From Interlock, a division of PPC Worldwide

ADD in the workplace

by Phil Campbell, M.Ed. RCC, Counsellor-Coordinator

The image that often comes to mind with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is that of a little boy who cannot sit still, always gets into trouble, speaks loudly, interrupts and cannot pay attention in school. While these are characteristics of children with ADD, they all have correlations in adults with ADD. They can cause problems in the workplace when adults have ADD and their colleagues and co-workers do not know how to deal with them.

man working at cluttered deskCraig is a nice guy and most people who get to know him have come to believe that he is very intelligent. Managers, who see his potential, assign him challenging projects. At times he is all they hoped for, even brilliant. At other times it would seem that he is just a little off from centre and incomplete. He misses important deadlines and often wings it in court with insufficient research. Even so, he usually pulls it off. He is quite defensive when challenged about his work habits and often points to his successes as an indicator that his way of doing things works just fine. He is seriously being considered for partnership in his firm, but the partners cannot quite put a finger on their reasons for postponing the decision.

Regina manages to do quite well, despite being her own disaster zone. Her desk is always chaotic and would be much more so if she did not have Jack, a patient assistant who reorganizes it for her on a regular basis. She frequently needs his help to find things. He also manages her time and her projects, reminding her of deadlines. Regina confidentially disclosed to Jack that she has ADD, and he understands that helping her manage her condition is part of his job. She is occasionally impatient with him — especially when he reminds her of something unnecessarily — but she realizes how important Jack is in helping her be at the top of her game.

ADD — or ADHD for those with the hyperactivity component — is most often defined as a disorder. There are, however, many strengths that come with this so-called disorder, leading some professionals to express dismay at the stigmatization of those who suffer from it. Dr. Paul Elliott, co-author of ADHD and Teens, goes so far as to say that ADD may result from a superior brain structure, but the resulting talents are not supported by our current societal structures.

So what is this phenomenon that results in so much frustration on the one hand and so much creativity and insight on the other? Frankly, it can be hard to pin down. Those who have ADD do all the same things that others do; they just do them a lot more. They forget important things. They lose track of objects like keys and papers. Their personal space, both at work and at home, can be very chaotic. They can appear fragmented and disjointed, moving from one task to another and often leaving tasks incomplete. They interrupt a lot and lose their temper. Is there any hope for such people in the modern workplace?

Without a doubt, there is hope. The first step is to see a qualified specialist for diagnosis and treatment. Then strategies and coping mechanisms can be developed.

The key for both those with ADD and for the people impacted by ADD behaviours is to play to their strengths and build strategies to accommodate their weaknesses. They must do both. Most often workplaces, schools, colleagues, partners and those with ADD themselves focus on the weaknesses. This emphasizes and often perpetuates the dysfunction, encourages defensiveness and leaves the ADD individuals unable to connect to their strengths.

One man who was diagnosed with ADD in his mid-forties told me that his first challenge was dealing with his own defensiveness. All his life he had been told that he was lazy, not paying attention, not reaching his potential — the list goes on. He knew that he was intelligent and trying his best. Because he always felt that he was being judged unfairly, he became quite defensive. Once he realized that he had a biological difference in his brain that put him out of alignment with the mainstream, he was able to take a much more strategic approach and see the critiques of others — implied and real — as not being a true reflection of his worth and value.

Regina’s example above shows that it is possible to work in a collaborative, open and informed way to the greater success of individuals with ADD and the organizations for which they work. Here are some of the factors that lead to success:

  • A positive, solution-focused environment, instead of one focused on perfectionism and blame.
  • Those with ADD respond well to an environment that is non-judgmental, where differences are valued and where they themselves are respected.
  • A structured environment where expectations are clear and specific.
  • People with ADD both need and resist structure. They resist it because they fear being found wanting in an environment they find to be counterintuitive. They need it because it gives them focus.
  • Accommodation of some of the challenges of ADD and a valuing of the creativity and insight.
  • Again, both need to be there. Accommodating the parts of ADD that do not fit in to modern society will allow the strengths to come through.
  • An awareness by people with ADD and their co-workers of the defensiveness that often accompanies ADD.
  • Those with ADD need to know when to back off, to acknowledge and take responsibility for their failings and when and when not to apologize. Those working with people who have ADD will get better results if they emphasize the positive while still holding them responsible for their behaviours and performance.
  • A commitment by people with ADD to mitigate the ways in which their behaviours have a negative impact on others.

While ADD is something biological that is there from birth, it is not a free pass for dysfunctional behaviour. They need to recognize the impact their behaviours have on others and mitigate that impact. This will help them to survive in a world that does not always accommodate them.

More and more writers in the field of ADD are saying that there are many positive aspects to having ADD. The key in the workplace is to create an environment and foster attitudes that play to the strengths and help the ADD person fit in to a non-ADD world.


Following are just a few of the many books available:

ADD on the Job – Lynn Weiss, PhD

Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults –Lynn Weiss, PhD

Driven To Distraction – Edward M. Hallowell, MD and John J. Ratey, MD

Healing The Hyperactive Brain – Michael R. Lyon, MD

Scattered Minds – Gabor Maté, MD

Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception – Thom Hartmann.

How to tell if you have ADD

The first thing to note about ADD is that it is not something that you “get.” You either have it at the beginning of your life, or you don’t. The following indications of ADD are paired with child and adult characteristics. Both would need to be present.

These characteristics are based on the screening test in Dr. Lynn Weiss’ book, The Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults Workbook. It is not presented for diagnostic purposes, but to give you some idea of the characteristics involved.

Child: difficulty paying attention, concentrating and keeping still.
Adult: difficulty concentrating, staying on task, paying attention, staying seated during meetings.

Child: acts without thinking a lot, finds it difficult to wait his or her turn.
Adult: acts impulsively, often without sufficient planning.

Child: often accused of overacting, making a big deal out of little things.
Adult: flies off the handle, often seems overly stressed.

Child and adult: finds it difficult to finish things or get organized, trouble finding things.

Child: gets too excited or upset about things, overly sensitive to bad things happening, has a temper.
Adult: moods a direct consequence of how the day is going, overly impacted by what someone else does or says, easily gets angry or out of control.

If you see yourself in a number of these descriptions, it is possible that you have ADD. See your family doctor for referral to a qualified specialist. The first step is diagnosis.

While most individuals experience these things from time to time, they are a constant in the lives of people with ADD. Assessment usually focuses on the weaknesses because it comes out of a dysfunction-oriented model of mental health. But there are both strengths and challenges to having ADD, and you need to understand them both. Call Interlock for help with coping skills: