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ADHD & Neurodivergence in Business


ADHD is alive and well in the corporate world.


We see it every day in our coworkers or in ourselves. Sometimes we don’t know if we are ADHD. Some people may make comments towards us like: “You’re so distracted” or “hello you’re an ADHD poster child”.


And you laugh along with them, until… “Aha.”  … “Wait.”  … “What?!” … “Am I?”


Symptoms of ADHD can show up differently to men than women, which makes sense. How it manifests is different to everyone, and hormones can play a part in how we emotionally manifest our ADHD. Almost all studies have been on males over females. Females are diagnosed 5-7yrs later than their male peers, if at all, or diagnosed with BPD over ADHD. We need to do more for female neurodivergent brains.


In a neurodivergent world some people with ADHD, may also be diagnosed with aspects of ASD, OCD, ODD, RSD, dyslexia, hyperlexia, anxiety and depression. It’s not a cookie cutter diagnosis, as each person has their own manifestation of distraction and emotional dysregulation. We are not all hyperactive, we can be hyper focused.

We are almost always distracted and impulsive.

We have to stop expecting our brains will work like everyone else’s. We are wired differently. Learning more about how ADHD is showing up in your career, and using therapy can help you work with your brain. It also allows you to educate people how to work with you.


Let’s be clear, the ADHD Neurodivergent brain is a super brain. We can filter through ideas faster, be more creative “out-there thinkers” making connections to things most others would not have considered. If it’s fostered and nurtured.

 

Corporations need to take note of those who are neurodivergent with ADHD, work with their brain instead of expecting them to work and behave like their non-neurodivergent (non-ND) peers. They also need to make ADHD’ers feel safe to come forward, on the best ways to work with them. Ask them the best way to work in your company and foster those ideas.

 

Here are some ways in which ADHD can show up in business and ways to work with it.

 

Losing time, chronic lateness

  • Constantly showing up late for work or meetings.

  • Not getting back to your client in a timely manner.

  • Handing in projects or presentations at the last minute or late.

This can be partly due to time blindness – thinking we have a world of time when we don’t, and “squirrel” the distractions of the ADHD brain. Always saying we’re “sorry for being late” becomes a reflection of how deadlines are constantly overwhelming our brain, making the ND brain person seem unreliable.

Prioritization can be an issue where small wheel grinding projects are taken on ahead of a big project because it’s “I’m trying to get my mind around it” feeling of being overwhelmed. There is a shame factor associated with late projects. In their mind its “I know we agreed on the deadline, but my perfectionism is keeping me from releasing it because I need to finesse everything within a fraction of its current position.”


Shame spiral sets in, knowing we are not going to be on time, with emails and phone messages being ignored until we deliver our perceived “perfect project”. ADHD skill sets are usually amazing, brilliant even, but the time lag on deliverables makes them seem "unreliable" and can cost them business or jobs in the end.

 

Realistically, no one likes to do absolutely everything, this is true. Taxes – a hard pass for most and only because we have to, folding laundry – “I’ll let the heat of my body to remove the wrinkles”, I have had a client tell me. Our brains can justify anything or rationalize the heck out of it. With ADHD there is always going to be something we will leave to the last minute. From a Non-ND brain, it looks like procrastination, but in an ADHD mind it’s the through process of “I have lots of time, I’ll bang these 50 things out first and then I can dedicate myself to this presentation.” Then it’s the realization of “Crap I don’t have enough time; I’m going to have to cram all night to get this presentation done!” Time blindness makes us seem like we have days, when we may only have hours; or hours, when we only have minutes. Or we underestimate the amount of time we need to complete a project and run out of time before we know it. We see this in prioritizing projects as well.


  • Breaking down projects into “chunks” can help us complete projects in small, bite sized pieces. Sharing tasks or delegating aspects of a project that we can struggle with, are great ways to stay on task, and on time.

  • Setting expectations at the start of a project.

  • Detailed work back schedules, and alarms can help stay on task.

  • Gentle check in’s can help manage the timelines of an ADHD brain.


