ADHD at Work - Management Edition
August 9, 2021 11:07 PM   Subscribe

I manage a student employee who mentioned in passing that they were recently diagnosed with ADHD. Their work has had a lot of ups and downs, even before COVID, and we keep running into the same issues. I’m trying to figure out how to better approach managing in this case. If you have ADHD and are open to sharing—what are things a manager has done for you at work that help you be more successful and/or feel supported?

I know this is a really broad question for multiple reasons, particularly because everyone experiences ADHD differently. But, I see student jobs as part of their larger educational experience and I'm hoping to get a few ideas to turn this into an opportunity for this student to figure out what works at work for them. I’ve done some googling, but a lot of what I’ve read in terms of tips for managers relates to full-time, salaried work when workers have a lot of control over their schedules and what they work on, and that doesn’t necessarily translate well to this situation. I did review How to improve work performance of a staff member with ADHD which was helpful, but it's been awhile since 2007 and how we talk about mental health and ADHD has shifted so I thought I'd ask a fresh question.

With this student, I’ve had to have several serious conversations about their work, (including a PIP where they showed improvement, but have since fallen back to struggling with the same issues). In our conversations, I’ve tried to open up a discussion about what adjustments I could make on our end that would help them be more successful, but possibly because it is a recent diagnosis, the student hasn't suggested anything and I don’t know what to put on the table that might be helpful or spark ideas from them.

However, I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like I just chasing around after this student and fallen into this cycle that feels more like nagging then managing. I imagine my student is feeling as frustrated as I am, and it doesn’t feel sustainable.

I have started to consider whether it's time to move towards letting them go, but I’m still uncomfortable with that particularly after how hard the last year and a half has been and how hard the next year is likely to be for everyone. I’d like get myself back into a coaching mindset for at least one more try. I’m most interested in hearing from those who have ADHD or something similar about things their managers have done to make work work better for everyone? It could be something you requested, a formal accommodation, or something a manager did without being asked that made work better? Big or small--I'd love to hear about it.

I know there may be follow-up questions about the type of work we do, but I purposely took out those details because I want to protect my student’s privacy as much as possible (also why I’m anon here). I’m casting a wide net for anything that may be useful and it’s okay if it may or may not apply!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Can you have a mod post what the PIP was about, more specifically? Or the job duties? Everything that immediately comes to mind might not be helpful for this kind of job, like you said.
posted by delezzo at 12:12 AM on August 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have a very large whiteboard where I list projects (I even made large project labels in different colours and put magnetic tape on the back) with columns for due date and next step required.

With new projects that may take some time, I make a project report in Word and keep it in the same folder as all the other info, and keep info of what each other document contain and if it's a multiperson project, I have a table at the back specifying "conversations": date, time, type (phone call, email etc), from, to, heading of email, actions to be taken, whether actions have been completed and pending "more info from X, decision from Y, waiting for next meeting". These documents are invaluable when it can be months between meetings when I've (and everyone else) has forgotten passwords, planned actions, reasons for decisions, or even just decision. I have a template set up with headers and styles so it creates an auto table of contents, though CTRL F is pretty much as good.
posted by b33j at 12:36 AM on August 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Many ADHD folks can do well with lots of structure and rules. Is there a way to provide that? This student may truly not know how they can do better.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:41 AM on August 10, 2021 [12 favorites]

Just caught that last paragraph, sorry! To use this as an example, if I had to read something important for work I might plan to read it once for general content and again for detail with some time in between. If I was trying to give an important document (ie training material) to an ADHD person it might look like asking them to read it once, quickly, and then having a conversation about it. Can they summarize it? Are they finding it helpful, or frustrating? (“it doesn’t give enough detail about X!”) Ok, now the task is to go back and double check, section by section. Managing someone I might know the answer is there, or maybe I haven’t actually read the document in question. Being able to mark up the document might help.

More generally: if there’s a weird-seeming thing someone keeps doing and you don’t know why, they might be searching for more stimulus in order to be able to keep in control of there focus. Some researchers describe the ADHD brain as being “a race car brain with bicycle brakes.” It can think really fast sometimes, it can hyper focus* it might be amazing in an emergency or under pressure, but stopping or changing direction can be incredibly difficult.

*the adhd brain likes to only produce the “go move the body and do the required task” chemicals when the situation is INTERESTING. It’s incredibly inconvenient and no from lack of caring or effort.

