How to manage an employee with ADHD

Practical tips to support a colleague with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

ADHD is a mental health condition that’s characterised by inattentiveness, restlessness and impulsive behaviour. It’s often diagnosed in childhood, but around 4% of UK adults live with ADHD. We’ll take that figure with a pinch of salt, though, because plenty of people go around undiagnosed and untreated for years. 

People with ADHD can be an asset to their workplace. Often, they bring strengths like a creative outlook, a dynamic temperament and bursts of hyper-focus to their team, but a significant number of people with ADHD find it difficult to hold down a full-time job. ADHD is linked to lower levels of employment and frequent job changes, which can affect self esteem, financial stability and day-to-day quality of life. 

As a manager, you can’t diagnose a colleague with ADHD. But it’s important to remember that just because someone doesn’t have a diagnosis, doesn’t mean they don’t need your support in order to thrive at work. ADHD means they might be your star player one day, and completely off the radar the next. People with ADHD are more prone to walking out, quitting impulsively, or being unfairly regarded as unreliable (even though in lots of cases they’re working harder than the average employee to keep up). 

Recognising the symptoms of ADHD at work

Many of the behavioural characteristics associated with ADHD can affect productivity at work. An employee living with ADHD might notice themselves:

  • Getting to work late or finding time management difficult 
  • Being unable to concentrate for a solid period of time – getting distracted by other tasks with more immediate rewards
  • Finding it impossible to prioritise work
  • Having emotional outbursts
  • Taking unnecessary risks
  • Having difficulty following multi-step directions
  • Feeling restless (outwardly or inwardly)
  • Interrupting other people unintentionally, or zoning out during conversations
  • Having trouble wrapping up the final details of a project, once most of the work’s been done

The treatment for ADHD is usually a combination of medication and psychotherapy. If your colleague discloses that they’re suffering from ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms, then it’s a good idea to gently signpost them to their GP or any mental health support that’s available in your company.

But (and a BIG BUT,) just like any other health concern, physical or mental, it’s not up to you to advise or convince your colleague to seek treatment. The best thing you can do as their manager is to listen to how their job’s being affected, and how you can help them to feel better supported in their role. 

Work adjustments that might help an employee with ADHD

If your colleague is finding it difficult to articulate what they’d like to change about your workplace to accommodate them, here are some ideas to help them feel more comfortable and productive. Some of these things they can implement themselves – others they’ll need your help with.

If these ADHD workplace adjustments are visible to other team members, it’s also worth asking your colleague whether they’re happy for the reason to be communicated more widely, or not. 

🏢 Environmental changes

  • Remove distractions around the workspace, whether that’s at home, in an office, or a combination of both. That might mean keeping less physical things out on the desk (a dedicated drawer or locker helps here), swapping seats to one that’s not in the middle of the room, or removing ambient noises like the radio. If you’re in a shared space, allowing your colleague to wear headphones at work may help them to concentrate. 
  • Keep phones on silent and out of view, if they aren’t essential to the job at hand. 
  • Keep open browser tabs to a maximum of 3, and turn off unnecessary Slack or email notifications to prevent distractions. 
  • If you’re in an office, populate meeting spaces with Post-its and pens. It might seem counter-intuitive, but often, people with ADHD will be able to listen more actively to a presentation if their hands are busy. 

📅 Scheduling and organisation

  • If your company is open to flexible working hours, your colleague may find it useful to start work earlier, when there are less people online who might need their attention. Equally, lots of people with ADHD struggle to get to bed at a reasonable hour, so they might appreciate starting a bit later.
  • The Pomodoro technique is a useful strategy to keep up productivity without the need to concentrate for large amounts of time. Typically, it involves alternating 25 minutes of solid work, with an active 5 minute break. 
  • Acknowledge that prioritisation is difficult and be explicit about the order you want them to complete tasks in. If practical, a short meeting at the start of the day might be useful to go through which specific tasks are expected of them. 
  • Co-creating a list of today’s jobs might also be useful. Writing a “Must do”, “Should do” and “Could do” column will make prioritisation easier. (Make it visual with colour-coding, if possible.) To avoid any guilt about things that haven’t been done, make sure to erase anything from the “Could do” column at the end of the day and transfer the items to tomorrow’s list.
  • Encourage them to take their full lunch hour. Getting out and about is likely to benefit anyone with hyperactive tendencies. Taking a walk in a park at lunchtime is related to better concentration and less fatigue throughout the afternoon, for example.

🤝🏽 Interviews and meetings

  • Detail the normal job interview process ahead of time and ask the candidate whether they would like any specific adjustments. They may like to refer to notes, for example, or may need more time between interviews and practical tests. 
  • Make any interview questions as specific and direct as possible.
  • For any meeting room, try to reduce visual and aural distractions. That might mean blurring your background on Zoom, pausing notifications, or choosing a room that doesn’t overlook a corridor or workspace. Turn off unnecessary screens in the room. 
  • Avoid holding in-person meetings or interviews in public spaces. 
  • With your colleague’s permission, communicate to other team members that a common symptom of ADHD at work is having difficulty concentrating on what people are saying. This is not out of rudeness. A bit of understanding can go a long way to repairing tense working relationships.

💡 Feedback and Recognition

  • If you give a verbal instruction, ask your colleague what they took away from what you said, in order to check they’ve understood. Alternatively, follow up in writing so they have a reference of your conversation.
  • When giving feedback, focus on what that person has achieved this week/this month, rather than what they haven’t. Give specific examples wherever you can, to avoid room for misinterpretation.
  • Be extra clear about deadlines and expectations. If they have a big project to deliver in 2 weeks, don’t wait until the day before the deadline to check in. Arrange more frequent catch ups if you can. 

Managing someone with ADHD can take a bit of extra effort 

Unlike adjustments you might make to accommodate other short-lived bouts of poor mental health in your team, ADHD is a long-term condition and will need a permanent shift in management style. Realistically, hosting more regular catch ups and helping someone to prioritise their workload is a job that may take up more of your time than you’re used to. It’s important to be honest with your colleague (and yourself) about how much time and support you can offer while coping with your own workload. Signposting people to credible resources can relieve some pressure. 

Once you know that someone on your team is living with ADHD or suspected ADHD, you don’t need to have all the answers. Remember that an open dialogue is the most important tool in your manager’s toolbox, and you already have the skills you need to help this person feel their best at work. 

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At Spill, we know how important managers are to supporting your team through mental health challenges. But without training, it can feel like a lot of emotional labour. Learn more about how Spill can upskill your managers and support your employees’ mental wellbeing.