Meetings that become torture sessions.

Agenda, what agenda?

Meetings without an agenda, become scheduled, directionless and endless torture sessions for an ADHD brain.


Sitting still. Not going to happen.


One or both legs are doing their best Elvis impression, “thunk ya very mush” or they become Phil Collins using pencils and pens as drumsticks or click pens endlessly like a hummingbird on crack.


Their busy mind needs to do something, anything, and their body usually follows suit.

Concentrating on a presentation endlessly, can be an issue. Sitting through a financial meeting, oye! Even though they’re not looking at the presentation or presenter that doesn’t mean they are not absorbing the information. Some ADHD people who simultaneously struggle with ASD may find it difficult to make or maintain eye contact.

 

  • Agendas helps establish timing, pace and expectations, so the ADHD brain can compartmentalize it, and set the expectation of time needed.

  • Allowing people to get up or stand at the back of the room for presentations can help adjust their energy towards the meeting and become more productive.

  • Scheduling breaks for longer meetings will help the ADHD brain take a break, walk around and then get back to the presentation to focus.

“I work better under pressure”.

How many times have you heard this? How many times have you said this?


Can you work better under pressure? Some studies have agreed that stress hormones can aid in our ability to concentrate with razer like focus. If you are a person who can’t focus unless their pants are on fire, or waiting for the last minute is also partly time blindness, it can be a facet of control and/or task paralysis.

 

If the ADHD brain can predict the outcome by taking it over, making it their way, working the last minute can make a task more comfortable for their brain. This helps with their anxiety. For the rest of the Non-ND team, this can seem like micromanaging, or send them into a panic not knowing or seeing the outcome until just before a presentation, without the ability to add their feedback.


There are ways to work with this "fire in your pants" member of the staff 

  • Compromise, detailed workback schedules, assigned or delegating duties or tasks, are the best way to handle these issues.

  • Divide and concur are other ways to help establish teamwork, so that not one person is overwhelmed with a project.

  • Delegating workload isn’t a failure, its aids in you producing the best work possible, and empowers others to work as a team.


Task paralysis. 

The blank page.

Torturous to a writer, or someone starting to make a presentation deck. “Well hello perfectionism, nice to see you again”. The seemingly endless unanswered texts, phone messages and emails. Panic inducing. So we avoid them for as long as we have to.


We can get caught up in our head of everything wanting to be 'perfect', that we become too stymied to start.


The first word, the first sentence, even an outline can become make us feel completely judged. Add in the anxiety of Perfectionism and All or Nothing Thinking of “If I don’t do well on this project, I know I’ll get fired”.

Meanwhile everything this person is producing is amazing, but in their mind, they walk a knifes edge every day. Making an employee fee safe in their position helps build their confidence in doing a great job for you. An employee that feels safe, are able to concentrate on their project without the feeling of failure or fear of losing their job. Creativity is snuffed out in an atmosphere of fear and retribution.


How do we get over inertia to start?

  • Give yourself a timer 15-20min to start something. When it goes off, you can continue or let it go for a time.

  • Get a hit of dopamine naturally. Eat a piece of fruit or a small piece of dark chocolate to get our dopamine going.

  • Exercise, to reduce stress levels and add oxygen to our brains, breaks us out of the of the overwhelmed ADHD brain. 

  • What reward will you give yourself for completing the project? Massage, new shoes, yoga class, going to dinner. Having small attainable goals helps with motivation.

  • For employers, reassuring and praise for a job well done goes a long way in building their confidence and add to a feeling of being safe in their job. I don’t mean this is the “everyone gets a ribbon for participating” praise (which we need to stop doing), it’s real praise by pointing out how this project worked for the business or company. Empower the employee.


“Workaholics”, those with little to no personal boundaries.

People pleasing, fear of failure can be part and parcel to low self-esteem associated with ADHD.


This comes over years of feeling not the same as their peers, feeling "less than", rejected, bullied, made to feel “stupid” because we were not up to our peers in math, reading, grammar, or spelling. In business this people pleasing fear can translate into burn out.

 

No downtime to rest, and regenerate. Some managers can take advantage of this good natured “do anything attitude”, of those that don’t build personal boundaries, they will burn themselves out for recognition. Recognition that arrives as increased workload, not a pat on the back or a bonus. But they keep working, waiting for that one time you will see everything that they have done. When this keeps happening, sooner than later the empty promises leaves the corporation with an empty desk, because the people pleaser has left for a company who fulfills their promises, or they’re so burned out they took an extended leave. Either way the employee and the business loses.


Listen to what your employees are saying:


  • Try to recognize that people pleasing in your employees, assure them that their extra effort on the odd project is recognized. Don’t abuse the privilege of working with these “work horses” by loading them up with the work of two people. Listen to their language, they can take pride in being a “work horse”. Remind them to balance work and life.

  • Having policies for overtime (Ontario it’s anything over 44hrs/wk you are legally entitled to money or leu hours). If other employees are working at half their pace, being praised, the ADHD brain will work harder thinking this is the key to recognition, the next promotion, or being safe from layoffs. ADHD brain is heartbroken, devastated, when their efforts aren’t recognized when it comes to downsizing. All this does is reaffirm their belief that "they didn't do enough", they "aren't perfect enough" to do business. They lost. Again.


Tired but wired.

ADHD sleep is crap. Either we can't get to sleep, or we can't stay asleep. We're running on fumes most of the time and we need to compensate for this. Sleep is our only time to turn off cortisol and regenerate our cells, including brain cells. We peel our bodies out of the sheets and make it to the computer or the office, not always on time.


We drink caffeinated drinks all day, to keep us awake. Caffeine shuts down the drowsy button in our brain, forgoing what we really need, a nap. By 3-4pm you need something else to spark the energy, and you can reach for sugar and caffeine, or salty carby treats like chips and caffeine beverage like a pop, coffee and tea.


Now it’s time to go to bed but you’re so wired you cannot do to sleep. Caffeine all day has made you wired, too wired to go to shut down for sleep. To counteract this, you drink alcohol or use weed as a way of relaxing enough to get to sleep. Unmedicated ADHD'ers use cannabis a lot to calm their busy brain enough to get to sleep.


How can we manage this “tired but wired”? 

  • No caffeine after noon. Switch to herbal teas, clear bubbly water, or just plain water is best. If you need to flavour the water, use fresh lemon juice to gently clean out your liver. Use a straw if you're worried about the acidity on your teeth.

  • Exercise! Get your body as tired as your mind. Walking to work, getting off three stops before you need to and walk into the office. Park the farthest away from the door. Use your condo gym, join a gym or devote 2-3 days a week to an exercise plan. Yoga is the best exercise to do for rest and relaxation and allows you to practice deep breathing.

  • Eat more protein at lunch for the afternoon doldrums! This will help manage hunger, slow down your digestion and protein support every active part of your system recover from the day before. Pair this protein with eating fast growing foods can support increased energy, anything that is in our produce aisle that is green or colourful.


Craving caffeine and sweets.

How many of you raid the boardroom once a big catered meeting has let out?


Cookies, muffins, pastries, pasta, besides the obvious bonus of FREE FOOD, which we all love. It’s the draw of the “I know I shouldn’t... but it’s here... it’ll just be thrown out otherwise” justification. Yeah, we have all been there! It’s oh so temping.


Then we have the afternoon trips to TimmyHo’s for a donut and a large double-double, or off to the vending machine for chips and a pop.


Folks with ADHD can be low on dopamine (ASD are usually high in dopamine), easily distracted and very impulsive. Sugar and simple carbs (chips/pasta/bread/donuts/ chocolate bars) hit the reward centre in the brain at twice the rate of cocaine. It’s highly addictive and our dopamine rush. Dopamine is our hormone of “more is never enough”. So we feed it constantly.


Sugar or sweets, we impulsively crave it, eat it, sugar high, sugar crash leads us to be emotionally dysregulated, eat more sugar - and the cycle continues. We want sugar to make us happy! We know that sugar is not good for us. There is no real documented “daily recommended value” of sugar in our diet. Its not an essential nutrient.


We really don’t need sugar. We crave it.


We are hard wired to like sweets. Mothers milk is sweet to entice the infant to latch on, providing survival of the species. In the morning the neuropeptide Y is wanting carbs for energy as we are "breaking the fast" when we awake. So we need to learn to work with this instead of against this natural reaction.


Carb and sweets becomes a habit that's hard to break along with other habits that can increase with the use of sweets.


Now I see teen girls with ADHD, vaping sweet nicotine products. Not only is the nicotine highly addictive, add in sugar and BOOM, you have a perfect storm of no calorie dopamine stimulation. They can do this all day long and some girls love it so much they vape to stop eating. Which can create a eating disorders and I’m now seeing the same results in adults coming to see me.

 

How does eating sugar affect you at work? Are you emotionally regulated after the sugar crash? Are you overly sensitive to feedback leaving you crying the office bathroom, being short with workmates over nothing, not having our idea chosen for a pitch and quitting on he spot, stubbing our toe on a desk and flipping the desk over, the phone ringing one to many times being ripped off the desk and smashed on wall. Just a few things I've seen over the years, looking back, was probably undiagnosed ADHD and blood sugar issues.

 

What are other ways in which we can get dopamine before we get to the office?

  • Exercise! This gives us natural endorphins that can help us sleep, manage our emotions, and help us manage our stress levels. The more we do the better we can feel. Start off slow and build up your endurance. Walking is always a great way to start. We make our body as tired as our minds are at the end of the day.

  • Getting a good nights sleep! This is the best and only way to shut off our cortisol response. This also helps us with emotional regulation.

  • Eating natural sugars in the form of fruit and fried fruit. Pairing these with nut butters, goat cheese or assorted nuts can help balance the natural sugars with good omega 6’s, fats and fibre which slow down how fast we process these natural sugars.

  • Increase your protein! Amino acids are the building blocks of every body, and it helps manage your hunger response.

  • Listen to music that you love, while moving your body.

  • Don't cut carbs from your diet, you need these nutrients, portion control is the key. Practice the 80/20 rule: 80% whole foods, 20% processed. That's a good benchmark to reach for a healthy balanced diet.

 

People needing to repeat their conversation key points.

"Excuse me.. what was that?"

Sometimes we can focus on what others are saying, if we are genuinely interested in what they have to say.


When we’re not, our restless minds can wonder and get caught up in small insignificant details. The mind will wonder off to “Gee does he know he has spinach in his teeth? ...Should I tell him? ... Would he be embarrassed? ... I remember the time I has spinach in my teeth and…” Then they ask you to answer a question... crap, what was that again? “I’m sorry can you clarify that statement for me?” Aha, always a good save.

 

We also tend to repeat ourselves, we make a point and reiterate it again, and again.

To some it may look like we’re thick, being repetitive, but in our minds, we want to make sure we get our point across in our own minds. Be patient, we're processing at a different speed and way that the non-ND's.

 

  • A good way to work around this issue is to have key points in a document or have a person taking notes in the meeting to review later.

  • We can record meetings and briefings is needed so we can refer to it later.

  • Focusing on the conversation takes practice, and something therapy can help for someone with ADHD.

  • If making eye contact is an issue for those with ADHD/ASD. Looking at the bridge of their nose or where their “third eye” on their forehead can make it look like we’re concentrating on their conversation and may allow us to focus on what they are saying. Allow yourself to look away when you need to, looking at the person occasionally still shows you are paying attention to what they're saying, without it feeling uncomfortable.


We’re so social!

Lots of water cooler chatting and not a lot of productivity. A trip to the loo for a biobreak that should take 5min, but on the way back we stop off to chat with others on the way back to our desk and we’ve lost 20-30min.

 

We can justify it as business catch ups or multitasking, or it may just be good old fashioned avoidance, people pleasing, task paralysis or perfectionism sticking its head out.

 

Are we stuck in task paralysis that is preventing us from starting or completing a project?

Is it people pleasing, making us stop to chat, because otherwise we will be seen as rude?

Are we thinking that the blank page or computer screen is too overwhelming right now and I just need to “get my head in the game” to start, thinking if it’s not perfect “it will reflect very poorly on me?”.

 

Working on self-esteem on those with ADHD can feel like it’s never ending. We grow up being told no 20,000 times by the time we’re 10yo over our non-ND peers. So we tend to compensate by people pleasing or issues perfectionism, feeling we’re still that 10yo in class who needs a tutor for help on four subjects.

 

  • Therapeutic methods using CBT exercises offer skills to help with self-confidence, taming the people pleasing, perfectionism and task paralysis monkeys that keep us from our optimal selves.

  • Plan breaks by mandating that staff have their lunches away from their desks. They are away from the screens and demands for at least an hour. Their brains need this break. Apart from emergencies (real, not perceived) no one is allowed to bring up business during their lunch break. This is the scheduled chitty-chat social time.

  • I’m not saying that work has no chitty-chat times, for sure it’s a must to build teamwork. Our minds need that break. It comes down to how we schedule these mind breaks that make a big difference.

  • Company mentors that help break them out of their cycle of distraction and avoidance; support their ideas and help delegate when they get overwhelmed. I have had some mentors sit with them as they go through their projects, talking to them about timelines and chunking the tasks out, calming their minds and getting them on track.


It’s not always about distraction it can show up as hyper-focus.

If we like it, we love it! We can be very excited about something, and we’re almost hyperventilating explaining how amazing something is. Our hands are moving, we’re practically dancing in place we’re so excited.

  “I have this great idea”, and as the person explains it they become the child in the candy store. Excited, dancing in place writing or scribbling something to explain their idea. It’s a brilliant idea and they get more excited when they see the nodding heads. It’s an adrenaline rush!

 

ADHD can show up as hyper-focus.

Now we’re executing this idea. Sitting at our desk, ignoring the phone ringing, emails blipping across our screen, people waving at us to say hi, not taking a break for lunch or even a bio-break. We've been shown to barely blink a the computer screen.


It’s like we go into a ‘cone of silence’, where noting gets through, including our own body cues. We will fixate on the littlest things where we continually move something on our screen 1/16” up, down, sideways, or we change the word in a paragraph many times we now need to re-write the paragraph. We are loving what we’re doing, and we don’t see anything else but what’s in front of us. Once we pull ourselves out of this hyper-focus, we see the overwhelming missed calls and emails that need answering. Cue panic attack and feelings of self-doubt, as we run to the loo.


  • The ADHD needs to plan for breaks by ‘chunking’ work every 30-45min. Use more than one signal to take a break, phone alarm, computer alarm, watch alarm so that they get multi-sensorial cues to stop what they’re doing.

  • Now’s the time to get up from the desk to take a 5-10min break, walk around, grab a water, hit the loo, stretch, move to a standing desk. Then get back at it.

  • These breaks have been proven to help our brain refocus instead of getting caught in a loop or “just five more minutes”.


Lots of great ideas, that never get executed.

The ADHD brain is amazing. I would call it a superpower.


We can make connections to things that no one else has thought of ‑ strokes of brilliance. Sometimes, these strokes of brilliance can be left on the bottom of a “to do” list. Left to languish with ideas that never get generated.

“To-Do” lists that gets longer instead of shorter, and we rarely cross anything off the list.

 

Then we just stop adding to the list, because it has become too overwhelming and for some of us, a source of shame.


“Why do I never execute my great ideas?” “Why….?”

 

This can be a few things: task paralysis; perfectionism – we can’t start unless we have figured out the perfect way to do it; time blindness – we lose hours doing nothing; no boundaries so we devote our time to helping others achieve their greatness. Just to name a few.

 

First things first. Get out the “to-do” list.

