Many young people with ADHD are encouraged to pursue careers in data science and analytics because their strengths often include attention to detail and hyperproductivity.
Yet, the company cultures of many tech and data science organizations are known for being fast-paced and competitive with a central focus on productivity and performance. For employees with adult ADHD, these environments may seem unwelcoming at best and punitive at worst.
“I want to fit into their ideal picture of an employee,” said Pooja Patel, a digital strategy freelancer based in Washington, D.C. “I want to be able to get things done, and I don’t want to be difficult, but I also want to respect my ADHD and not minimize it.”
Thinking inclusively about how to make the field of data science and technology more accessible and affirming to adults with ADHD may increase retention for companies and quality of life for employees.
The Prevalence of Adult ADHD
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood neurological disorders and can continue into adulthood, according to data from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). The organization estimates that 4.4% of adults in the United States have ADHD, but that number can be misleading.
Stephanie Lee, PsyD, senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, says these circumstances make it difficult for adults with ADHD to find support in their work environments because they are likely to fall into one of three categories:
Adults with a new or recent ADHD diagnosis
Adults with ADHD who haven’t been diagnosed by a professional
Young adults with a life-long diagnosis who are managing their own health for the first time
Lee said that some adults may continue working with counselors for ADHD interventions as they graduate from college and enter the workforce, but for many young adults, it’s common that their ADHD support takes a different shape as they move to a new city, new living situation and, ultimately, a new chapter of life.
“It might not look like weekly therapy in the same way that it did previously, but we’re hoping to help them figure out what they’re looking for as they continue to progress,” she said.
Lee said a counselor’s goal is to help individuals build decision-making skills to identify how or when they might need to pursue help and where they can find the right resources in their work environment. Part of that work may include identifying symptoms or needs that require intervention.
Symptoms of Adult ADHD
ADHD looks different for everyone, but many common presentations include the following symptoms, behaviors and traits:
Symptoms of ADHD are often treated as a deficit or a behavioral problem to solve, but many aspects of ADHD are unique strengths and can be validated or encouraged across the life span.
“I wish people would just see it as not a detriment but just as a different way of doing things,” said Stephanie Thomas, a former data analyst with ADHD who left her position at an online retailer in favor of a more affirming work environment. “It’s maybe a little bit wavy, but it’s not linear. I wish people would see that we’re not lazy, we’re not stupid, we’re not just distracted all the time. We just have interest-based nervous systems.”
Many adults with ADHD may feel pressure to mask their symptoms, but Thomas said it is easier and healthier to manage her work and her own needs now that she’s working remotely from home. Workers who are required to come into an office may not have that same flexibility, but they are still entitled to many accommodations that may improve their workplace experience.
Managing ADHD in the Workplace
While employees are not required to disclose a condition at work, some choose not to disclose it out of fear of discrimination or negative reactions from managers and colleagues.
“I wish people would see that we’re not lazy, we’re not stupid, we’re not just distracted all the time. We just have interest-based nervous systems.”
Disclosing can lead to more candid conversations about work and communication styles, as well as strategies for optimizing productivity and safety at work. But many employees fear disclosure will lead to discrimination, punishment or exclusion in their work environment.
“Ideally I would like to be able to share that I have ADHD and for it to be taken as a fact and not like an impediment,” Patel said. “If it was just a factor like anything else, like a person who has children so they have to leave at three, or a person who is an immigrant so they need a visa. I don’t want them to think: ‘Well, we can’t put her on this project because it will take extra manpower for us to do this or make this accommodation.’”
The Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder organization encourages adults to think about when, if and how to disclose an ADHD diagnosis to an employer. Once a manager or HR advisor has a clear idea about an employee’s needs, they can help identify available accommodations for workers with ADHD.
Common Workplace Accommodations for Employees With ADHD
Privacy from other workers to limit interruptions and distractions
Permission to wear headphones in environments with lots of noise
Subtitles or transcripts for visual or auditory content for accessibility
Opportunities to take written notes during meetings for memory
Detailed, written communication and instructions for delegated tasks
Standing desks or moving chairs to support mobility and function
Flexible hours for working during productive or optimal times
Patel ultimately decided to disclose her ADHD diagnosis to her manager. “It was really helpful to both of us, for him knowing how to best manage me and for me being a better employee,” she said.
