How to Manage an Employee With ADHD

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 14, 2022
7 min read

The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 lists attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a cognitive (mental health) disability. It requires that employers don’t discriminate against employees with ADHD.

You may find that some of your employees with ADHD are falling short of certain expectations, aren’t being productive, or aren’t feeling fulfilled at their jobs despite doing their best. If that’s the case, their working conditions may need to be tweaked to help them be more successful.

Research suggests that people with ADHD are at a higher risk of losing their jobs or being unemployed. They might also:

  • Take more sick days
  • Change jobs more often
  • Have many jobs at the same time
  • Feel dissatisfied at work
  • Not perform well at work
  • Be more likely to be involved in workplace accidents or injuries

People with ADHD often struggle to meet the expectations of a typical workplace. For example, the U.S. Secretary of Labor’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report listed “thinking skills” as something young people need to succeed at work. People with ADHD may lack some of the “thinking skills” in the report, like being organized, communicating ideas effectively, staying on task, and finding and solving problems.

Employees with ADHD may find it challenging to:

  • Focus
  • Pay attention at meetings
  • Manage their time
  • Organize their schedule
  • Stay on top of their workload
  • Follow instructions
  • Meet deadlines
  • Communicate with their co-workers
  • Follow through with what they’re supposed to do

Psychotherapist Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC, says people with ADHD may put things off at work and deliver poor quality work.

They may also struggle with managing their emotions and have conflicts with co-workers, says Sussan Nwogwugwu, Clinical Leader PMHNP, at the digital ADHD clinic Done.

Plus, the constant struggle to stay focused and complete tasks – while worrying about their job security – may lead to additional mental health concerns, like low self-esteem, negative beliefs about their abilities, and anxiety and depression, Fedrick says.

ADHD symptoms do allow people with ADHD to excel in certain situations at work. Research shows that people with ADHD are more likely to be creative and original thinkers and bring fresh ideas into any setting than adults without ADHD.

People with ADHD often are easily distracted, and that can also be a benefit. They can look at different aspects of work and see things a person without ADHD might otherwise ignore, says Kelly Hermann, Vice President for Accessibility, Equity & Inclusion at the University of Phoenix.

Another way people with ADHD can be innovative in the workplace is that they are often risk-takers and adventure-seekers, Fedrick says. They’re more willing to try things in their jobs that others haven’t thought of or haven’t been willing to do.

Also, people with ADHD are excellent at doing work that interests and excites them. They’ll often get very involved and perform better than their colleagues, says Kate Hanselman, a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Thriveworks Counseling in Stamford, who also lives with ADHD.

But, it’s important to help your employees find a balance as they hyperfocus on work that excites them, so they don’t overdo it and burn out.

People with ADHD often are energetic, outgoing, fun, and look for new experiences. These traits make them want to interact with new people or start new programs and training. That can help the organization grow, Fedrick says.

Other positives of working with employees with ADHD may include:

  • They’re good in crises.
  • They’re flexible and spontaneous.
  • They often bring optimism to the workplace.
  • They work better under tight deadlines or pressure.

There are no one-size-fits-all rules for helping employees with ADHD succeed. But you can start by educating everyone at work, especially the management team and human resources, about ADHD and how it can impact performance, Fedrick says.

She explains that because some people don’t take ADHD seriously as a mental disorder, people with ADHD are often in work environments that clash with their skills. And the results of being in this kind of environment are often overlooked or dismissed.

“If you see things like forgetfulness, mindlessness, or lateness in an employee with ADHD, they don't stem from a lack of care or respect that you may assume in a neurotypical employee,” Hanselman says. “Rather, these are challenges specific to ADHD and should be addressed and supported as the performance issues they are instead of potentially being taken as willful disrespect.”

Other ways to manage employees with ADHD and help them reach their potential in the workplace include:

Get to know your employees better. ADHD symptoms often vary with each person. Creating one solution for everyone in the workplace with ADHD might not be the best way to help them.

“An employee might struggle with perfectionism and procrastination. Another might struggle with focus and attention span,” Fedrick says. “So get to know each person and their symptoms, and ask them how to best help and support them.”