  • Cross off everything you thought was ‘doable’ or ‘brilliant’ but not something you can accomplish. Or start a separate list of ‘brilliant ideas’ and assign a goal and timeline to it.

  • Write down how much time each one of the things left on your list will take to do: responding to emails 30min, two meetings; 60min, new business pitch; a week of 30min meetings, (book meetings in calendar). Great!

  • Now, plan a day and time in which to do it, make it like a business meeting. Something you know you cannot skip or put off. Put these tasks in your calendar with reminders counting down to the time you need to do them.

Getting over inertia is half the battle.

  • Pick one task, put on a timer and set it for 10-15min or 20-30min. Start your task, once the timer go’s off, stop – if you need to – and take a 5-10min break. Put the timer on again and get back at it or start a new task.

  • Crossing off that thing from the “to-do” list – is such a dopamine rush! It’s very motivating when you start to cross things off, the sense of accomplishment and pride is amazing. The more we do this the more we gain confidence in ourselves that we can accomplish tasks.

  • The more we do this the better we get at gaging how much time it takes to accomplish certain tasks. Our time estimating and management becomes more acute, based on learned experiences.


We start to see our great innovative ideas come to life – which is empowering!

 

Google Brainstorms

The Big Bang Theory had an episode of the google distraction called “The Focus Attenuation” where the idea of brainstorming new innovative ideas, becomes new ideas on procrastination. I felt this episode. We have all lived this episode!


I've been in so many brainstorms where ‘the idea wall’ has a few weak ideas, but we have spent the last two hours googling our distractions, over us trying to tackle the ominous task of being innovative.


“Oh yeah I remember that, lets google it”

“I don’t remember that can you bring up a picture?”

 

This happens in almost every business. Being in a meeting with non-ND and ADHD brains, if you are goal oriented non-ND, it can be a frustrating task of herding cats. Fun, silly and sometimes hilarious google finds but unproductive at best. BBC talking animals on YouTube, come on… hilarious (bet you’re googling that right now).

 

Here are some ideas on getting these things done in a mixed brain meeting:

  • What is your staff’s currency? What drives them? Do they like recognition, coffee cards, catered sessions? A quick survey conducted every 6mo for the staff, allows you to stay on top of their wants and needs. You can ask the staff when the meeting is planned. Reward them at the end of each meeting because waiting and ADHD brain do not go together. The ADHD brain can see waiting for a reward as the equivalent of Mum saying, “we’ll see”.

  • Have a clear brief. What is needed. What is the timeline. What are the deliverables? How will the results be measured? Bullet points only. Brevity is the friend of an ADHD brain.

  • Have an agenda for how many good, viable ideas you expect from each session.

  • Schedule more frequent, shorter meetings. The longer meetings only let the ADHD brain wonder and momentum can be lost. Chunking works for the ADHD brain, try working in 45-60min bursts, have a 5-10min break and start again.

  • Bring in fidget toys, pads of paper, pencils, crayons even, to help focus the minds of the ADHD brains in the room and increase creative thoughts.

  • Stir up dopamine: eat fruit, do jumping jacks, skip or push-ups, get a drink, use the loo, look at funny videos during the 5-10min break.

  • Have someone be the ‘stenographer’ of the ideas to keep the ideation brain humming.

These are some ideas you can start to incorporate in your meetings to help with ideation and productivity. These ideas also help foster good corporate culture, which is immeasurable for attracting the best people to your company and retaining them.

 

In conclusion, how to get started.

Now an ADHD brain want to go all guns blazing and try to incorporate all these ideas at once.


Good lordy no. Stop. Think. Breathe. Think.

Heroic goals set you up for failure. Try one first. See how it goes. Then another. Slowly work with your staff and adapt these ideas for what works for you and your business. Once you fix one problem sometimes the domino effect will start, and other people will come up with their best solutions. You gotta trust the process.

 

I hope you go over some of these helpful tips and tricks to work WITH the ADHD brains in your company. From my perspective as a counsellor with decades of experience in corporate agencies working as an ADHD brain in a non-ND world.

 

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