ADHD and the working life
By Tracey Churcher, General Manager Isle of Purbeck, National Trust
When asked to write an article on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in the (outdoor) workplace, I started with the best intentions of writing an advisory piece, providing balanced factual information of benefit to both those with the diagnosis and those working with affected individuals. However, in true ADHD style, after procrastinating on this approach and not finding a way to get started, I have settled upon a more personal approach that I hope brings meaning for those this is relevant to.
My own journey with ADHD, like so many adults started as a slow dawning realisation as I tried to support my son and fought my way through the tortuous diagnosis process that seems to be the norm in the NHS (UK). As an adopted individual, I had never voiced my own issues growing up. As a capable girl, who achieved academic milestones in school, it was highly unlikely that I ever would have been diagnosed. It only took a swift ten years to get there for my son.
Obviously over those ten years, I did what most people would do, I read and learned about the condition. This has proven far more valuable to me than any outside support, which sadly has been inconsistent and with a different practitioner every time. I have shared my learning with my family as I believe understanding who we are and how our minds work is key to making good decisions in life.
My first real frustration is the fact that ADHD is by its very name, is considered to be a deficit or a disorder. I subscribe to neither of these views, instead I see it as a difference. A neuro difference in how our brains work. In itself, this is neither a good or a bad thing, it just is!
It is defined as a deficit in the ability to pay attention, with or without significant restlessness, impulsiveness and distractibility. Research indicates that it is highly heritable and that the ability to produce and effectively use the neurotransmitter dopamine, is a key factor in the behaviour typically associated with ADHD. However, the way I see it is that it is not a lack of attention that is problematic, it is the inability to chose what we apply attention to. Thus, a work or education task that is seen as irrelevant or dull, might be difficult to get started with. Alternatively, if the task is something we love, then it is hard to stop doing it. Think video games or a hobby. This is known as hyper-focus.
Therefore it is pretty obvious why school is an environment where those with ADHD often do not thrive and may acquire a negative self-image about themselves and their abilities. The flipside of this, of course is that we get to choose what we do for our working life. If you choose to work in an environment you love, you will be an incredibly productive team member. Self-knowledge and team knowledge is so important. However, as an adult, it isn’t acceptable to pick the good bits of a role and leave the dull bits to others, so working with your team and sharing where you need support is helpful. Otherwise you may just appear confusing and inconsistent.
ADHD often comes with other conditions and again knowing and understanding these, both in yourself but also in your direct reports and teammates are key to thriving in the workplace. Dyslexia, anxiety and depression are common co-morbidities. Interestingly the physical hyperactivity of childhood, is often replaced with a very busy mind in adulthood and sleep can be elusive too as a result.
I don’t know how many rangers and outdoor instructors I have met with ADHD and associated conditions, but it seems to me to be greater than the incidence found in society generally. The ability to work and communicate using a full range of practical skills in the outdoor world creates an opportunity to shine. ADHD is also often associated with great creativity. Given that countryside tasks, are rarely textbook, the ability to work out how to solve an issue creatively is also a great asset.
I want to finish however, with something that I have found the most impactful in the workplace, particularly in terms of my ability to work well with my managers and that is rejection sensitive dysphoria. Essentially this creates an uncontrollable feeling of shame and rejection to perceived criticism, even if well meant. It can lead to behaviours such as striking out first, if unjust criticism is coming or real anger when feedback is unfair or poorly given.
When a colleague is genuinely trying to support you to create the best possible outcome, this reaction can be very hard to comprehend. Especially in the workplace, where emotions are so often secondary to completion of the task at hand.
I can recall managers, who although on the surface appeared to be good leaders, left me personally feeling incompetent and exceptionally anxious. I can see now, that had I had the courage to feedback how their approach was making me feel, it would have been better for both of us. That said, not all managers want to hear that kind of feedback! I have learned over my career that I often leave a situation because of the manager and not because of the job itself. Conversely, when I find someone who gives me trust and supports me, I thrive.
Like so many things in life, good communication skills are critical. The more we understand each other’s preferences, strengths and indeed challenges the better we all perform and the happier we feel.
ADHD’rs I hope you stand a little bit taller after reading this. You have lots to give the world, but it is our responsibility to educate and inspire others to believe that the difference we bring to a team, is valuable and often great fun too.
If you’d like to get in contact with Tracey please email firstname.lastname@example.org
More from National Trust