My teenage son left school and joined the workforce recently. When he was putting together his initial cover letter and CV, he didn’t think twice about adding that he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s just part of who he is. A few job applications later with no response, I started asking some questions and realised his approach. This turned into an awkward conversation. My son didn’t understand why he wouldn’t share this part of himself with a prospective employer, while I believed it wasn’t necessary to share his medical history on a job application. Little did he know, the working world is often not as understanding and supportive of people with ADHD as the school environment he’d just come from.
A couple of changes to his CV and a few proactive attempts later, he now has his first job.
The rise of ADHD
You would have been hiding under a rock to not notice that ADHD is more prevalent than ever. I listened to a podcast
recently explaining that a better understanding of neurodivergence in the medical community, coupled with a rise of content available on social media, has resulted in more people recognising the symptoms in themselves and seeking help. The challenge that comes with this, however, is that the number of medical professionals that can diagnose and support ADHD hasn’t changed, so there is a supply and demand issue for medical intervention, which is now the subject of a senate inquiry.
The way I see it, employers and leadership teams, particularly in our industry, can help — not with medical expertise, but in setting our ADHD team members up for success.
ADHD benefits and challenges
What many might not understand is that people with ADHD are creative and out-of-the-box thinkers. Their diverse thinking abilities can solve problems and create innovative solutions in ways that not everyone can. They can hyperfocus. Some people with ADHD describe it as a superpower once they know how to control it, because it allows them to be completely focused and absorbed in a task, resulting in incredible work. People with ADHD can have an energy and enthusiasm that lifts the spirits of everyone in a team, creating greater communication and connection. They are also often wonderful at moving people to action, which can be exactly what a business requires when decisions need to be made, and tasks need to get underway. Sounds like a great set of skills for the advertising industry, doesn’t it?
The problem is that having an ADHD brain can also come with some challenges that may lead to struggles in the workplace. Job underperformance is one example of what can happen when a person with ADHD is not supported. In the case of a few people I know, a sense of failure from not being able to complete tasks that others find easy can also lead to comorbidities such as anxiety and depression.
What we can learn from the school environment
In the school environment, it is commonplace for ‘reasonable adjustments’ or a ‘personalised learning plan’ to be put in place for students with ADHD. In my experience with my own children, additional scaffolding of a task, a quiet space with fewer distractions, or clear communication, both written and explained verbally, made a huge difference. Better support is on the way too in Queensland, with ADHD being formally recognised for the first time as a disability, enabling more resources and support for teachers and students. It makes sense to me that we can learn from these bespoke plans by applying similar thinking to the workplace.
Applying a ’reasonable adjustments’ approach to the workplace
Since I’ve spoken openly about my experiences with neurodivergence in my family, colleagues and industry friends have shared their own stories. I was initially surprised by the number of people who have ADHD in our industry, but when I think back to what their strengths are, it makes perfect sense. Our industry is creative, strategic, dynamic, high energy, and encourages innovative thinking.
At EssenceMediacom Australia, we are committed to providing a culture of inclusivity and belonging and, as a business, we are passionate about providing education and support in this space. As a starting point, I am working with our people and culture team, and an employee resources group to build a strategic framework for our approach, alongside our team at GroupM under our Disability Action Plan. Ultimately, we need to work alongside individuals with ADHD to create a more inclusive environment that reduces the challenges they may face. Each team member’s experience with ADHD can be wide and varied so it’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
Tips to better support ADHD in the workplace
As we work towards the goal of creating an environment that is more inclusive, we first need to create a space where people feel comfortable sharing without fear of being judged. This way, an inclusive plan can be developed alongside them to counteract some of the challenges the individual faces.
Until we get to this point, there are some tips we can implement to support some of the common challenges faced by our ADHD team members who have shared, which can be easily accommodated in the following ways:
Organisation can be a struggle: Your ADHD team member might benefit greatly from tools that can help with this. Encourage them to use to-do lists, calendar reminders, and a workflow tool that prompts the steps in the process and alerts them of deadlines. A regular check-in from their line manager will also be a great support.
Getting started on complex tasks: Having a kick-off meeting to discuss the best way to break the project down into smaller steps might help. If it’s a project that will take an extended period of time to deliver, be clear and concise in your expectations and allow for check-in points along the way. Be approachable so they can come and ask for support if they need it.
Flexibility in the workplace: Hybrid working is common for many in a post-Covid world. For our ADHD team members, the chance to work at home with no distractions might benefit them, but they may enjoy the vibrancy of being in the office as well, so a balance between the two is perfect. If your ADHD team member gets into hyperfocus, let them take a break to recharge, because chances are the output of their hyperfocus probably delivered a lot!
Movement breaks: Sitting at a desk for a long period of time can be hard for someone with ADHD. Taking a few minutes to get up and move about is easy in an office environment. Even better is to have walking meetings with your ADHD team members. The movement and fresh air will likely be great for you and them both.
Calming the mind: Giving our ADHD team members the chance to listen to music or use noise-cancelling headphones may also help them minimise distractions. I know my daughter (also with ADHD) often needs low-level music to calm her racing mind, which then enables better concentration on the task at hand.
Embracing our team members with ADHD has huge benefits for us in the advertising industry. Yes, there’s a little bit of effort we need to put in place to support them, but given a proper chance, they can make our work, our culture, and our agency a better place.
And in case you were wondering… My son’s job is going well so far. He’s really at the beginning of his working life and understanding his own ADHD brain so he can set himself up for success to use his superpowers, work with his challenges, and achieve his goals. He has a supportive family, and hopefully, a workplace that supports the inclusivity of neurodivergence too.