Some staff seem to be on steroids? How to manage ADHD at work

Think attention deficit, hyperactivity disorders (ADHDs), and most people think of unruly, easily distracted children. Medical specialists will tell you that ADHD is a ‘complex, lifelong, neurodevelopmental disorder’.These disorders usually show up first in childhood, and while some children appear to grow out of them, they say if the condition goes undiagnosed and is inappropriately treated, it continues into adulthood and the workplace, often with disastrous results. Here, a Johannesburg psychiatrist looks at why ADHD staff can be an asset, and what bosses and employees can do to leverage that asset.  – Marika Sboros

By Rykie Liebenberg


For most people, work is a dynamic and unpredictable place. Open plan offices make interaction more frequent, the always-on office means hours are stretched and HR managers have to juggle a myriad personalities to keep employees and employers happy. Throw an (ADHD) employee into the mix, and keeping a happy, stable workplace and productive workforce can be even more difficult.

ADHD is a complex lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder. No one knows exactly what causes ADHD, but it’s generally understood to result from chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, that don’t function properly in the areas of the brain that control activity and attention.

Today, the condition remains underdiagnosed and undertreated, with only 17% of those living with the condition actually receiving treatment. If left unmanaged and untreated, the impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattention that presents as a result of ADHD can have a negative effect on the career of the individual.

Studies show adults living with ADHD are less likely to be employed, have considerably more job changes over 10 years and are significantly less satisfied with their family, social and professional lives. This is often because of unmanaged ADHD symptoms that are prevalent in the workplace.

Workplace dynamics

Employees with poorly managed ADHD are often up and about – at the printer, then making coffee, then having a smoke break – and often interrupt others’ work. In meetings, they struggle to maintain focus, which means they leave the meeting without the required information. This in turn leads to the misconception that they’re lazy and disinterested in their work, which isn’t always the case.

Read also: More adults taking ADHD drugs given to kids to stay focused

Employees with ADHD in an open-plan office also struggle with distraction. Any noise, change in light or activity diverts their attention away from the project at hand. They’re also equally susceptible to digital distraction – every time an email pops into their inbox, their focus is interrupted. Facebook, mobile phones, tablets and general internet browsing can consume huge chunks of their time, which they should be spending on urgent projects.

Practical support

It’s vital for employers to know if their employee has ADHD, so they can take steps to manage them accordingly. As an employer, do your best to give these employees a quieter space in which to work, away from noise and distraction. Making an employee sit in front of a window where they are easily distracted, for example, isn’t a wise move.

Visual reminders have proven to be the most effective for adults with ADHD. Employers should work with employees to set up year planners, as well as provide them with a diary they can use on a daily basis. Large to-do lists with brightly coloured stickers work well as reminders.

I would also advise employees with ADHD to take small steps to help direct their focus better in the workplace, like going to bed early to be at work on time, taking regular lunch breaks to avoid dips in blood sugar, and exercising regularly.

What a lot of people don’t know is that an employee with ADHD can be a real asset – they bring energy, creativity and lateral thought to the table and, if given a project they’re interested in, will complete it quicker than anyone else. With the right management of the condition and teamwork between employee and employer, both can enjoy a productive, happy workspace.

  • If you’re struggling with any of the symptoms mentioned above, visit a healthcare professional for a conclusive diagnosis and effective, holistic treatment plan. As an employer, if you notice any of these symptoms, encourage your employee to visit a healthcare professional, to start the journey to diagnosis and treatment. 
  • *Dr Rykie Liebenberg is a psychiatrist and convenor of the South African ADHD Special Interest Group
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