ADHD and the enterprise workplace - challenges and opportunities

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 22, 2024
Summary:
To mark Neurodiversity Celebration Week, this is the first in a two-part series putting the spotlight on ADHD, a condition that is all too often forgotten about in a workplace context. The focus here is on exploring what ADHD is and how it manifests itself.

dyslexia
(Pixabay )

There appears to be a huge, and disconcerting, disconnect between how many neurodiverse people organizations in the tech sector believe they employ and the reality of the situation.

The point is illustrated clearly by the UK’s Tech Talent Charter’s latest Diversity in Tech report. It reveals that while employers estimate only 3% of their workforce is neurodiverse, a massive 53% of employees describe themselves that way. This compares with an estimated national average that between 15-20% people in the wider UK population is neurodivergent, a similar figure to that in the US.

According to the study, autism and ADHD are the tech industry’s most common forms of neurodiversity (15% respectively). They are followed by dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia (nine percent respectively).

As to why quite so many neurodiverse people end up being employed in tech, this would seem to be related to the nature of the work. Kirsty Cook, who has ADHD herself, is Global Director of Neuro-inclusion Services at auticon, a specialist neurodiverse IT consultancy. She explains:

A lot of neurodiverse strengths align with tech roles. Skills, such as pattern recognition, error detection, and risk analysis, are very beneficial here, so there ends up being almost a natural gravitation that way.

But this situation makes the disconnect between perception and reality among employers even more eye-catching - particularly as general awareness of neurodiversity has increased significantly over recent years. While only 26% of employers were aware of what it was in 2022, the number has risen to more like 68% today. So, just what is going on here?

Systemic problems in supporting people with ADHD

A key issue relates to disclosure, believes Leanne Maskell, an ADHD coach who has the condition herself. She is also author of ADHD Works at Work. She points out that employees often choose not to share information about their condition out of a fear of being judged and stigmatised, which could lead to their career suffering. Being subjected to unhelpful stereotypes is another concern. 

But many employers do not make disclosure easy either. For example, the most common time for people to be asked about their neurodiversity status is on starting a new job, indicates Karen Blake,Tech Talent Charter’s joint CEO. 

At this point though, many new joiners are unlikely to have built sufficient trust in their employer to want to disclose. Subsequent opportunities, which should be supported by formal policies and procedures, are often simply not available. 

Another widespread challenge is that the terminology used to discuss neurodiversity is frequently aligned with disability. But this situation can be alienating for those employees who do not see their condition as such. Blake explains: 

The way employers ask questions can be off-putting. But they have a statutory obligation to make reasonable adjustments in the same way they do for disabled people, so it’s important they think about how to do it effectively. They also have to give people authentic ways to declare their needs. In other words, it’s about trying to support those needs rather than a specific condition. 

A further consideration is that there tends to be more awareness of certain neurodiverse conditions than others. As Blake points out:

The term ‘neurodiversity’ is often used interchangeably with autism today. But in reality, it encompasses a huge number of conditions. Between three to five percent of working age adults are thought to have ADHD, for example, with about 30% being chronically unemployed. But there are different types of ADHD, and male and female presentation is different so you have to understand the nuances. 

Lack of awareness of ADHD in the workplace

To make matters even more complex, significantly more men have been diagnosed with ADHD than women due to research having mostly been focused on males to date. The condition has also traditionally been associated with children, although late adult diagnoses are now becoming more common. In fact, demand for such assessments in the UK’s National Health Service is currently so high that adult waiting lists range from 12 weeks to 10 years depending on individual local Trusts.

But ADHD often does not occur in isolation, co-existing with other conditions too. Tony Lloyd, CEO of the ADHD Foundation, points out, for instance, that 43% of individuals with ADHD are also dyslexic. A further 29% are also autistic. 

But despite widespread discussion of ADHD in both the media and social media, awareness of the condition in a workplace context is not as high as it could be. Cook explains:

Over the last few years, there’s been a boom in the number of employers recognising they have people with autism and the kind of support they require. But ADHD is never really spoken about. In fact, people often end up with a bad reputation if they say they have it, and the way the media’s handled things hasn’t always been helpful. So unfortunately, the current scenario isn’t encouraging employers to be more inclusive or to think of neurodiversity as an umbrella term rather than as an individual condition. 

Cook compares the situation to that of autism five years ago when it was little understood. As a result, she hopes that ADHD will go on a “similar journey” over the next few years, leading to a reduction in negative stereotypes. For the moment though, Cook says:

ADHD is a hidden condition, which is why it’s going so undetected. People have spent their entire lives hiding it and masking in front of the business. Or they don’t even know they’re neurodiverse and so don’t realise they have anything to disclose anyway.

What does ADHD look like?

So what does ADHD generally look like? According to Maskell, although each individual is different, the condition means they experience challenges with their executive functions. These are cognitive processes that enable people to organize their thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, manage their time efficiently and make decisions. Maskell explains:

The executive function is also linked to motivation, so for those with ADHD, motivation is interest- rather than importance-based. This means people are most energised by what they’re interested in and by things like novelty, urgency or challenge. A huge strength is that they can hyper-focus and do huge amounts of work within tight timescales. But this may not be particularly healthy as it can lead to burnout, and people struggle to do things in a sustained way. They also tend to be very creative and have lots of ideas, which is great if it can be harnessed properly.

Cook agrees, describing people with ADHD as “fab sprinters rather than marathon runners”. But she also points out that they have a different approach to problem-solving than neurotypical people and often display an “innate entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial spirit”:

A lot of people are great at analysing potential risks and can see further ahead as to how those risks might present. But it can bring about challenges among those who aren’t neurodiverse as they don’t see things in the same way. So, because a boss, for example, may not understand the argument, they might disbelieve the individual or reject their ideas. But a year down the line when whatever takes place, the person with ADHD is trying not to say, ‘I told you so’.

There are other challenges too. For instance, keeping to longer-term schedules can be difficult as can emotional regulation, Cook explains:

Many neurodiverse people peak and trough in terms of equilibrium and if something goes wrong, it can be more of a challenge to bring themselves back on track. So, if someone with ADHD is triggered, for example, by someone not believing them about something, they can have quite an emotional reaction. They might also talk repeatedly about why the other person’s approach isn’t right, which comes across as critical. If this is layered on top of that person being a woman, they may be branded as an “hysterical female”. So, a lot of people heavily mask but it creates a physical sensation of not overreacting and is exhausting.

In the second of this two-part series, we will explore what employers can do to ensure they provide the most effective support for employees with ADHD.

 

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