We don’t talk enough about ADHD in the workplace — especially those undetected, undiagnosed, unrelenting symptoms that threaten too many careers.
Contrary to popular belief, ADHD does not only affect children; it persist through adulthood for the vast majority of people. Some learn of their ADHD after remaining undiagnosed and untreated throughout childhood. That’s what happened to me, after unrelenting problems in the workplace woke me up to this reality.
In my early 20s, I had the slightest suspicion that I had ADHD, but I didn’t dig any deeper at that time. Though I could list many moments of impulsivity, inappropriateness, and emotional dysregulation, I dismissed them as character flaws. The same went for my knack for losing objects, and my inability to finish a book. But I had earned good grades in school and I was able to find and keep a job. Besides, I thought ADHD was a boy problem. Could a grown woman really have ADHD? That was hard to imagine. Even unthinkable.
At the time, I worked as a tech support specialist at a call center. I found the job very stimulating, as every call was a new challenge and I got to talk to lots of people every day – an extrovert’s dream.
It wasn’t until I changed jobs at age 26 that my undiagnosed ADHD symptoms became unleashed and unignorable.
[Read: Practical Work Strategies for Clever ADHD Brains]
I applied for a job in finance, despite having no experience in the field whatsoever. But they were looking for someone who spoke French and I was never one to shy away from a challenge, so I sent my resumé.
Because one symptom of ADHD is being a “risk-taker,” we can be really brave – or not. Sometimes, “risk-taker” is just another word for “jumping into situations without much thought.”
But I actually got the job, and I was very happy about it. Then the problems began. The office environment – the silence, the constant typing, the phones ringing in the background – was different and immediately challenging for me. “This is gonna be hard,” I said to myself.
My job required studying large spreadsheets for past due invoices and notifying customers about them. I also had to make sure the invoices were error-free.
[Follow: A Career Happiness Formula for Adults with ADHD]
I was motivated in the beginning. I thought I was performing well, and I would even boast about my job. But the truth is that I was lagging behind my peers. To make things worse, my boss would never explain anything to me or provide feedback. I soon started to feel singled-out and isolated.
It didn’t help that my communication skills were horrible. I was harsh, impulsive, quick to anger with my peers, and abrasive in my emails. I even had to publicly apologize once in front of all my colleagues for something I’d written. Meetings were painful. I was always doodling and fidgeting, desperately wanting to get up and leave.
I couldn’t chat much with my co-workers, either. Not just because I didn’t share anything in common with them (despite trying hard to blend in), but also because my boss gave me a stern look every time I tried. I was getting paid to look at my computer screen and type, not chit-chat, he said.
My boss knew I was prone to distraction. He even had me move closer to him one day so I could focus on my work. Again, I had no idea at the time that this was ADHD. All I knew was that I needed stimulation to start working. No chit-chat? Fine, music then. But the problem is that I would get lost in the music, and it would cut into my workday. Distractions were such a problem for me that I received this as feedback: “You leave everything for the last minute and end up doing many things at the same time.”
I stayed at the job for a couple more years, then resigned when I received a long list of things I needed to work on or face termination. The list basically covered every aspect of the job.
I left that place feeling like a failure. Why had things turned out so badly?
A few months later, I accepted a new job in finance — with much better pay and more responsibilities. I was joining the treasury team in a large pharmaceutical company.
Though I vowed that I wouldn’t work in a big corporate office again, I needed the job. Besides, I figured that not all offices are similarly awful.
But this position, too, ended in failure.
My organizational methods and other “quirks” were often the point of criticism and mockery at the new workplace. I had a huge calendar on my desk where I would write down all my tasks and reminders, and mark them in different colors. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is what my ADHD mind needed to stay on top of things. It worked perfectly for me.
But my coworkers said it looked unprofessional, and made fun of me for needing a paper calendar instead of using an electronic one. “You won’t carry around your huge calendar wherever you go, will you?” I tried following their suggestions, but it didn’t work. I needed to see the reminders in front of me. I missed my calendar.
These instances, along with other stressful events in my personal life, marked the beginning of my downfall.
I started to make careless mistakes almost every day. I’d forget to attach a PDF file to an email. I’d miss really important payment dates like payroll. I’d make double-payments. They were silly mistakes, big mistakes, and embarrassing mistakes. And they seemed to escalate every week. I felt guilty that other people received extra work because of my errors.
“This is it. I cannot make another mistake or they will fire me,” I’d tell myself almost daily. By the end of the workday, I was running through a list of all the mistakes I had made that day. “What is wrong with me? Why did I forget/miss this very important thing? Am I just self-sabotaging?”
I thought I could start over. Pay more attention, try harder, be like the rest of my coworkers. I even bought an agenda, but that didn’t work either.
It was too late. I had four bosses breathing down my neck and criticizing my every move. I was eventually fired, and my bosses did not hesitate to state how much of a failure hiring me had felt like for the company.
It took me a while to start looking for a job again. My self-confidence was gone.
Then, I was diagnosed with ADHD.
Make no mistake – ADHD symptoms in the workplace can capsize your career. If the environment isn’t right, they can make the job practically impossible. That’s why it infuriates me when people say, “Everybody is a little ADHD.” Really? Do you contemplate quitting all the time? Have you actually gotten fired for your symptoms?
Looking back, I realize now that I thrived in that call center IT job because I could use my own time management tools and interact with my colleagues. I was able to focus and do my job confidently because I was stimulated and motivated to help.
I also realize now that I was not the problem in my other workplaces. The work environment simply wasn’t suitable for me.
Today, I have an amazing and rewarding career in IT. I’m able to cope with my ADHD symptoms much more easily because I love this engaging and stimulating job. I have even been called professional and well-organized!
If you’re an adult with ADHD struggling in the workplace, think long and hard about finding a job that suits your unique way of work. Our brains operate differently, and trying to adapt to something that doesn’t speak to you will only cause unnecessary pain and stress. My advice? Find where you thrive – and never look back.
Problems at Work with ADHD: Next Steps
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