IN FOCUS: How ADHD can be a strength at work - once you know you have the condition
After a diagnosis of ADHD in her thirties helped CNA journalist Grace Yeoh understand some of her perceived professional weaknesses and start to embrace them as strengths, she speaks to others with the condition about how neurodiversity can benefit organisations.
SINGAPORE: Shortly before I began my current role as a news reporter, I admitted to my boss that I felt I wasn’t “smart enough” for the job.
I felt I’d struggle in ways that most wouldn’t, and I was trying to articulate that struggle. But “smart” wasn’t quite the right word even though it was all I had at the time.
To the average person, I scored well in school with the grades and certificates to prove it. I had ex-employers and friends tell me I’m smart. I am able to grasp novel concepts really quickly, making it easy to conquer a steep learning curve at the start of every job.
So why did I feel like I wasn’t smart? And why have I never believed I was, despite evidence to the contrary?
It took me another seven months into the role to find the answer – and when I did, I realised I’d been looking for it all my life.
At 31, I learnt that I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental condition I've had since young.
A neurodevelopmental condition is not a mental illness. The latter refers to patterns of behaviour where a person experiences a “state of mind” that is different from their “normal self”, according to UK-based charity ADHD Aware.
With neurodevelopmental conditions, there is no bona fide “normal” state of mind to compare to.
Those with the condition, or ADHDers as we call ourselves, are neurodivergent thinkers. Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience the world in many different ways, and there is no single “right” way of thinking, learning and behaving.
While the term neurodiversity is often used in the context of people with autism, other conditions under the umbrella of neurodiversity include ADHD and dyslexia, among others.
And instead of not being “smart” enough, it would have been more accurate to say to my boss that I have pretty bad “executive dysfunction”, a major symptom of ADHD.
EXPLAINING EXECUTIVE DYSFUNCTION
Imagine the brain as an office with executives who are hired to execute different functions such as task initiation, the ability to pause a task and pick it up again later, time management, impulse control, organisation, planning goals and outlines, and prioritising and filtering information.
In the ADHD brain, or at least in mine, the executives seek management's approval whenever they want to execute the function they're hired to do. And every time they do, they face pushback from management.
Executive dysfunction therefore isn’t an issue of not wanting to do something. It’s an issue of not being able to.
But the conventional route to professional success is littered with these countless executive function hoops one needs to jump through. These are also typical skills required to be a good news reporter.
On the other hand, I built my career through a mix of creativity, curiosity, risk-taking, unconventional thinking, intuitive and spontaneous decisions, seeking fast-paced environments, being gung-ho enough to try anything, resisting authority, and pursuing mental stimulation and novel experiences above all. I’ve never had a five-year plan except to follow what lights up my brain.
Although these behaviours stem from having ADHD, they are inherently neither good nor bad. But as the famous saying goes, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.”
Society operates by neurotypical benchmarks – that is, brain functions, behaviours and processing that are considered standard or typical. Held against such standards, a neurodivergent individual can feel like they’re constantly playing catch up.
FROM STRUGGLE TO STRENGTH
ADHD can be particularly tricky to disclose in the workplace, because most people picture a hyperactive child with academic issues who cannot sit still.
Some people believe ADHD is not a “real medical condition” and instead an “excuse for being lazy or unmotivated”, said Dr Poon Shi Hui, medical director and consultant psychiatrist at Neuropsychiatry Associates, a psychiatric consultation service.
“Adult ADHDers may be misconstrued as being irresponsible due to their frequent postponing and forgetting of tasks or appointments, as well as an inability to follow through with tasks.”
Such common misconceptions shut down attempts at candid and productive sharing. They also hinder employers from fully harnessing the innate talents of individuals like myself.
After all, an ADHDer’s hyperfocus allows them to “do highly specialised tasks which neurotypical individuals may have difficulties doing – which makes people wonder if they are using ADHD as an excuse or malingering”, added Dr Poon.
Hyperfocus is what some ADHDers call a “superpower”. When it kicks in, we can spend long hours on a single task, completely undistractable. The catch is that the task has to be supremely interesting to us, as ADHD brains operate on an interest-based nervous system.