Talking to your employees first before introducing any solutions in the workplace “allows the employee to have agency over managing their work and allows you to provide the kind of support that will be effective for that employee,” Hermann says.

Also, “try not to minimize or brush off the symptoms the employee tells you,” Fedrick says. “Instead, work together to brainstorm possible solutions to any barriers.”

Let their duties fit with their strengths. Experts say the biggest thing you can do for your employees with ADHD is to work with their symptoms, rather than against them.

So learn your employees' strengths, and whenever possible, assign work to them in areas they’re most comfortable or show more interest in, Fedrick says.

People with ADHD can focus better, remain interested, stay motivated, be more productive, and come up with new ideas when the work aligns with their interests and strengths.

Create accommodations in the workplace. People with ADHD can meet workplace demands in an environment that helps them focus, stay on task, and be productive.

Fedrick suggests that you “understand what type of environment each employee thrives in – do they work better with people, alone, or at home?” Then, adjust to fit that.

To create the ideal environment for someone with ADHD, you might:

  • Cut down on distractions so they can focus better and stay on task. You can give them tools like noise-canceling headphones, earbuds, or blocker apps to help manage possible distractions. You can face their work desk to a wall or allow them to work in empty offices if they prefer.
  • Create daily routines for them to follow.
  • Give them more time to finish tasks or training and follow up to see if they need help understanding any part of their work.
  • Have some flexibility with their schedule, workload, deadlines, and communication.
  • Provide specific instructions, deadlines, or expectations and put them down in writing.
  • Allow note-taking in meetings.
  • Provide extra time before meetings end to explain anything an employee might have missed during the session.
  • Assign projects in smaller, more manageable bits.
  • Let employees take breaks between tasks to relax, stretch, or move around as they want.
  • Provide them with calendar reminders, notes, checklists apps, etc., to help them stay on top of their workload.

Receive and give feedback. Helping your employees with ADHD succeed doesn’t stop even after making changes in the workplace to meet their needs. You also have to regularly check in with them to know how they are doing with the changes.

Ask whether there’s anything they are struggling with. And find out if there is anything you can do to support them better, Fedrick says.

You can also tell them about their progress at work with the new changes. Let them know if they’re meeting expectations or becoming more productive. Tell them areas they might need to work on, too, she says.

A co-worker with ADHD is likely to interact with colleagues just like any other co-worker does, Hanselman says. Fedrick says they might enjoy meeting and engaging with their co-workers.

But they might also:

  • Talk a lot
  • Change topics unexpectedly
  • Interrupt co-workers while they’re still talking
  • Not be able to stick to deadlines or complete projects
  • Get distracted while working with colleagues
  • Isolate themselves from their colleagues

Still, Hermann says that because ADHD affects each person differently, it is best (for employers and co-workers) to approach each interaction at work with a willingness to learn more about each person and how you can best work together. This way, you can create a working environment where everyone feels like they belong.

Depending on their symptoms, some employees with ADHD might benefit from working from home. Others might prefer to work with co-workers in the office.

“For employees who become distracted easily and lose focus because of side conversations, interruptions, co-worker engagement, etc., working from home might benefit them more,” Fedrick says.

"A home office allows the employee to self-accommodate in terms of workspace location and setting,” Hermann says. They can fidget, use sit-stand desks, and take more frequent breaks.

“For employees who struggle to stay on task, working from home might expose them to more distractions, like doing chores, watching TV, or addressing other family issues,” Fedrick says. Also, they might not be as accountable to co-workers and supervisors as they are when working in the office. All of these can lower their productivity and efficiency.

Fedrick suggests ways to make working from home work for you if you have ADHD:

  • Set up a clear daily routine and stick to a schedule.
  • Identify a specific area of the home for work.
  • Remove distractions and make sure your work area is calm and quiet.

If you know colleagues with ADHD, you can help them be great at their jobs by being sensitive to their experience and understanding how your actions affect their ability to cope with work demands, Fedrick says.

Talk with your co-workers about how you can support them. If an employee with ADHD tells you they struggle with figuring out how much time they might need to complete projects, you can work with them to create more realistic time estimates, Hermann says.

Hanselman suggests employers include flexibility, understanding, and clear communication in the workplace to help all team members – with ADHD and without – do their best at work.