Reasonable workplace accommodations for ADHD and anxiety?
September 20, 2021 9:27 AM   Subscribe

A close friend has recently been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety. From watching her for several years, she has obviously been struggling with these for a long time, both at work and at home, even before the diagnosis. She has a confidential meeting with HR to discuss what possibilities might exist for workplace accommodations. Any thoughts?
posted by ClaireBear to Work & Money (8 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, she absolutely should not disclose a neuropsych disability at work if at all possible. It's not legal in the US (if that's where you both are), but almost certainly will be used against her. It's not just me being a Debbie Downer about this, relevant Ask A Manager column here. You don't have to disclose a specific diagnosis to request accomodations, and you should only disclose anything if there is a specific accomodation you are requesting.

That being said, if that cat's already out of the bag, the Department of Labor's JAN database has some useful ideas for things one can request/try to implement:
posted by bowtiesarecool at 9:32 AM on September 20, 2021 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: I won't threadsit, but needed to clarify a few things. I wanted to add that my friend specifically asked me to help her brainstorm before the meeting - I'm not being intrusive! She's a pre-tenure professor, which makes it harder to think of what kind of accommodations they could make that would be helpful. The stress and isolation of the pandemic plus general pre-tenure stress has lead to a huge flare-up of anxiety and procrastination (which is what lead to the psychiatrist visit and diagnoses).

My friend struggles with email and spends hours on it every day. She has an administrative assistant, and I was thinking that perhaps it would be reasonable to see if the administrative assistant could be the point-person for her email, dealing with most of it herself and then sending only a few key messages on to my friend. Not sure if that is a reasonable ask or not. The only other thing I can really think of is a request to have the tenure clock extended since my friend has spend the last year and a half to two years struggling and is only now having medical care and trying to get her condition under control (she has meds that are kind of helping). But I doubt that's a reasonable ask. Any other ideas?

Also, in response to what bowtiesarecool said: is this still the case for academic? My friend can cancel the meeting if need be. But HR said that the meeting was confidential, and I don't think HR has any sway over her tenure file?
posted by ClaireBear at 9:35 AM on September 20, 2021

Her doctors/therapists can help her identify accommodations that might help her, and they can also provide documentation as needed.

Some suggestions I have, some of which are intersectional with being a woman in academia:
Instructions must be communicated in writing;
the employee must be permitted to ask clarifying questions, particularly when it comes to managing conflicting priorities;
employee must be permitted to take notes/document work-related information in the manner best suited for her (no meetings where no one is allowed to take notes, for example);
the employee must be allowed "heads down" focus time with no interruptions (door closed, phone off, no replies to email expected for solid chunks of time, no random chit-chat from bored co-workers that women get penalized for opting out of in the workplace);
employee must be permitted to use time-tracking/project management tools that work for her (that doesn't mean the employer has to provide or pay for them, just that they can't penalize her for using these things);
changes in departmental rules, policies, work priorities, etc. must be communicated timely and in writing;
employee must be permitted to set and enforce boundaries for personal versus professional time;
if employee arrives a few minutes late for work, employee must be permitted to make up the time rather than receive a penalty/infraction;
employee must be permitted a flexible meal/break schedule to best manage own workflow; employee must be permitted to take walks or pace while thinking/writing;
employee doesn't take a tenure-track "hit" for declining emotional labor tasks that take away from scholarly work; etc.

The biggest issue I have seen is that managers who don't understand ADHD/Anxiety think the solution is more control and micromanagement, which is 100% the opposite of what helps. The best accommodation is for the manager to adjust their expectations of what a conscientious and productive worker looks like. Scheduling low-stakes check-ins on a regular, predictable basis that the employee can plan around is a great idea, but surprise inspections are only going to make things worse. Enforcing strict schedules and breaks means interrupting the focus and flow that makes these folks awesome at work.
posted by Schielisque at 10:12 AM on September 20, 2021 [8 favorites]

Your friend's institution may have a specific policy on tenure clock extension, probably in the faculty handbook.

I think in some ways accommodations can be difficult for academics, because you're already fairly self-directed and sort of allowed to do things your way, so long as you achieve very specific outcomes (teaching X classes per semester, publishing Y papers/books per year). Are there specific things the department *requires* that are difficult for her (office hours requirements, meetings) or are her problems more high-level time management kind of stuff?

