD symptoms.
Kinsler of the Texas Rangers says he mainly uses medication to manage his ADHD, but believes that actively exercising all of his life has definitely helped.
Unfortunately, not everyone with ADHD gets to become a professional baseball player or enjoy long-term professional or personal relationships, Roberts says.
“There are so many adults who have been walking around with ADHD their whole lives,” he says. “They managed to get through with a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, but they really just underachieved relative to their ability levels. For a lot of adults, with treatment, life could be a whole lot easier.”
• North Texas Chapter of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), www.chadd.net
• ADD in the Workplace, by Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D.
• Working in the Smart Zone, by Plano psychologist Susan Fletcher, Ph.D.
• Copy This!, by Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s