Actionable thing: allow whatever stimming works for the situation. They have to keep an ear out at all times in case someone is talking? Maybe walking around is ok. The job requires staying in this chair or else? Headphones, something touch based (I have a particular piece of heavy duty velcro), doodling, note taking in situations that wouldn’t normally call for it. Gum. Snacks. Something to keep the hands busy. Whatever makes sense in context.

The inverse of that is the nervous system getting overstimulated. Managing ADHD is basically a balancing act managing these two things, first you’re under stimulated, then you’re overstimulated, then under… on and on forever. (Unless someone is in one state or the other all the time, which can happen and is extra hard.) Managing overstimulation might also mean headphones, or doing something to keep hands busy. Or wearing one earplug, or sunglasses.

The most general advice I can give is that taking a couple extra minutes to explain the why’s of tasks is very valuable. They have to fill out annoying paperwork? Where does it go? Why do those people want it? What happens if it’s not fulled out at all, or not completely?

If there’s not much flexibility, but there’s a set of daily tasks, it’s good to build a routine that works for the individual. This might mean doing things in a what seems like a counterintuitive order or having extra steps to double check that something was done, having a checklist or a set of index cards or status indicators that get flipped over and then get reset at the end of the day or the start of the next day. Make systems, don’t to have the solution be “try harder” or “pay more attention.”

(I have ADHD, live with people with ADHD, and work with yet more people with ADHD)
posted by delezzo at 12:46 AM on August 10, 2021 [11 favorites]

You have to understand that the individual in question doesn't become an expert on ADHD the minute they are diagnosed. It's a long journey of reflection to spot exactly what it is that ADHD has been doing to you, and the pathways you have taken in life because of it. Only then can you begin to think about what's happening in life right now that could be different if you managed it differently. There's little professional help with this (Twitter is useful.) So I am not surprised this person doesn't have suggestions.

I don't know where you are but in the UK ADHD is considered a disability and any employee with it is entitled under law to request reasonable adjustments. I would advise you to speak to the employee and encourage them to seek mentorship or other guidance (Disability employment advisor/Workplace psychologist) to help them understand their situation, and then together work on making adjustments. ADHD has many, many plus points in the workplace when managed correctly.
posted by mani at 12:48 AM on August 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

A very shifted sleep cycle can be part of adhd. A lot of folks take melatonin to help with that, but more sustainably people can look for or create jobs that allow them to match their natural sleep rhythms. Is part of this person’s recurring trouble about punctuality, showing up to things on time in the morning, or zoning out sleepily when everyone else is naturally more alert?

When in grade school and then moving on to university classes folks often have to strictly wake at scheduled times and it becomes so rote that many don’t realize it’s something that can be changed to improve quality of life. Then later when they start working full time jobs lots of people have trouble with their atypical sleep patterns and the increased freedom adult life affords, and problems ensue.

Can you offer a different shift for this person? Maybe they would be able to do closing duties, if that’s a thing, or be on call overnight, or even come in extra early, have a long break, and come in for a few hours late to do more work while most people are gone and the space is quiet. If their diagnosis is new, that means they will be figuring things out about the accommodations that will work for them over time, and they won’t have a good answer for you right now. Letting them know their schedule is something you are willing to change might be something they didn’t think was possible, or even affecting them much.
posted by Mizu at 2:33 AM on August 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

I finally got some control over my ADHD as an adult when I hired a producer who was sympathetic to my struggles. She essentially tough-love-mentored me through the process of learning executive function. I was ready (eager! desperate!) to learn and asked specifically for that aid, because I knew it was something I needed external help with.

Here are some things that worked:

- We worked VERY closely on every project, internal and external. She had eyes on everything and could help steer it all in the right direction, and guide me on what my role needed to be (things like head of the project, business leader, people manager, creator, etc). I often needed the expectations of the role to be articulated to me—on some level I knew them already (a common theme), but hearing them I could acknowledge each part consciously and we could work out what I felt comfortable doing solo and what I needed further support on.

- If something was tangled up because I’d avoided or neglected it, together we dug alllll the way back to the beginning and untangled it.

- Task and project planning usually involved working out and agreeing to every step in detail and time-boxing them. That was an important learning process as I didn’t yet have a good sense of my own scope for various tasks, and time dilation is common with ADHD so I found it hard to make real estimates. Sometimes that was outlining a project, sometimes it was just planning what I’d tackle in a day or week. Working backwards from the time boxes helped me learn how to self-manage, leave enough time to actually get things done, etc.

