ADHD in the Workplace

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on December 26, 2023
7 min read

Excellent focus, attention to detail, speed, and organization are all qualities that employers look for in employees. But when you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these skills (and others) can be a real challenge, making it tough to excel at work and sometimes even keep a job. ADHD in adults doesn’t look the same for everyone. You may struggle to stay on task and meet deadlines, or you could find yourself in arguments with a boss or coworker at times.

The symptoms of ADHD fit into two categories: problems with attention, or hyperactive behavior such as restlessness and impulsiveness. Researchers know less about these symptoms in adults because they can be less obvious than those in children, but they might include forgetfulness, having a hard time prioritizing, or not being able to deal with stress. 

ADHD can also look different in men and women. Symptoms in men are often more external, such as aggressive behavior, interrupting others, or angry outbursts. However, women’s symptoms tend to be internal. They may feel unmotivated or easily overwhelmed, have a hard time sleeping, or have low self-esteem.

An estimated 8 million to 9 million American adults have ADHD. 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. But even when they were able to secure work, they tended to earn less than their peers. This results in up to $138 billion a year in lost income and productivity for the U.S. economy. But there are things you can do to get a job and thrive at it. Sometimes, your ADHD can even be an asset.

How much ADHD affects your job outlook depends on how severe your condition is. Some people who are more severely affected can lose their jobs, wind up bouncing from job to job, or need to seek disability benefits.

ADHD affects job performance in many ways. If you can't sit still, you may find meetings excruciating. Keeping track of multiple projects and managing your time efficiently can be extremely challenging.

If you work in an office, the extra noise and movement might make it harder for you to focus. Another common problem is boredom, especially when it comes to paperwork and routine tasks, which may cause you to procrastinate on things you need to get done.

It’s also normal for those with ADHD to have a hard time remembering deadlines and other responsibilities. If you struggle with impulse control, you might have angry outbursts at work. As ADHD can cause you to be too blunt, talk a lot, or interrupt someone who’s speaking, it can also affect your relationships with your coworkers. 

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 and are important in the workplace.

If you have ADHD, it may also be hard to:

  • Manage time
  • Get and stay organized
  • Listen and pay attention
  • Follow directions
  • Complete assignments
  • Pay attention 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, they can 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. Try the following:

  • Routines and lists. If you struggle with routine, try to build up a schedule over time. To-do lists with smaller tasks that you can complete in 30 minutes or less are a good way to stay motivated. 

  • Something new. As the ADHD brain tends to get bored easily, you can also try switching up where you work, or listen to a playlist if you’re trying to complete a repetitive task.

  • Rewards. When you complete something on your to-do list, reward yourself to help with motivation. These can be small things you like to do, such as drinking a cup of tea or going for a short walk

  • Personal space. If you get distracted at home or in the office, try creating a “space bubble” away from the people and things that may grab your focus. This could be in an unused conference room or a cubicle. 

  • Improved communication. To communicate better at work, try asking your manager or colleagues for constructive feedback. It can also be helpful to pay attention to social cues, such as body language or someone’s tone of voice, so you can understand the best way to respond.

  • Career coaching. 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. You 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 a 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 during meetings and phone conversations, and add all new tasks to your to-do list.
  • Schedule interruptions. Set aside specific time slots each day for answering voicemails and emails 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 and get some fresh air if you work indoors. Read a news article, or play a quick game on your phone. 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 meditation or deep breathing. If you're sitting at a desk, get up once an hour and take a walk, get a drink of water, or talk to a coworker.

To help you adjust to your job, seek help from 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 because 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. 

Should you tell your boss?

You’re not required to tell anyone at work about your ADHD. If you decide that you do want to talk to your boss, one of the first things you should think about is your goal. What are the results you want to get from the conversation? Experts say you should focus on your challenges in the workplace instead of speaking specifically about ADHD.

Try this three-step formula:

  1. Describe your struggle and its circumstances.
  2. Outline a solution.
  3. Highlight the benefits of the solution to your boss, coworkers, and the company.

An example might be that you struggle with distractions. You could suggest that your designated work location be moved to a quieter area, and then share how this change would make a positive impact on your productivity. 

Your legal rights

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with disabilities against workplace discrimination. It also requires that the companies they work for make accommodations for their condition. This applies to government jobs as well as private employers with 15 workers or more.

The law can apply to people with ADHD, but it means you have to prove, with plenty of documentation, that ADHD keeps you from doing your job. If you meet the conditions, your boss has to work with you to figure out ways to help you do your job better.

Pros and cons

ADHD may cause you to have a hard time starting projects and procrastinating when they feel overwhelming. Organization and deadlines may not be your strong points. Maybe you're easily distracted and frustrated. Those issues can affect the way people in your workplace see you.

Still, 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.