3 common ADHD misconceptions
1. People don't lack focus
The "deficit" in ADHD is a misnomer. People with the condition don't lack the ability to focus, as evident from periods of hyperfocus and being able to divide our attention among many things at once.
What they lack is the ability to prioritise what we should focus on.
2. ADHD is not linked to intelligence
Having high IQ doesn't protect someone from having executive dysfunction or emotional dysregulation, which is typical in ADHD.
On the contrary, having high IQ might exacerbate ADHD symptoms because those who've been told they're smart might resist treatment, believing that they can outsmart their condition. American psychologist Ellen Littman writes in ADDitude magazine, an online resource for ADHDers, that "studies show 42 per cent of high-IQ ADHD adults have dropped out of college at least once", but still believe "their intellect should enable them to triumph over their impairments".
3. ADHD will disappear in adulthood
The condition is lifelong. But even though the symptoms are not treatable, they are manageable with medication, therapy and a good old support network.
Here’s the thing: The very traits that people perceive to be ADHD flaws turn into strengths under the right conditions.
“By virtue of their broadened attentional focus and increased distractibility, ADHDers tend to be fast thinkers who think out of the box, and are able to come up with novel solutions for difficult situations that others find challenging. They also tend to be more spontaneous and dynamic, display high social intelligence and have attractive personalities,” said Dr Poon.
“Furthermore, their hyperfocus on tasks helps them complete challenging tasks, and increased energy levels lead to greater drive and productivity. They tend to be more resilient due to their ability to confront fears and deal with uncertainty.”
The flipside of tapping into hyperfocus mode whenever we're interested in something is that we also experience extreme boredom just as easily. Boredom is an ADHDer's kryptonite, and it's often indistinguishable from depression.
It’s safe to say that ADHDers should avoid jobs that involve sedentary or repetitive tasks, or one that requires attention to detail, added Dr Poon.
“ADHDers tend to do better in jobs that focus on creativity and spontaneity, or something that involves a frequent change of tasks, such as sales, teaching, entrepreneurship.”
But ADHD is a spectrum, and not everyone will experience its symptoms with the same severity.
For instance, I've never been branded "lazy" like many ADHDers have, but I mourn the wasted hours, days and weeks trying to activate my brain to restart a boring task while putting off others. Worse still, the only thing that could help me finish the task eventually was the perennial anxiety that I’d be discovered to be a fraud at my job.
While not everyone may be comfortable disclosing the condition at work, I never harboured second guesses about letting my bosses in. All my life, but especially in school and at work, I'd been “masking” my ADHD without knowing it by copying the behaviour of my neurotypical peers. But masking is as tiring as it sounds, and I wanted to stop.
That said, those who have disclosed their ADHD at work know ADHD is never an excuse for why they think or behave a certain way. It can, however, serve as an enlightening explanation.
And I figured that since it was just a matter of time before I displayed obvious struggles in certain circumstances, then it was up to me to make my strengths equally apparent.
HYPERFOCUS, CREATIVITY, COMFORTABLE WITH RISKS
Fellow ADHDers in the Unlocking ADHD Support Community Facebook group expressed similar thoughts.
Thomas (not his real name), a 29-year-old who works in architecture, said his work requires “a lot of thinking, planning, designing and coordinating”. Although he sometimes feels “in over (his) head”, he can “really zone in and explore a lot of possibilities” when something gets him creatively interested.
Similarly, 43-year-old Roger (not his real name) considers hyperfocus his ADHD strength.
“Once my brain decides that it is time to concentrate on something, the rest of the world melts away and I enter a trance-like state of productivity for many hours till the job gets done,” said the partner at a Big 4 accounting firm, who was diagnosed at 42.
While teacher and entrepreneur Esther David shared that she created a website and “hyperfocused” her way to building a company, an ADHD-related trait that elevated the 26-year-old’s entrepreneurial drive was impulsivity, which can also be seen as risk-taking.
“That strength helps you to just jump when you see an opportunity. This has benefitted me incredibly. I’ve dared to do things and get jobs and make a business, without any prior marketing or business training. I just learnt everything from scratch and did it without counting the cost as much,” she said.
“This has given me skills in new areas I never studied in school and helped me make connections I never believed I would dare to make otherwise.”
