By Sarah Hall
Researchers have charted a growing uptick in the number of people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, in recent decades. About 6% of children and adolescents received the diagnosis in 1998, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. By 2016, that number totaled 10.2%, and it continues to rise, along with awareness of the condition.
Today, many of those diagnosed kids and adolescents are adults, entering the workforce and bringing their unique abilities along with them. They join an adult population where as many as 5% have ADHD, researchers say.
Well-known hallmarks of ADHD include hyperactivity and the inability to focus. But symptoms of ADHD can vary widely, depending on the individual. While one person with ADHD might have trouble sitting still during a meeting, others may be prone to daydreaming.
But every employee brings unique challenges to work each day — whether it’s ADHD, another mental health condition, or the general struggles that come with juggling professional and personal responsibilities. And while individuals with ADHD can face challenges in life, they also bring many benefits to the workforce.
A simple Google search will turn up dozens of articles about highly successful people with ADHD diagnoses. Here are three strengths that individuals with ADHD bring to the workplace and how employers can capitalize on them.
ADHD Workplace Strengths
Today’s employers need people who can innovate and quickly respond to the fast-moving challenges of the modern workplace. People with ADHD bring those abilities to the job with qualities like these:
Every employer needs innovative thinkers and creators to come up with new products and services. And people with ADHD, research shows, often bring more creativity to the table than their colleagues without it. One 2022 study found that individuals with ADHD symptoms generally scored higher on traits that nurture creativity, including flexibility, originality and divergent thinking.
According to another study, that propensity to eschew conformity could be an asset for those with ADHD in fields that value creativity, such as marketing, computer engineering, or product design. In one task that was part of the study, participants were asked to invent a fruit that might be found on a different planet. Researchers found that those without ADHD based their ideas on common fruits, such as an apple. Those with ADHD, however, were far more original and creative in their suggestions.
People with ADHD may have trouble staying focused on some tasks for a long time. But emerging research indicates that they also have the ability to hyperfocus, which is spending very focused attention on a specific task for a sustained period of time. And that mindset offers advantages in workplaces with big problems in need of solving, or serious challenges that require deep thinking.
A 2018 study, the first to comprehensively assess hyperfocus in adults, found that those with more severe ADHD symptoms demonstrated heightened and more frequent instances of hyperfocus in activities such as hobbies, school, and screen-related tasks. Study participants said they would become so engrossed in their activities that they lost track of time, completely captivated or hooked by what they were doing.
Impulsivity is a common trait of people with ADHD, and not every impulsive behavior, of course, is helpful. Some might interrupt conversations at work or make split-second decisions that impact workflows. When channeled effectively, however, employees with ADHD can be the perfect people to respond to critical situations, taking advantage of their ability to hyperfocus, innovate, and act quickly. Being able to focus so intently on a challenge or task can keep their engagement high and encourage ingenuity and inventiveness as they hunt for the best solutions.
A 2018 study revealed common traits that successful adults with ADHD consider positive aspects of their condition, and several are essential during crises. They include being innovative problem-solvers, having high levels of energy and enthusiasm, showing resilience in the face of challenges, and demonstrating courage as they take on those challenges.
Capitalizing on ADHD Traits
As you think about the strengths that workers with ADHD bring, it’s also important to remember the ways they may struggle. Employers can capitalize on their workers’ strengths when they’re intentional about responding to and harnessing them. Here are some ways to support your workers with ADHD.
Give them agency
People with ADHD are more often entrepreneurial than their peers without the condition, perhaps because they’re taking advantage of their “act first, think later” attitude, a 2018 study hypothesizes. To leverage their ability to innovate and be creative, provide workers with ADHD plenty of opportunities to focus on the tasks they choose. Give them some authority over how they tackle their responsibilities.
Reward and recognize
ADHD brains, research shows, crave rewards. To keep workers with ADHD motivated, include regular opportunities to recognize and reward great work. That could happen during one-on-ones between direct reports and managers, in team meetings or in company-wide newsletters and social media sites. And it could include everything from a simple shoutout and free coffee shop gift card to bonuses, raises and promotions.
Most critically, with escalating rates of mental health issues — whether ADHD, anxiety, depression or other neurodiverse conditions — employers must be mindful of every workers’ needs, providing the resources that allow them to do their best work each day. That includes access to robust mental health care through their insurance plans, an Employee Assistance Program and managers who are trained to support workers with ADHD and other conditions.
Employers also must be ready to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with ADHD, such as structured breaks or a job coach. The Job Accommodation Network offers other key accommodations and supports for workers with ADHD.
The workforce is constantly in flux. As the pipeline of workers, particularly younger ones, increasingly includes individuals with ADHD, smart employers will take the extra steps to ensure their workplace is welcoming and supportive. When they do that, they can capitalize on the advantages that every employee brings to the job.