ADHD in the Workplace

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on August 25, 2022
5 min read

Excellent focus, attention to detail, speed, and organization -- they are all things employers are looking for in employees and job candidates. But when you have ADHD, these and more can be a real challenge. It can make it tough to excel at work and sometimes even keep a job. You may feel restless or not be able to focus -- classic parts of having the disorder. But there are things you can do to help you get a job and thrive despite your ADHD. Sometimes it can be an asset.

An estimated 8 million to 9 million American adults have ADHD. And many other people in similar situations struggle on the job.

One national survey showed that only half of adults with ADHD were able to hold down a full-time job, compared to 72% of adults without the disorder. When they were able to secure a job, they tended to earn less than their peers without it. Those job problems translate into nearly $77 billion in lost income each year.

How much ADHD affects your job outlook depends on how severe your condition is. Some people may just have trouble staying on task, while others can't make it through the workday without getting into a huge blow-up with a boss or co-worker. Some people who are more severely affected can lose their job, wind up bouncing from job to job, or need to seek disability benefits.

ADHD affects job performance in a number of ways. If you can't sit still and have trouble with organization and focus, you may find meetings excruciating. Keeping track of multiple projects and deadlines is enormously challenging.

One study showed that people with ADHD often had more trouble with attention, working memory, mental processing, and verbal fluency. These are all called executive-function abilities that are important in the workplace.

If you have ADHD, it may be hard to:

  • Manage time
  • Get and stay organized
  • Listen and pay attention
  • Follow directions
  • Complete assignments
  • Attend to details
  • Get to work on time
  • Speak just when it’s your turn
  • Sit still
  • Keep emotions under control

You may also have trouble with:

ADHD often leads to depression and low self-esteem. When you can’t make deadlines and aren’t able to complete your work on schedule, it can make these feelings worse.

Many adults who are restless, aren’t able to concentrate, or have other symptoms have never been formally diagnosed with ADHD. If you have any of the problems listed above, the first step should be to see a doctor who specializes in the treatment of adult ADHD. They can talk to you to see if you do have it. And if you do, diagnose you so that you can get started on the right treatment plan.

People have success with medication, therapy, or both. There are also organizational strategies you can learn from a coach or occupational therapist and then practice.

If you are about to start a job search, work with a career counselor to find a job that best matches your interests, needs, and abilities. That might want to find a more fast-paced job with flexible hours and a less-rigid structure. Or you may want to start your own business so that you can design your own work environment and hours.

Once you have a job, try these:

  • Find peace. Ask to work in a quiet space where you won't be easily distracted.
  • Buddy up. Work with a manager or colleague who is well-organized and can help guide you through projects from start to completion.
  • Book it. Keep a day planner with a calendar and list of things to do. Update them often. Set up your smartphone or computer to send you electronic reminders for meetings and due dates.
  • Write it down. Take notes at meetings and during phone conversations, and add all new tasks to your to-do list.
  • Schedule interruptions. Set aside specific periods of time each day for answering voice mail and email so that they won't interrupt your other responsibilities.
  • Set realistic goals. Break up your days into a series of individual assignments, and only try to tackle one task at a time. Use a timer to let you know when to move on to the next task.
  • Reward yourself. When you complete an assignment or follow through on these organizational tricks, find a way to reward yourself. Take a break to go for a walk. Read a magazine article. For big goals, go out for a special lunch or get yourself something you've been wanting.
  • Delegate. If you can, get an assistant or intern to take care of the small details to free you up so you can focus on the big picture.
  • Relax, and make it a habit. Practice relaxation techniques. They can help with concentration. Try mediation or deep breathing. Get up once an hour and take a walk, get a drink of water, or talk to a co-worker.

To help you adjust to your job, enlist the help of a career counselor or executive coach.They can offer you guidance on any issues you encounter. They can also help you work through the job situations that you find most troublesome. For example, they could help you role play how to discuss a pay raise with your boss without the conversation becoming emotionally charged.

Because ADHD is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, if you work at a larger company, they can't discriminate against you on the basis of your condition. The act also requires your company to accommodate your needs. But you have to be comfortable enough to let your employer know that you have ADHD. It may be best to research this topic more before bringing it up so you have a plan.

Finally, take advantage of the benefits -- yes, there are benefits -- that can come with ADHD. The restlessness, impulsiveness, and constant desire to try new things can be great assets. This is especially true if you have your own business.

Studies have shown that many adults with ADHD wind up as entrepreneurs. The trick to success is to find a career that best suits you. Then use your energy, creativity, and other strengths to get the most out of your job.