Esther can also “envision things before the product happens”, so she considers one of her greatest skills breaking down big ideas into simple concepts – a skill that “ADHDers have to do to survive so we don’t get overwhelmed”.
Meanwhile, another ADHDer who only wanted to be known as Sarah also considers her risk-taking behaviour a strength. She’s “comfortable taking on client jobs” even when she has “zero experience” in that area, but she would be honest with the client about her experience in other areas and give them a detailed proposal.
“They are always interested and usually want to work together after the proposal. I give a good price too and a fair amount of deliverables,” said the 34-year-old who works in marketing.
This is because Sarah also counts being able to “pick up new software quickly” as her strong suits. She can do “basically any task” her employer throws at her even though she might have no idea how to do it initially.
“I multi-task well too … except when procrastinating. I didn’t know this was a characteristic of ADHDers, I thought lots of people can multitask and juggle (a variety of tasks),” she added.
Despite having little in common with these ADHDers aside from our neurology, I saw all their perceived strengths in me. But there was one additional ADHD-related trait which I’ve constantly had people point out about myself: The ability to connect dots between seemingly unrelated topics.
By now, I half expect anyone I meet to say, “That’s interesting, I didn’t think of it that way.” While people usually don’t mean this as a compliment, just a statement of fact, I admit I’ve never understood the “box” that people refer to when they “think out of the box”. I, for one, never even realise there’s a box.
When suppressed, such divergent thinking can come across as unnecessary rebellion. But when harnessed and encouraged, it can be especially useful to disrupt groupthink in the workplace.
HOW COMPANIES CAN BENEFIT FROM NEURODIVERSITY
Having companies embrace neurodiversity is “not about altruism or social responsibility”, cautioned Dr Poon.
“Neurodivergents possess different skills from neurotypicals, and can bring on new ways of thinking and problem-solving to the team. Inclusion of such individuals can boost the firm or team’s competitive edge if we are able to harness everyone’s full potential,” she said.
“This can also help with talent shortage amid this tight labour market.”
To walk the talk, local cybersecurity company Ensign InfoSecurity has developed an employment programme for neurodivergent individuals. Even though their programme focuses on autistic individuals at the moment, its chief information officer and executive vice president for managed security services, Steven Ng, shared that they are “open to the opportunity to hire more neurodivergent talents” in the future.
“The neurodiversity spectrum also includes ADHD and dyslexia. People with these conditions also have their strengths. The way they have social interaction differs from (those on the) autistic spectrum. We are open to the idea,” he said.
“But since it’s a pilot phase, we will continue with (those on the) autism spectrum first at least for this year to make sure we have a long running and sustainable system. For an organisation to embark on (such a programme), they must think long term.”
Mr Ng shared that Ensign hopes to have about two to three per cent of their workforce who are neurodivergent in the long term. The company currently has three such individuals who were hired under the programme.
He highlighted the Israeli army’s Roim Rachok (Hebrew for “seeing into the future”) programme, which hires autistic teenagers who are considered “high functioning” specifically for their autism-related strengths.
“Organisations should recognise that neurodiversity can be an inherent advantage. Neurodivergent individuals bring different thinking and points of view. We know they receive and process information quite differently from the way neurotypicals do it,” added Mr Ng.
“They may consider different approaches and possibilies, helping the organisation to avoid groupthink. That’s the sign of a diverse workforce.”
In the hiring process, Mr Ng has noticed that neurodivergent individuals tend to “experience the world quite differently”. To him, this means that when they have reached the point of job hunting, they come with a “unique perspective” to solving problems and thinking about the future.
At Ensign, hiring autistic individuals “shapes the neurotypical individual when (they) talk to neurodivergent folk”, which Mr Ng called a “tremendous advantage”.
“Neurotypicals can communicate and assume certain things. The way we communicate can lead to misunderstanding. Interacting with these neurodivergent folk can help us be more explicit in the way we communicate. That’s a powerful advantage for any company to learn,” he said.
At a broader level, one company’s neurodiversity programme doesn’t just benefit its staff, but can set the tone for the industry.