The "having an admin deal with email" thing barely feels like an accommodation to me, more like a "productivity hack" - can she just ask her admin to take this on? (Obviously easier if the admin is "hers" rather than someone who works for multiple people in the department.)
posted by mskyle at 10:20 AM on September 20, 2021 [4 favorites]

HR doesn't have sway over the tenure decision, but things like extending the tenure clock will be apparent to everyone evaluating the tenure case, and it could be unfairly held against your friend. Messing with the clock is just all kinds of complicated, and committees don't really know how to recalibrate. It's not uncommon for them to assume that having had more time requires that she needs to have a more impressive portfolio, even though that's not true. And there's also judgment against people who have needed extend the clock, as if that in and of itself is a mark against them.

The good news is that, though her colleagues probably haven't disclosed to your friend, academia is chock full of people with ADD, depression, and anxiety. You can safely assume that 90% of the faculty has some sort of challenge like this. One of the reasons is that academia rewards some of the traits typical for these conditions (perfectionism, hyperfocus, etc.) and the other is that academics have a great deal of autonomy, so we can learn to work with rather than against some of our neuroatypicality. You get to set up your classes and the way you work on your scholarship, etc. in the ways that it makes sense for you. You have a much more flexible schedule and sneak in breaks/time-off as needed in ways that are not as common in other industries.

Here's what I would advise your friend:

1) Go ahead and meet with HR. They can give you a sense for what is typical in terms of accommodations for faculty. The answer, though, may very well be that faculty typically take no accommodations, sorry to say.

2) Meet with a trustworthy mentor who has lots of experience with the institution, probably someone outside of her department, to talk through whether to seek accommodations, if they know whether others have done so successfully, or how they think the requests might be received.

3) I'm green with envy at very idea of having an admin assistant pre-tenure. If this is someone who works ONLY for you, then having them triage email might work. If they are a shared resource, do not ask them to do extra work, even as an accommodation, as this person is probably already overburdened, and it will seem presumptuous for a pretenure person to claim even more of their time, even if it has HR's stamp of approval.

4) Take full advantage of all the medications, counseling, etc. that you can get through the institution's health plan.

5) If therapy isn't fully meeting your practical needs, consider investing in a life / organizational coach to help sort this all out.

6) Figure out how to ask for what you need, even if it's not an official accommodation. E.g. You can say to your department chair, "Would you please send me the instructions you just gave me as a brief email?" or "Is there a website where I can find what you just told me so I can be sure to remember all the details?" Talk to your colleagues about problems you're having with your classes or your scholarship. As I said, many of them have similar challenges to you and they may be able to suggest strategies that are useful.

7) If the office that handles student disabilities services is really good (you probably know this from having students with accomodations in your class) they might be a resource to approach, especially if you do it from the standpoint of how you want to learn how to navigate your own anxiety and ADD in part as a way to learn how to best serve your students who have disabilities. If they're good, they probably have a lot of resources for students that are somewhat applicable to you. Similarly, take advantage of every opportunity to learn about Universal Design. It has changed my to apply this not just to my classes but also to the way I structure my own work.

Good luck. You're not alone.!
posted by BrashTech at 10:37 AM on September 20, 2021 [7 favorites]

From personal experience: do not disclose the condition for which the accommodations are required, just discuss the accommodations.

The letter I have on file with HR from my doctor says something along the lines of "[Lexica] is under my care for a disabling condition. Recommended accommodations include: [list of things, including 'quiet workplace' and 'sound-cancelling headphones' among others]."
posted by Lexica at 1:41 PM on September 20, 2021 [9 favorites]

Does she have an admin assistant? Or does she work in a department with an admin assistant? Those are hugely different situations. If she has her own admin assistant, then absolutely it seems reasonable to have that person do email triage for her. Email is a nightmare, and getting away from it would be a great start. Lately I've been hearing about people hiring personal assistants to do this.

Your friend may well need an ADHD coach, but I don't think that's an accommodation. Unfortunately, I'm not sure there are a lot of accommodations that can work. But being tenure track is incredibly stressful, and a coach could make a real difference.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:18 PM on September 20, 2021

My partner was diagnosed with ADHD about two years ago and was open with his work team about it (very different workplace, in sports technology). What made the biggest difference was working with an adhd coach to identify the support structures that would help him, and only then asking for specific accommodations to make those supportive structures work. Is this at all an option for your friend?
posted by third word on a random page at 2:22 PM on September 20, 2021

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