The more managers and employers know about a worker’s needs, the more likely they are able to help advocate for workplace accommodations and tailor assignments to best suit an employee’s strengths.
How to Support Employees With ADHD
The first step for employers in the tech industry to support workers with ADHD is learning about ADHD and its presentations among different people. In addition, managers may want to work with human resources teams to become more familiar with the types of accommodations their workplace can offer.
“In tech-oriented fields especially, it’s all data driven,” Patel said. “Sometimes, the humane way is not the most streamlined way of doing something, but it is something that I need in order to be a good employee.”
HR advisors and leadership teams may benefit from hearing directly from employees with ADHD to gain context, nuance and insights about what types of accommodations are actually helpful in the workplace and to learn more information about how neurodiversity shapes their organization’s workforce.
“Ideally I would like to be able to share that I have ADHD and for it to be taken as a fact and not an impediment…like a person who has children so they have to leave at three, or a person who is an immigrant so they need a visa.”
“When I needed an accommodation or asked for X amount of time to just sit and get my work done, it was just met with silence or ‘that’s not really how we do things here,” Thomas said. “It was very dismissive, and it wasn’t an environment where I felt safe to do my work as a neurodivergent person.”
What some individuals may see as micromanaging, others might perceive as helpful details and instruction.
In a different role, Thomas said, “I had a boss who spent two weeks teaching me how to do every single thing I needed to do at the job, and there was a very detailed list of instructions to go with each of the tasks. I felt super confident in doing the work because she had taken the time to teach me and give me instructions, and then she left me to my own devices.”
Because each employee is unique, managers can ask employees themselves how they’d feel most supported.
Four Strategies for Managing Employees With ADHD
The following strategies are paired with challenges related to ADHD symptoms and include examples of actions that managers can take to help employees feel more supported.
1. Be a thought partner
What it addresses:Task paralysis, which is when people with ADHD feel unable to start a task—even if they want to—due to a paralysis that stems from fear, uncertainty or overwhelming confusion.
What managers can do:
Offer to help break the project down into smaller tasks or as many tasks as possible.
Make sure employees have all the materials they need or know where to find them.
Be clear about the expectations and details of the project.
Be approachable and non-judgmental so employees feel comfortable asking for help.
2. Offer constructive feedback thoughtfully
What it helps: Rejection sensitive dysphoria, which is when a person experiences hyperfixation on negative commentary or the fear of receiving rejection.
What managers can do:
Use a sandwich method of feedback: Start with positive information, then offer negative feedback and conclude with more positive feedback.
Give the other person space to ask questions and respond authentically.
Check in with employees after a performance review to make sure they aren’t ruminating only on negative feedback.
3. Approach with a strengths-based mentality
What it encourages: Hyperfocus and creativity, which is a key strength of people with ADHD, including being skilled at focusing on one task at a time and paying attention to details with creativity and excitement.
What managers can do:
Notice when someone expresses excitement and passion for particular projects, and try to assign them to those tasks.
Be mindful of hyperproductivity to avoid burnout or taking advantage of employees’ tendencies to produce work quickly.
Make sure employees feel empowered to take breaks to prioritize rest.
Be flexible in scheduling work hours. If possible, let employees do their work when they feel most productive.
4. Address isolation in remote work environments
What it supports: Body doubling, which is when someone sits with a person who has ADHD to provide support during tasks that are difficult to accomplish while alone.
What managers can do:
Pay attention to employees’ concerns about working alone.
Think creatively about ways to build camaraderie and connections for isolated workers.
Offer to sit together virtually during work—without surveilling, or find a team member who feels comfortable serving as a body double.
Notice tasks or times of day that are challenging for employees with ADHD, and ask if they would like virtual companionship while they complete them.
The rise in remote work has led to many employees feeling more comfortable working in their own space because they can customize their own environments and work the hours that feel best for them. As many offices reopen or begin to rethink their open floor plans due to public health and safety, tech companies can also think more comprehensively about how work environments affect neurodiverse employees who could be more successful in accommodating spaces.
One solution might not work for every employee, but it also might not work for the same employee in different circumstances or as their diagnosis changes. Managers can have regular conversations with employees about what’s working and what isn’t.
By touching base throughout the year, supportive managers can stay open to adjusting and adapting to new symptoms, needs and environments, just as successful employees are expected to rise to new challenges at work, too.