Workplace May Overwhelm Adults With ADHD

Simulation Study Portrays Patients Plagued by Short Attention Span

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 26, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

May 26, 2005 (Atlanta) -- Plagued by hyperactivity and restlessness, adult victims of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder often have significant difficulties getting the job done, according to the first study to simulate their performance in the workplace.

"They have difficulty with many of the things they need to do in the workplace, such as solving math problems or understanding a document dealing with new regulations," says researcher Joseph Biederman, MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Making matters worse, the boss often has no idea of what's really going on and may end up writing off the employee as a low-skilled fidgeter, the study indicates.

"Adults with ADHD are typically unemployed, underemployed, or change jobs frequently," says Biederman.

In fact, his other research shows that ADHD patients suffer an average of $10,000 a year in lost income -- adding up to nearly $80 billion annually on the national level. More than 8 million adults, or 4.3% of American adults, suffer from ADHD.

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

An Accurate Portrait

Howard Eist, MD, past president of the APA and an ADHD specialist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says the study paints an accurate portrait of adults with ADHD in the workplace.

But there are a few jobs where adults with ADHD tend to excel -- journalism and emergency room medicine, he says.

"The deadline pressure, the constant jumping from task to task, gives them an adrenaline rush, similar to the effect of Ritalin," a drug used to treat ADHD, Eist tells WebMD. "Boredom is noxious to people with ADHD."

Getting On With the Job

For the study, 18 adults with ADHD and 18 adults without the condition participated in an eight-hour simulation work day. Those with ADHD were asked to abstain from taking their medications on the day of the study.

The participants sat at classroom-like tables, where they performed and were graded on a variety of tasks: reading passages, solving math and logic problems, watching videos, and writing.

Compared with those without the condition, ADHD patients were significantly less likely to comprehend what they read and correctly solve math problems.

While their performance on comprehending video messages and writing was not impaired, adults with ADHD reported they felt overwhelmed, inattentive, and fidgety during the tasks.

But asked to judge what was going on, "all the observers could see was their hyperactivity, their fidgeting," Biederman tells WebMD.

"And if your boss sees your fidgeting, this tends to work against you in the workplace."

ADHD in adults is associated with deficits in structured work-related tasks, the researchers say. In addition, it affects internal and external observation of symptoms of ADHD.

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SOURCES: American Psychiatric Association 2005 Annual Meeting, Atlanta, May 21-26, 2005. Joseph Biederman, MD, professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School. Howard Eist, MD, past president, APA; professor of psychiatry, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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