6 Work Habits That May Secretly Be A Sign Of ADHD

Don't ignore these common signs.
ADHD can show up in a variety of ways at work.
Malte Mueller via Getty Images
ADHD can show up in a variety of ways at work.

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, often persists untreated into adulthood. Although approximately 10 million people are estimated to have it in the U.S., only 1 in 10 have received treatment for it.

Many adults with ADHD lead successful careers, but the condition can create job challenges. Impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattentiveness are hallmarks of ADHD, though symptoms vary.

“Each person with ADHD is unique, and the symptoms of ADHD can differ from one person to the next,” said Sean Abraham, a licensed clinical social worker at Grow Therapy. “While one person with the condition might not enjoy or thrive in one type of career because of their symptoms, another might succeed in the same position.“

Below, clinicians shared personality traits and work behaviors that are commonly associated with ADHD:

1. Needing everything to be perfect.

There can be an overlap between people who have ADHD and employees with perfectionist’s tendencies, said Dede O’Shea, a psychologist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is also a clinical faculty member at Tufts University.

“ADHD does affect a part of the brain that controls how you direct your attention. People with ADHD, that control area is not working properly. So they really can’t put their focus onto what they need to get done. It just keeps going back and forth between all of these different ideas. And so sometimes that perfectionism can come about as a way to try to cope with that and think, ‘OK, if I get everything done correctly, then I can get started,’” O’Shea said.

“That’s where they get into trouble, because they never get to that point where they feel like everything is perfect enough to be able to really get started.”

2. Procrastinating until the very last minute.

“Of the popular work archetypes, the ‘procrastinator’ would be one way that adult ADHD presents,“ said Dr. Deepti Anbarasan, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “This can be attributed to their difficulty with executive functioning and with structuring their tasks in a timely manner.”

For employees with ADHD, the inability to meet deadlines can often be due to anxiety.

“Work archetypes among people with ADHD are as diverse as in any other group. Some might exhibit a procrastination-defeatist style, where overwhelming anxiety leads to paralysis,” said Megan Anna Neff, a clinical psychologist. “Others might use urgency as a motivator to combat procrastination.”

3. Consistently running late to meetings and work.

People with ADHD may have trouble showing up on time to meetings and to work despite their best efforts. “Being your own boss or meeting deadlines might be difficult,” Abraham said.

While many of us are occasionally late, people with ADHD experience what is known as “time blindness,” where “they might have difficulty really gauging how much time they need to get to where they want to go, or they only have in their mind the time that they need to arrive,” O’Shea said.

“What I hear a lot is that they are supposed to be at work at 9 a.m., and so they have in their mind 9 a.m. and that’s when they leave the house, because all they could think in their mind was 9 a.m.”

4. Having meltdowns when work gets stressful.

Your brain’s prefrontal cortex controls your attention and your emotional responses, and for people with ADHD, that area can be underdeveloped, O’Shea said.

“When they can’t control all of those different thoughts, all of those different emotions that are going on in a high-stress situation, then that can lead to the dysregulation, having kind of a mental breakdown, really not being able to get ahold of their feelings,” she said. “Many people either just go blank with that dysregulation, or have an outburst as well and become really emotional, really irritable, under that high pressure, high-stress environment.”

At work, that can mean having excessive reactions whenever there’s an unexpected new task or setback.

Because people with ADHD already are prone to having difficulty with their reactivity, “Whenever there’s a change, something unexpected, or out of their usual routine, that additional piece can lead to that emotional dysregulation,” O’Shea said.

5. Habitually emailing with mistakes.

“Executive functioning is like the manager in your brain ― it’s what helps you stay organized,” O’Shea said. And for people with ADHD, their executive functioning can be impaired, and they can have trouble focusing when they need to and a tendency to rush through what they’re doing, she said.

“They might feel like, ‘OK, I’m on task’ ... but they’re still not able to control that attention to read and fully process all of the information that’s in front of them,” O’Shea said. “It’s hard for their brains to stay stimulated long enough to really do that kind of especially tedious, more boring tasks that are like reading emails, looking at paperwork. The ADHD brain needs a lot of constant stimulation.”

If colleagues are always having to follow up or fix what you do as a result of you making careless mistakes or you missing key details from emails or paperwork, that can be a sign of how ADHD is affecting your work, O’Shea said.

6. Brainstorming creative ideas that you later have trouble executing.

People with ADHD tend to be creative problem-solvers, but because of their impaired executive functioning, these employees can also have trouble with making those creative solutions happen.

“In the workplace, people with ADHD can be known as great creative thinkers, really passionate, someone who you want on the team to really be imaginative,” O’Shea said. “But they can still have trouble at the same time because of that difficulty with knowing how to come up with stuff to actually work on the project, and be able to focus on how to actually get things done.”

What to do next if you suspect you have ADHD

O’Shea said it can help to first get a sense if how people see you at work is in line with how you are viewing yourself.

You can do this without directly disclosing that you think you have ADHD. Ask a trusted colleague: “How do you see my behaviors in the office? Am I having any trouble with getting things done, with meeting the deadlines that were laid out? Do other people in the office have the same kinds of problems? Like, is everyone under stress?” she said.

That way, you can gauge how you are doing, compared to the productivity and stress levels of others on your team.

If you do think you have ADHD, a good starting point is consulting with your primary care provider or a clinical psychologist specializing in adult ADHD, said Neff.

“Online ADHD screeners can be an initial step, but it’s important to keep in mind that these are just single data points, and high scores could be due to various reasons,” Neff said. “For some, medication might be beneficial, but this requires an official diagnosis and consultation with a health care professional. Starting the conversation with your primary care physician is often the best first step towards an assessment.”

After that, you can get started on a treatment plan.

“Adult ADHD can respond well to both behavioral and pharmacological interventions. Effective treatment can significantly improve quality of life and functioning, not just in the workplace, but also personally and socially,” Anbarasan said.

For adults with ADHD, a treatment plan may also include asking your company for workplace accommodations. Abraham gave the example of moving to a desk with fewer distractions, using project management software for better organization, and providing written instructions instead of spoken instructions as a few examples of what those adjustments could look like.

“You should highlight that the accommodations will help you provide the best results for your company and allow you to take advantage of your skills and abilities,” Abraham said.

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