“We thought the programme would introduce greater diversity and allow us to have differently-abled people who have capabilities to look at challenges differently and think out of the box. We have seen it lead to more diverse views, and it will enrich the way we do cybersecurity,” said Mr Ng.
“We think this is going to be very promising because the greater diversity of views could help us in the cyber realm to deal with prediction and protection against sophisticated risk factors.”
3 suggestions for ADHD-friendlier workplace practices
1. Explain the purpose behind tasks and rules
Because of the atypical way of looking at the world, ADHDers usually don't follow illogical rules (or those we perceive as illogical). They are also rather averse to authority. Unfortunately, there will be tasks that are necessary to finish and rules that must be followed, even if they don't make sense to people with the condition.
What helps an ADHDer get started is knowing the "why" behind a task or instruction. We have big picture thinking. So once ADHDers are able to understand the bigger meaning behind something they might not want to do initially, there is usually less of an issue to follow through.
2. Allow them to work whenever
ADHDers will benefit from flexible work arrangements that would allow them to maximise their productive hours rather than adhere to a strict 9-to-5 schedule for which they’re forced to be present even when they are unable to focus on the task at hand, said Dr Poon.
This might mean allowing someone to work from, say, 10pm to 3am – even if it means they might not be online the next day for a few hours due to needing to rest – as long as the work gets done.
3. Conduct an "assessment of goodness of fit"
This means assessing the individuals’ strengths and weaknesses, stress tolerance, interests, temperament and values for the appropriate job, team or supervisor, advised Dr Poon.
"For example, an ADHDer with a highly critical manager may experience increased anxiety and worsening of ADHD symptoms. On the other hand, having a manager who is a fellow ADHDer may lead to missed deadlines, compounding work difficulties for both parties," she said.
Companies could also "consider alternative career progression pathways that are tailored to the individuals’ strengths or
values", she added. "Not everyone who does well in their tasks will be a good manager."
That said, companies shouldn’t expect developing neurodiversity employment programmes to be a walk in the park.
“We’ve found that we need to prepare to understand different circumstances and thinking. It means to create a more inclusive and diverse culture by customising such roles and training for neurodivergent individuals,” said Mr Ng.
“We can’t expect (all the neurodivergent individuals) to conform to a certain standard. There will be a lot of differences. It will hinder the organisation’s effort to build a supportive and inclusive workplace. It might lead to bias. It might lead to unfair evaluation of a person’s performance.”
On their part, Ensign has “finetuned” their programme over time through close cooperation with their neurodivergent colleagues and the Autism Resource Centre, which they’ve partnered. This includes weekly check-ins around objectives and guidance, as well as training for their neurotypical colleagues.
“We wanted to make sure that when we started the programme, we have people prepared on how to work with neurodivergent individuals. For example, don’t tiptoe around them,” added Mr Ng.
While companies can do their part to accommodate the neurodivergent individual, growing up neurodivergent means many ADHDers tend to already have a suite of strategies that we’ve taught ourselves to manage our struggles in a neurotypical environment.
After all, the flipside of inborn strengths is usually equally pronounced “weaknesses”.
COPING STRATEGIES – FOR ADHDERS BY ADHDERS
For starters, having understanding bosses or teammates is half the battle won – for everyone. When our colleagues truly understand ADHD, it doesn’t just help us feel more accepted. It also boosts overall team productivity.
Thomas is “actually really open” about his ADHD at his architecture firm. He appreciates having bosses sit him down when he needs to get his “head back on straight”, rather than have them take it easy on him.
But while he has to “play by the same rules” as much as possible, he knows his office manager is also looking out for him.
He admitted his weaknesses include missing out on details or getting overly distracted.
“I get around (these weaknesses) by having checking strategies, like having lists on my computer. My seniors and bosses also help me with accountability and encourage direct reporting so I don’t feel like I’m working against a void,” he added.
“I had and will still have difficulties controlling my emotions sometimes. I’m naturally defiant which many bosses don’t appreciate, but I see that the people I’m working for and with are overall good people with good intentions and that does a lot for me in accepting and embracing the lessons they have to offer.”
Similarly, Roger, who leads a department of about 50 people at his firm, said he has coped with his ADHD by building himself a good team that holds him accountable.