- Another key thing for me was that she didn’t let me push complicated or overwhelming (usually executive function-heavy) tasks off ‘for later’ unless it really was essential to do so. This is where the tough love usually came in, and also where my consent to and desire for the process was important, because it’s painful to be (gently) forced to face that stuff down when your brain is digging in its heels

- This sometimes involved co-working or what’s referred to as ‘parallel play’ to help overcome getting-started inertia

- Because in the course of the work I was suddenly in a position of managing others, I came to understand what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a thing I used to do frequently: I would promise to do a task in X amount of time, realize it would actually take Y time, kinda panic, and instead of communicating anything about that situation, I’d just stay silent and hope I was never, ever asked about it. The thing is, though, when someone initially asked how long it would take, in that moment I truly believed it would be X. (This is apparently a common ADHD problem. Saying yes to too many things was also a contributor to this, because things are fun and I like the stimulation of an exciting new project.)

Facing down the reality that followed (or, y’know, not facing it) was tough. Sometimes I managed to finish the task, sometimes not. There’s lots of panic and shame involved with each stage, naturally, especially when someone asks about its status. This is how a lot of ADHD people come to be deadline motivated…the urgency of something that cannot be put off any longer is finally enough to overcome the inertia.

On the management side, now I know—I don’t want excuses (I genuinely don’t need to know!), I just need information (is it delayed, when it would be coming, when to expect it, whatever) so I can shift all the following schedules/pieces. That’s it, just the info. I never really understood that when I was on the other side.

Our work together was a safe place for me to learn to proactively communicate about delays, requests for more time or clarification, whatever is needed. It’s one of the most important skills I’ve developed for myself, as well as setting it as an expectation in our workplace (including the safe environment to express it).

- She modelled self-care and essentially helped me give myself permission to do the same—this also taught me to recognize when I was having ADHD stressors that made me want to avoid a thing vs when I truly needed a break to avoid burnout, etc. In a roundabout way I also realized that I can do things like avoid burnout, be on time, or stay on top of paperwork out of a sense of duty for other people, because they rely on me. Couldn’t do it just for myself, but when it was taking care of myself for others, it worked.

- Object permanence can be a problem for a lot of people with ADHD, both for physical spaces (messy desk, piles) and digital systems (email inbox is at 0 or 5,000 with no in-between, if the text doesn’t get dealt with immediately it may never get a reply, etc). Paper lists combined with digital systems like Asana or Trello for capturing to-dos can be helpful. Anything that keeps things visually front and center.

A related note, a lot of people (ADHD and non!) stay engaged with their personal organization systems by getting excited about beautiful new notebooks or cool pens. After years of collecting beautiful notebooks and never filling their pages, I’ve found that what works for me is having one single notebook style and one pen/pencil type so that I don’t ever have to think about it.

- Generally she shared practical tips on how to manage executive function things (like being on time or managing paperwork), and guidance on developing systems and modelling of ones that work. It can be embarrassing to be honest and admit to not already knowing that stuff—the stuff ‘adults should already know’—because again, on some level, we all do know it. But I always told myself that if I could have learned those things on my own, I would have been doing them already.

- Part of that for me was both of us agreeing what paperwork things were essential (filing receipts, keeping meeting notes) and which were closer to busy work (an example of one thing we tried was me starting the day by emailing a list of my goals and finishing the day with an email what I’d accomplished).

I have limited brain juice so I have to be careful about prioritizing what I spend it on. Unconsciously, the busy work-type stuff always fell off my mental plate first. I needed to learn what was truly important so I wouldn’t let those balls drop. (To this day I sometimes need support and reminders around these kinds of things, but this process helped me a lot.)

- More practically, keeping communications clean and very clear. Separate email threads for separate topics, as the friction created by trying to find the right file or info can sometimes lead to being totally thrown off of a task, so anything that reduces that friction is great. Replying to the thread to close the loop (confirm a thing is sent, drop in the confirmation number, etc). Always always always attaching a clear next step with a specific date to a convo, because otherwise it disappears into the ether. Bullet point breakdowns. Checking in to make sure everyone’s on the same page and tasks are understood. Creating an index with links for complicated sets of documents. Having a clean, well-organized system for digital files with a standard for dates and labels. Setting clear expectations for when something is needed and why (“I will send this at noon so I need it by 10am at the latest so that I have time to make my revisions”).

For all of the above, eventually I stopped needing the hands-on guidance because I was able to internalize it all. This was obviously an intensive, hands-on, personal process that worked because my producer is talented and wonderful, we have a great relationship, and because I paid her to do it. It also worked because we both approached the process in good faith, with open hearts, and a with a commitment to communicate and cooperate.

