There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). On the surface, they may appear disorganized and tardy in the workplace. But it can be argued that traditional workplaces are designed for neurotypicals, and have a long way to go in accommodating employees who are neurodivergent.
How can managers and team members be more attuned to the needs of employees with ADHD? We ask Rowhe Rodriguez (they/them), a 31-year-old marketing manager based in the Philippines, who was only recently diagnosed. Prior to this, Rowhe had built a successful corporate career at some of the biggest companies in the country.
“Two things happened at the same time,” they said. “I moved to a company that was very demanding and fast-paced, and I felt overwhelmed. And I started watching TikTok and got ADHD-related content. I thought it was cute and funny to watch, and then I realised I could relate to some of it.”
What is ADHD?
Most people exhibit signs of ADHD in childhood, but often go undiagnosed until adulthood. Looking back, Rowhe was able to observe a number of ADHD symptoms they had as a child.:
“I couldn’t regulate my emotions, I would have emotional outbursts. I’m also dyslexic. (About 25% of people who have ADHD also have dyslexia.) I was constantly doodling. I was constantly talking. My family would joke that I couldn’t shut up.”
In the workplace, employees with ADHD can struggle with time management, staying organised, physical or cognitive restlessness, inconsistent mental focus, and chronic procrastination.
Myths about ADHD
“ADHD is hyperactivity.”
According to Rowhe, one misconception surrounding ADHD is that it can only manifest in one way.
“When you have ADHD, you’re not always hyper and destructive. In biological females, ADHD may manifest as inattentiveness,” Rowhe said.
This is one reason why so many people who have ADHD are undiagnosed; they and their guardians are unable to recognise the symptoms of ADHD early on.
“If you’re doing well, you don’t have ADHD.”
“A lot of people think that if you’re successful at school or at work, you can’t have ADHD. But the thing is, intelligent, high-functioning people with ADHD find a lot of coping mechanisms so they don’t present as a stereotypical person with ADHD,” Rowhe explained.
Rowhe, for example, is clinically diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as a means to deal with their undiagnosed ADHD. Even so, they graduated with honors and continue to be a high-functioning member of their team today.
“ADHD is the inability to focus.”
But the biggest misconception, according to Rowhe, is that people think ADHD is the inability to focus. In reality, it’s the inability to regulate focus. “Hyperfocus is a thing among people with ADHD,” Rowhe said.
Managing employees with ADHD
Rowhe said that a little empathy and understanding can go a long way. Below are some do’s and dont’s when managing employees with ADHD. It is worth noting, however, that optimal work practices vary across individuals. When in doubt, an open discussion never hurt anyone.
Verbal instructions are a no-no. “Having ADHD affects your executive functions. That is basically the ability to follow instructions and keep tabs on all of them. Don’t give verbal instructions because they will just fly over our heads,” Rowhe said. Instead, having instructions written out as emails or physical task lists help people with ADHD stay on top of things.
Give deadlines. “Employees with ADHD operate on two timelines: now or never,” Rowhe explained. “Deadlines are important because that’s what keeps us on track. If you tell someone with ADHD, ‘just give it to me any time,’ we’re never going to give it.” Rowhe emphasised that there are extra steps people with ADHD take to stay organised. To help them along, managers can also introduce systems, routines, and workflows.
Offer regular feedback. As employees with ADHD tend to struggle with their self-esteem, regular and constructive feedback help support their mental wellbeing. “An unhealthy coping mechanism I’ve developed is that I assume the worst. I need someone to keep telling me that I’m doing OK. I need constant validation. Regular feedback is better for me instead of constantly saying I’m doing a good job. Have realistic feedback intervals,” Rowhe said.
Collaborating with team members with ADHD
Don’t interrupt focus periods. ADHD makes it difficult for Rowhe to regulate periods of hyperfocus without getting distracted. “It’s very difficult for someone with ADHD to get in and out of focus. Once someone approaches my desk, that focus disappears,” he said. To make sure they stay productive, teammates can avoid needlessly approaching them when they are “in the zone”.
Give sufficient notice for meetings. In that same vein, spontaneous meetings can also be disruptive to their carefully planned workdays. “I have to pre-plan my days in thirty-minute chunks,” Rowhe explained. “My teammates know to ask if I have time for a meeting, and know that they need to set it for the next day.”
Don’t paint medication in a bad light. One of the most difficult things Rowhe experienced after being diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medication is the stigma and judgment from other people.
“In Asia and the Philippines, there is a stigma about having to take meds. But it has been safe and life-changing for me,” Rowhe explained. “It improved my quality of life. I don’t feel like crying every day even if my workload has grown substantially. Even my colleagues who have worked with me pre- and post-medication say I’m a lot less frazzled and more organized.”
Supporting employees with ADHD
Work puts significant stress on anyone, but employees with cognitive disabilities sometimes walk a lonely journey. Managers and teammates can help by showing empathy, patience, and understanding—all of which create a safe space for neurodivergent people to voice their needs.
“Once I said I was diagnosed, my teammates immediately asked what they could do to help me,” Rowhe said. “If I needed time to see my psychiatrist, my manager would be fine with it. And if I didn’t have their support, I wouldn’t have been able to get diagnosed in the first place.”