ADHD at Work | Tips if You or a Co-Worker Struggle to Focus

ADHD at Work | Tips if You or a Co-Worker Struggle to Focus was originally published on Idealist Careers.

Illustration by Marian Blair

Great news for anyone whose work experience is affected by ADHD: you’re not alone! Even better, there are ways to deal with the challenges it can create, and it may even give you a few office superpowers. 

Experts estimate that about eight million adults have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), many of whom are productive and successful at a variety of careers; of course there are still misconceptions and stigmas. However, society’s perceptions of neurodiversity are ever-evolving, and we’re learning more and more about how to harness the challenges and advantages (yes, there are advantages!) of ADHD at work. 

Challenges ADHD can pose at work 

ADHD can create threats to productivity and focus at work that go beyond distractibility or time management struggles. 

Here are some common symptoms for adults struggling with ADHD in the workplace:

  • The inability to finish a task
  • Trouble with projects that ask for precision or take place over a longer timeframe
  • Difficulty prioritizing tasks
  • Reduced executive functioning skills; the mental processes that help us to remember instructions, focus, plan, and juggle tasks.

The upside? There are multiple effective tactics to cope—and even thrive—with ADHD at work. 

Strategies to stay organized and on task 

There are many—often simple—strategies that can help with focus issues at work.

  • Plan out your workday in advance. Try to save some time each afternoon to review what needs to get done the following day. Be sure to be realistic and consider obstacles and priorities. 
  • Move! Building physical activity into your daily routine can help fight monotony and pump you up. If you’re feeling fidgety, take a walk. 
  • Take a break. Even quick breaks can help mix things up a bit and offer you time for a quick reset if you’re having trouble focusing. 
  • Break it down. Thinking about tackling a full day of work or an entire project can be daunting. Divide it into smaller chunks and work through priority items step-by-step. 
  • Avoid distractions. Close those tabs that aren’t related to work or the task at hand. Wear noise-cancelling headphones, and maybe turn off your email alerts. Let co-workers know if you need to focus. Don’t let your breaks turn into long non-work conversations, or large stretches of time away from what you need to get done. 
  • Try different organizational techniques to help set yourself up for success. Remember that structure is your friend.

How to work with co-workers who struggle to focus 

Maybe you don’t have trouble focusing, but perhaps you work with a colleague, manager, or direct report who does. Try to handle the situation with sensitivity and empathy by only discussing the issue in terms of how work performance is affected, and leave out any mention of their diagnosis or symptoms. Not only is their relationship with ADHD their business, it’s possible that they don’t have it or they do but don’t know it. 

If someone you manage comes to you for help, listen and support, and consult your HR department for guidance. If your organization doesn’t have an HR department, seek out other resources that can help you both educate yourself and stay within legally appropriate territory. Be sure to offer clear boundaries and deadlines (vague concepts like “soon” won’t set your employee up for success) and keep in mind that it’s possible that making simple accommodations for one individual could benefit the whole team.

Benefits of ADHD in the workplace 

If you have ADHD, it’s likely that you also have positive attributes that can help you to be specifically adaptable and essential. 

  • Hyperfocus. Many people with ADHD find that they are able to focus very intently, particularly if they’re very interested in a project. You may even be able to hack this “hyperfocus” with less exciting tasks by turning them into a game, or by rewarding yourself for each piece you finish. 
  • Creativity. People with ADHD often excel at thinking outside the box and taking on creative pursuits, and bring new ideas and a different energy to the table. If a unique problem arises, you may have a solution! 
  • Comfort in crisis mode. Whether it’s the extra Theta waves or just a familiarity with chaos within the brains of people with ADHD, there’s a good chance you often shine in times of crisis. 
  • Attention to detail. This one may seem odd, but especially during hyperfocus, ADHD can help with detail attentiveness. Also, because your brain takes in what other brains filter out, you may catch what others miss. 
  • Ingenuity and resourcefulness. Ever noticed you have a knack for seeing patterns or opportunities where others see mayhem? Or that you can come up with new ideas when others get flustered by their first attempt not working? Your ADHD has likely made you better accustomed to finding inventive solutions. 

Discussing ADHD at work 

At this point, you may be asking yourself whether ADHD is really a disability. Well, the answer is complicated. 

Employees with ADHD can be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, an employee must prove specific barriers to job performance, and be able to sort out reasonable accommodations with their employer (if the state requires it). 

While we still have a long way to go to improve support for those with ADHD in the workplace, many find that talking with their managers about simple fixes (with or without mentioning ADHD) can be beneficial. It’s entirely up to you whether you want to share your diagnosis at work. Either way, exploring ways to optimize your talents and communicating your needs to your team can help you all achieve success. 


For more tips on staying focused at work, check out our post on Staying Focused During Virtual Meetings

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