It may be too much for your situation, but I hope it can give you some insight into what my neurodivergent brain needed in terms of guidance, and how it came to adapt and learn some of these skills. I’m a lot healthier and happier now, and very productive when I want to be without overwhelming myself. Please feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions.
posted by lhall at 2:40 AM on August 10, 2021 [34 favorites]

Here's my answer from a thread last year:

I am a programmer with ADHD. I worked in a cubicle in a mezzanine in an open office environment.

A few things that made it bearable:

-having the ability to dim the lights in my cubicle
-high cubicle walls, not having to see any movement in my periphery and I could get up & stretch & wiggle when I needed to
-was allowed to come in a few hours before everyone else so I had 2 hours of near-total quiet
- the office had a general culture of "don't disturb the programmers" & used instant messaging for almost all communication. Knowing I would not be startled or interrupted helped me relax & focus

Even so, I still couldn't make it work. I would have stayed if I had my own quiet office with no humming lights or fans going off & on.

As far as managing goes, I did not have a proper diagnosis at the time but I know that frequent honest feedback would have kept me better moored. And little zaps of reward (compliments, encouragement) would have been incredibly motivating for me. I also appreciated having some palate-cleansing-type work I could switch to when I was feeling burnt out with my main project.

You should work together to come up with a plan of action on what to do if they are drifting. I am a big proponent of collaboratively coming up with short concise code-phrases like: You overloaded? Need a pep talk? etc.
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 4:13 AM on August 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Person with ADHD here, 56 years old and have been working in office jobs for the last 20 years. Not everyone with ADHD is the same, but here are some things that are true for me:

I find it easiest to keep up with tasks that need immediate attention (so I'm great with user support... an email or call comes in with an issue, I solve the issue, then move on to the next issue.) These are always high priority, so there is no need for me to think about when/whether to do them and my boss doesn't need to get too involved with holding me accountable for them. There is just a general understanding that I'm taking care of these things unless she hears differently from the departments I support.

I also do pretty well with projects that have a firm deadline that someone else sets and follows up on, because I know those need to be prioritized so as not to "get in trouble" with someone else. For example, there is a rather tedious task I need to do daily, because if it isn't done I will get an email from headquarters and there are consequences if I get too far behind in the form of losing points towards a coveted yearly award that our company president cares about. So I always make sure to get that done. For another example, there is another, more complicated project that has a hard monthly deadline... I need to get it in by the Monday before payroll or people won't get their bonus payment and I will be in deep shit. I've never missed that deadline either.

The hardest projects for me to keep on top of are things that are only moderately important, particularly projects that are time-consuming and not urgent, and nobody is checking up on. I'm currently six weeks behind on a weekly list my boss sends me to that takes a couple of hours to process. There's no hard deadline on this and she never asks about it, so it always goes to the bottom of the priority list when I'm pressed for time (and I'm almost always pressed for time.) I'm not deliberately shirking, and I always mean to get on it, but it's really easy to get behind when other stuff is going on.

A regular meeting with my manager has been very helpful as it kept me accountable, and also gives me an opportunity to have her help me prioritize. You as the manager have to be very clear that you are willing to give help on this, though. It had never occurred to me before that, if I was drowning in work, I could go to my boss about it and have her help me prioritize and reset deadlines. I thought that was akin to admitting failure and that she would look down on me for not being able to get everything done. When in reality, a lot of times a manager just isn't aware that the workload has gotten unwieldy and is happy to help sort it out. Weekly or bi-weekly has worked well for me, but more frequently might be better for someone newer to the working world. Alternatively, my husband has a daily stand-up meeting with his team which creates accountability and gives an opportunity to re-prioritize or re-allocate tasks and projects as needed.

So here is my list of things that help me get things done as an ADHD person:

Deadlines and accountability - firm deadlines on anything especially important, with follow-up by my manager so it is harder to let slide

Variety of tasks - I get bored doing the same tedious thing for 8 hours and having something
different to switch to after a while is helpful.

But not too much variety - if I've got 15 different things I'm responsible for juggling, the less urgent, most tedious stuff is probably going to be falling through the cracks on the regular

Daily checklist, if a set of tasks are the same every day

Weekly meeting with manager (or perhaps a short daily stand-up) - to create accountability, and for manager to assist in prioritizing workload

Appropriate workload - deadlines and workload management are all well and good, but there are only so many hours in a day. Deadlines and workload have to be realistic.