“My executive function waxes and wanes like the moon. I have since built a management team around myself of people who are hyper organised and unafraid to speak up if they think I am dropping the ball on something,” he said.
“During the start of my career, my employers were unaware of my condition. However, I self-selected roles that were project-based, such that every few weeks I would be working on something different to keep myself engaged.”
As ADHDers tend to get bored extra easily, a 38-year-old cybersecurity professional who only wanted to be known as Aidah has found ways around this that make perfect sense to me, but might puzzle a neurotypical individual. She asks for more work.
“For my recent (job) interviews, all the interviewers asked why I had so many positions within one company. That’s because I would volunteer to do another job on top of my already heavily loaded job. If not, I’ll be finding ways to improve my department. The idea juices just keep flowing,” she said.
Meetings are a personal nightmare for many ADHDers, including me and Aidah. Our body might be present, but our mind ups and leaves the room or Zoom call after barely a few minutes.
“My brain can only last about 20 minutes before it shuts down. If I’m the listener, I’ll start doodling, daydreaming, or excuse myself to the washroom. Sometimes, I feel like screaming,” said Aidah.
“If I’m the presenter or trainer, I’ll make sure that my stuff is entertaining and engaging. Showing videos or allowing people to do their own group work allows me to ‘rest’ during that ‘shut down’ period. During my shut down mode, I zone out.”
On a daily basis, Sarah has devised strategies to manage her work, such as writing down something multiple times to “solidify the task” in the mind. She also identifies the most productive periods of her day and schedules tasks accordingly.
The commonly offered advice among ADHDers to “just start” the task works for her. This advice stems from helping ADHDers overcome the anxiety from feeling overwhelmed by the tasks on hand, which can feel difficult to accomplish due to our poor executive functioning, resulting in chronic procrastination.
“Once you start, you will have more incentive to keep going,” Sarah explained.
The trick is to be realistic about the level of task completion. Where neurotypicals might list a to-do item as “finish a report”, ADHDers benefit from breaking down major tasks into smaller, more achievable steps. This might look like opening the document, writing one paragraph, or even just copying and pasting information without organising it yet.
Being able to check off these mini tasks also gives our dopamine-deficient brains more dopamine, which can have a snowball effect and motivate us to complete more tasks.
Managing our workload this way also helps us with time management, which isn’t an ADHDer’s strength. On the other hand, Esther, who’s a teacher and entrepreneur, taps into her hyperfocus mode to plan her schedule.
“Scheduling makes or breaks my job. Without it, I cannot run my business or meet clients. I have discovered software that works for me and that sync to my calendar. Everything has to be on a calendar, otherwise it doesn’t exist,” she said, referring to the common ADHD symptom where things that are out of sight are out of mind.
“I pre-plan for stuff in hyperfocus mode. Whenever I am in the zone, I plan eight to 10 hours worth of stuff at one go because I know I will never have the discipline to plan again. These SOPs (standard operating procedures) I write for myself get used and updated as I go along, and help me on days where I just cannot do anything.”
Esther’s employer accommodates her by trusting that she will finish her work, and not giving her a specific deadline. They also don’t micromanage her.
“If I can finish my work in a shorter time, they’re okay with it and they let me do it in short bursts, as long as I get it to them within the week, for example. They know I work on different things simultaneously and don’t breathe down my neck every few moments,” she said.
“Also, they let me create ideas and design stuff. I don’t like being told step by step what to do, and my creativity shines when I am given a big idea and allowed the freedom to explore what it means.”
Unlike many who don’t share their ADHD, Esther openly embraces hers.
“I’m very upfront with my ADHD. If (employers) can’t handle it, too bad. It’s what makes the best parts of me,” she said.
It can be a long road to achieving such seemingly radical self-acceptance – not least because ADHDers tend to grow up feeling lost and lonely from intuitively knowing we’re “not normal” yet not being able to pinpoint why.
For many of us, our diagnosis is the turning point. It’s the switch that helps us shine light on our entire life. It’s the answer to the question many people have asked us, usually in exasperation: “Why are you like this?” It’s validation that we’re not insane, not abnormal, not "less than", not difficult. We’re just different.
Whether you’ve recently suspected you may have ADHD or just been diagnosed, welcome home.