Sun. May 26th, 2024

October is ADHD Awareness Month—and nowhere does this learning difference need to be more understood than in the workplace.

October is ADHD Awareness Month

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Fully one-fifth of adult Americans—65.6 million employees nationwide—have some form of learning and attention difference. The wonder is not the staggering number of neurodiverse individuals, but how the workplace thus far has largely failed to accommodate the needs of such a significant minority.

My son is one of these neurodiverse workers, having been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at age 12. Though his diagnosis did not come without its challenges, we were always able to adapt his learning to his unique brain wiring. Today, he leverages those differences in his role as a successful software engineer—but not every neurodiverse employee is so fortunate.

“Unfortunately, stigmas still exist (and persist) around neurodivergence in many corporate cultures,” says certified ADHD coach Ryan Mayer. “The lack of awareness and understanding about neurodivergence in the workplace has shaped negative stereotypes.”

In honor of ADHD Awareness Month this October, I connected with Mayer to learn more about the needs and strengths of this often-misunderstood employee demographic. Here’s what we covered.

What ADHD is like

For those of us who have never experienced life from a neurodivergent perspective, it can be hard to imagine what it feels like. “Do you have mundane aspects of your work that you don’t particularly enjoy? Of course—everyone does!” says Mayer. “While those with standard (‘neurotypical’) brain wiring may not like doing boring tasks, they are still able to accomplish them when called upon to do so.”

But it’s different for those with ADHD. “Have you ever tried writing your name with your non-dominant hand? That’s basically what it feels like for us ADHD folks to initiate and complete tasks that our brains don’t find interesting,” says Mayer.

Other common symptoms of ADHD include distractibility, inattention, forgetfulness and impulsivity—all of which can affect a person’s professional performance. In the workplace specifically, Mayer says that ADHD can present significant challenges in time management, organization and completing tasks in a timely manner.

One example would be Mayer’s own internal resistance to completing sales expense reports. “Despite the clear benefit of getting back my own money that I had spent on business activities, I’ve admittedly left hundreds of dollars on the table over the years,” he says.

Dealing with the stigma

Individuals with ADHD or other neurodivergences often encounter negative stereotypes that they’re “lazy” or just need to “try harder.” But it’s not that simple.

“Along with millions of my neurodivergent brothers and sisters, I have endured this unfair treatment for the majority of my career,” says Mayer. He cites his inability to effectively complete administrative functions in past roles, despite the fact that he put in extra time outside of office hours in an attempt to finish these tasks. “While this weakness is a direct result of my ADHD, it feeds into the stigma that ADHD people are lazy,” he says. And yet Mayer’s struggles were with the way his brain is wired—not with laziness.

“To remove any remaining stigma around neurodiversity in the workplace, individuals (with or without ADHD) can educate themselves and others about ADHD and similar conditions, advocate for neuroinclusion, and promote a culture of acceptance and understanding,” says Mayer. “The first step towards this is overcoming the inaccurate portrayals of neurodivergent people that have emerged over the last three decades.”

At the organizational level, leaders can create and support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), as well as seek out neuroinclusion training. Employers can also provide a list of proactive workplace accommodations for all employees. “This can include flexible schedules, clear communication, adjusting the work environment (ie: having quiet spaces where employees work if they are feeling overstimulated), and access to tools and resources that can help manage symptoms such as a standing desk and work checklists,” says Mayer. “In a past job, my desk was located next to the department printer, which made it very hard for me to stay focused. A simple relocation of my desk space helped to avoid distraction and stay on task.”

Turning ADHD into an asset

What many people miss about ADHD and other learning and attention differences is that they’re not all bad. In fact, for those with ADHD, the attention deficit for certain tasks is often offset by particular brilliance in other competencies. “We will outperform and outpace many of our neurotypical (‘normal’) peers when conditions are right and the support we need is in place,” asserts Mayer.

“As a result of our core strengths of creativity, resourcefulness and drive,” he continues, “those of us with ADHD are able to lead companies, industries and even global movements.” Mayer points to companies like Tesla, Jet Blue Airways, and Virgin Media group, the band Maroon 5, the show Shark Tank and shoe brand Steve Madden—all of which are helmed by neurodivergent people.

But you don’t have to be a trailblazer to succeed as a worker with ADHD. When I asked Mayer what type of work is best for those with ADHD, he responded, “No brain—neurodivergent or not—is the same. Therefore, there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer when it comes to what career is best for people with ADHD.”

However, work that is dynamic, varied and allows for flexibility and movement can be of particular interest, he says. “Occupations that require short, intense bursts of energy and focus such as Entrepreneurship, Emergency Medical Services, Entertainment and creative industries may be especially good fits for ADHD brains,” says Mayer. “As I like to say, ‘we are sprinters, not marathoners’ due to our preference for careers that require hyperfocus during high stress moments, and our natural aversion to predictable kinds of work.”

Additionally, ADHD employees may benefit from a structured environment with clear expectations and regular feedback from management. What they need most, says Mayer, is support, understanding and acceptance. It’s not all that different from what neurotypical employees need, is it?

The asset of neurodiversity

For those struggling to reframing their ADHD as a positive in the workplace, Mayer urges them to find work that works for their ADHD, rather than against it. “We must work in our strengths,” he says. “It’s not your fault that you have ADHD, but it is your responsibility to figure out how to manage it.”

At the organizational level, Mayer avers that it’s easy to see people as the biggest expense and miss the fact that they’re also the most valuable asset. “Neurodiverse employees are valuable to the organization because of their unique perspectives, creativity and problem-solving abilities,” he says. “Employees with ADHD may bring diversity of thought, which can help companies to stay innovative in a competitive marketplace.

“It’s time for corporate leadership teams to wake up to the reality that they have invisible talent hiding within their ranks.”

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