For myself, I also utilize recurring appointments in Outlook to help me remember to do things. I have one that pops up at 8 every morning to remind me to check my calendar so I'm aware of any meetings I have that day. (If I schedule an early meeting, I set a reminder for the afternoon before.) I have a monthly reminder for a report that needs to go out on a certain day. For a different monthly report that takes longer to process, I set reminders for the various steps I need to complete before the due date.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:57 AM on August 10, 2021 [6 favorites]

I was recently diagnosed with Adult ADHD. While I am able to hyperfocus on certain tasks (things I find fun/rewarding) and I'm excellent with soft skills, I'm particularly bad at sitting through boring meetings, and organizational project management.

The NUMBER ONE thing any manager has ever done with me is to go through my entire task list, each item, at least once per week, to ensure I'm "on track" and making progress, what I'm going to do next, and when they could expect results by.

A big part of difficulty with my ADHD is that I find it very difficult to begin tasks. (Some call this executive dysfunction). Once I get going, I can keep working on it for a while, (unless I get distracted of course). So, the NUMBER TWO thing I've had a manager do is to literally schedule a time, where we screen share and I "show him how to do" X project. There's no escaping! That project will get done!

The most productive I've ever been (with annoying, complicated, multi-step projects) is when a manager DAILY aligns on priorities and next steps, and also lets me "show them how" to do something for the next big task.

Hope this helps!
posted by bbqturtle at 5:01 AM on August 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think one thing you can do that could be hugely important in this student's future work life is to teach them to identify and ask for specific accommodations that would help them and ask for those accommodations. So, like, introduce the student to JAN, and ask them whether any of the items on the JAN lists would help them.

I think helping the student learn the skill of figuring out what works for them is probably going to be way more important, long-term, than any one accommodation or suggestion you make now.
posted by mskyle at 6:20 AM on August 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

I am a 38 year old with ADHD with twelve years working in critical transportation infrastructure (railway signals and communications engineering) where I am unable to take medication due to USDOT regulations, and there is actually a YouTube channel that has been immensely helpful to not only myself, but helping my employer understand my struggles and needs.

It is called "How to ADHD":

This video, "How to Get the Best Out of an ADHD Employee" may be particularly helpful to you:

There is a treasure trove of information on that channel, but hopefully it is a start. People with ADHD can be incredibly successful with the right environment; in fact, I can solve complex issues at work in a fraction of the time it takes my non-ADHD coworkers. And ADHD'ers are MUCH more likely to start a successful business from the ground up than non-ADHD people. We tend to be incredibly intelligent, good in crisis, and very innovative; our brains just work and process information completely differently than non-ADHD'ers and most employers (or people in general) just simply do not understand or care to understand and even discriminate and harass in many cases. Kudos for you for trying to find a solution.

Many of the guides out there are written by people without the condition, and as such, often have limited success.
posted by BiteForce at 8:09 AM on August 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

I have worked at jobs where I have had to manage myself, and ones where I worked directly with a supervisor. Basic things that have worked for me when I have a supervisor are weekly meetings with my supervisor to go over what I am working on, and with this a running document that we can both refer to check progress etc. This meeting was at the same time every week and happened no matter what- even if it was via phone or zoom instead of in person. A shared work calendar with important dates.

Check lists are another great tool to help an employee stay on task, and also a schedule framework with built in tasks that take into consideration what times work for the employee for certain tasks-when I managed myself, I would use the first part of the day for emails and meetings, the middle part of the day was for my physical work, and the end of the day was for mindless tasks. This took advantage of my medication schedule and when I could hyper focus and when I could not. I also tried to spend some time at the end of the day writing down the work I did that day (or week if I didn't manage to write everyday.) One thing I think is true about work culture now a days is there is a lot of invisible work that happens, and it is easy to dismiss the work of someone if you do not understand all the work the person is actually doing.
posted by momochan at 8:32 AM on August 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

If they are not already doing this, suggest they have a notebook at all times and write down *everything.* Much as I might feel that I will remember a task later, I will not.

I hired a coach for a while just to help me plot out my tasks. I have a terrible time breaking a project down and figuring out sequence and how long each element will take. Being coached really did not help me learn to do it on my own. I should probably sign up for something like that again.
posted by Kriesa at 6:32 PM on August 10, 2021

Have you seen JAN (Job Accommodation Network)?
posted by oceano at 6:50 PM on August 10, 2021

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