I think of atypical thinkers (people who identify as ADHD, dyslexic, or autistic) as having quietly disrupted the workplace for years. I know I did, even before I was diagnosed with ADHD. We are innovators and are deeply affected by our work environments: the more flexible, equitable and supported I feel, the more productive I am. It makes sense that my mental health thrives when I’m working on a project that I’m passionate about. (Notice I didn’t say I thrive when everyone agrees with me or works the way I do.) I don’t really care much about workplace norms, which is baffling and frustrating for most managers.
Scientists like Dr. Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, agree that they are dedicated to discovering what turns our brains on. Studying what helps the uncommon and how to be more inclusive benefits everyone in the long run, experts say.
This is a positive way of looking at inclusion, something I would like to hear more people talk about. It allows leaders to ask an important question. How can people on the fringes of work (outsiders and non-conformists) help make work more productive for everyone?
“If you can speak positively about your position on inclusion and say it out loud, it will be much easier for job seekers and managers to navigate and understand what you as a company offer people that is different and exciting,” says Yvonne Cowser Yancy. , director of human resources for Understood.org. She takes an equally positive approach to supporting and including neurodivergent thinkers.
This piece starts a conversation about how typical overthinking holds us back. I chose to highlight three of the most complicated problems out there, particularly for ADHD minds like mine. They are health care, having flexibility at work, and preventing burnout. If we can recognize how important it is to solve these problems, we can help the talent we have and the 80% of workers with hidden disabilities like ADHD (and other neurodivergent talents) waiting to be hired. Let us begin:
1. The hidden search for help
Research shows that few workers self-identify or disclose a learning disability, ADHD, or mental health problem to an employer. Even several years into the pandemic, employees feel uncomfortable talking to their managers or supervisors about mental health, and some fear that talking about it could get them fired or furloughed. (A separate but equally troubling issue: Many people haven’t been formally diagnosed with ADHD or dyslexia or wouldn’t know how to get a diagnosis.)
Companies have made mental health a priority at the highest levels. Still, even when leadership says it’s a focus, people in lower-level positions don’t see change. People told me in interviews that concerns about locating a mental health professional or ADHD expert are topics that peers quietly discuss, if at all. The problem does not reach most managers. If left in the dark, it can result in a manager checking in and getting no feedback on what she has in mind. In the face of silence, trust begins to crumble and offers of flexible work hours are ruled out. The employee begins to feel threatened and the vicious circle begins.
Neurodivergent at work In a situation like that of so much secrecy, where does an employee go to know their rights? It is common for people who learn and think differently to say that they do not consider themselves disabled. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which could offer legal protections on the job, is barely on his radar. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m not the only one who thinks so. In a story I highly recommend reading, a California Chicano academic mother who is a Ph.D. candidate explains this sentiment: “I disclosed that I had ADHD long before I realized that she was disclosing a disability. It was on my ‘fun facts’ list on my first day of orientation.” If you feel resistance to requesting formal accommodations at school or work, you’re right. Not only is getting a diagnosis expensive, it also requires endless paperwork and can even expose you to bias and veiled harassment from teachers and co-workers.
The manager’s dilemma We need to teach an open mind to leave discriminatory practices behind. That’s the goal of THIS CAN HAPPEN, a UK-based conference and resource for those curious about inclusion who want to take action to create change. For concrete examples of how to talk to an employee about housing in the US, I suggest AskJAN.org. The site offers an A-Z resource guide and case studies that demystify dozens of common scenarios managers may encounter when supporting people with learning disabilities and ADHD. The Bowman Center for Workplace Equity and Mental Wellbeing is another resource for human resource professionals.
2. The gold watch and flexible hours
In 2001, a Penn State Abington researcher found that more than 27% of workers had flexible work schedules and that “the likelihood of a worker having that flexibility is reduced by being female, non-white, and less educated.” In 2016, Golden’s research found that when employees have agency over their time — when to make up hours lost due to a doctor’s appointment — they are more productive. The Golden Watch, as it has been called, is particularly useful for the happiness of hourly workers.
Neurodivergent at work: A gold watch could really help people with learning and thinking differences. ADHD is complex and paradoxical. ADHD minds are known for their hyper-focus and sometimes complete lack of focus. We can be overmotivated and suffer from analysis or avoidance paralysis. Then there’s the real embarrassment, like being embarrassed that my therapist is only available on Wednesdays at 3pm. Going back to work in an office could be hell without these accommodations. If I could stagger my schedule and make it to 10, that would be my Golden Clock scenario. To be honest, a schedule that allows for daily exercise and weekly coaching or coaching is a good idea for all workers. But from lived experience, I know it’s non-negotiable for peak performance in ADHD brains like mine.
The manager’s dilemma: ‘Flexible working is our norm’, is the phrase of Lisa Kepinski and Tinna Nielsen, founders of the Inclusion Nudges Initiative. It should be an automatic standard text for the entire organization in all communications. This signals to employees that you trust them to make independent, purposeful decisions about how, when, and where they spend their time. Building a culture of inclusion and flexibility begins in the hiring process, write Kepinski and Nielsen, founders of the Inclusion Nudges Initiative. They suggest building an inclusion push on job applications. They also recommend designing online recruiting forms for hiring managers that have flexible working as a preselected default for the job format and advertising all jobs at all levels that explicitly promote flexible working in the description.
3. How to Manage Hyperfocus and High Performers
Burnout is a problem across the country, but we rarely talk about the fact that people with ADHD and other hyperfocused neurodivergent talents are highly susceptible to burnout. People with ADHD often don’t know how to hit the brakes on the downhill road. Many like highly structured work and excel in these positions where the rules are clear, management is on top of their game, and the job keeps their minds working at full capacity. These high expectations and high-stress jobs often help people with ADHD perform at their highest levels. But the fear of being fired or not being on top of work leads to serious overwork tendencies. Even when we want to relax, our brain works at a thousand per hour.
ADHD at work Look closely and you may spot non-traditional workers who often purposefully ignore their furry eyeball. They work the way they prefer, even when they receive rejection. I do. The settings I use help me be consistently successful. If a job requires deep focus, I work behind closed doors or skip big meetings and have a co-worker take notes for me. (Yes, I return the favor when they feel overwhelmed.) Other neurodivergent minds I know swear by color coding files and putting sticky notes on anything that won’t catch fire. (Avoid lamps, trust me.) Some people keep their cameras off during long video meetings so they can move around or walk around. I’ve been ridiculed for printing materials or bringing a tablet or laptop to a meeting. It looks rude or seems wasteful to some. It is essential for me. This way I can look at a document up close. (Make an extra copy if you’re going to a meeting in person. Inevitably, the person next to you will say: Oooh, that’s so helpful. Do you have an extra copy?
The manager’s dilemma The best advice for managers who want to understand and adapt to different thinkers is to give people short breaks from work and longer periods (days off in a row) to recover and relax. People like me tend to overwork and focus too much, so you may find yourself begging them to take days to themselves. Studies of people who say they suffer from burnout often show that they have many of the same symptoms as people with ADHD who have been pushed to the brink: brain fog, depression, and anxiety. Others say they feel boxed in. Whether you’re a more typical or atypical worker, the idea of having all your individuality and difference taken away is at the core of burnout.
Now it is clear? This one-size-fits-all treatment for employees is holding back too many companies. Finding ways to be more human, supportive and flexible is a sure way back to innovation.