Comedian Rick Green Answers Your Questions about ADHD in the Workplace
When my 11-year-old was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I was shocked. Determined to prove he was “just fine” I learned as much as I could, voraciously devouring books and articles. Right away I realized, “This describes me!”
That realization was the biggest turning point of my adult life, and it transformed how I saw myself. It made sense of why I struggled with simple tasks but managed to write and perform in 700 episodes of radio and television and countless stage shows.
Kids today are usually diagnosed early — teachers know what to look for — but it’s estimated that 80% of adults with ADHD are undiagnosed. These people are often struggling to do things other people consider simple, routine and easy, yet capable of amazing feats when interested and engaged.
When I was diagnosed at age 47, I realized that I had lived my whole life in a wrestling match with an invisible opponent, and I had no idea what that opponent was — worse, I didn’t even realize I was in a wrestling match. I just assumed life was this chaotic for everyone.
But the more I learned, the easier my life became. Tired of hearing people dismiss ADHD as a joke or an invention of Big Pharma, I created an award-winning documentary on adult ADHD called ADD and Loving It?!, which inspired my wife and I to create a ground-breaking website, TotallyADD.com, a follow-up film, ADD and Mastering It, and, after interviewing 70 experts and specialists, to create 15 videos on every aspect of ADHD, from relationship challenges to sleep issues.
One of the most downloaded films in our shop is The Perfect Career for ADHD. I knew it would be a popular topic, because everywhere I go people ask about ADHD in the workplace.
The “workplace” conversation usually includes some version of the following 11 questions — questions I don’t mind answering:
1.ONE OF MY EMPLOYEES DISCLOSED HE HAS ADHD, BUT OTHER PEOPLE CLAIM IT’S BOGUS. IS IT REAL OR JUST AN EXCUSE?
You can be forgiven for wondering whether this is a legitimate problem or just a manufactured excuse to sell pharmaceuticals.
But 5,000 studies confirm ADHD is real. It’s a neuro-developmental disorder. It tends to run in families. It’s as heritable as height. Dozens of genes have been identified. (I know, I was surprised too.) Brain imaging shows our brains work differently. It’s not a fad — in the 1700s doctors were describing children who exhibited symptoms of what we would now call ADHD, long before Nintendo, Instagram or food colouring.
2. IS IT AN ILLNESS?
It’s not an illness — it’s our normal. Whereas an illness, like the flu or gallstones, is clearly abnormal and temporary, ADHD is all we’ve known.
3. THEN WHAT IS WRONG WITH A PERSON WITH ADHD?
Well, nothing’s wrong. People with ADHD struggle with executive functions. Basically, the prefrontal cortex, which is the master controller and manager of all of the brain’s activities, is not as efficient as it is in most folks. It seems we have low levels of certain chemicals — called neurotransmitters — that carry messages around the brain. So, we can be overwhelmed or distracted by ideas, information, distractions, noise, our own thoughts, emotions and physical sensations.
4. BUT ISN’T EVERYONE OVERWHELMED — DOESN’T EVERYONE HAVE ADHD THESE DAYS?
Most folks are overwhelmed, with more stress, more obligations and more to manage than ever before. You could say that everyone has some ADHD, but then everyone has some height. People who are diagnosed, or, as I prefer to say, who “qualify” as having ADHD, have the same challenges as everyone else — remembering, planning, prioritizing, sticking with things. But for us these struggles interfere with our careers, home life, relationships, finances or goals.
5. CAN PEOPLE WITH ADHD BE SUCCESSFUL AT WORK?
It’s been said that people with ADHD are either sitting on the board of directors of a successful company or acting as a security guard for the same company. And the security guard is in danger of being fired for inconsistency.
6. SO, IS THERE AN IDEAL OCCUPATION WHERE ADULTS WITH ADHD CAN SOAR?
No, and that’s good news. We can, and do, excel in many fields. When we’re interested and engaged we can soar. That said, you’ll find a higher proportion of people with this “brain style” in showbiz, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the military, journalism, professional athletics and sales.
We are often great in a crisis. Dial 911 and a lot of the emergency responders will have ADHD.
After I spoke about invisible disabilities at the Invictus Games — a sporting event for injured armed services personnel — a paramedic told me that his ADHD made him successful at what he does. “Many of my colleagues have this as well,” he told me. “The ones who don’t, can’t cut it. They burn out and end up as dispatchers or managers.”
However, though adults with ADHD can be leaders in many fields, most are struggling, underachieving or failing to fulfill their true potential.
7. WHAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE?
Knowing what’s going on. If you, and everyone around you, believes you are unreliable, lazy, weak-willed, stupid, or scattered, you’ll give up. After all, what’s the solution to these traits? “Try harder.” But people with ADHD are already working their hearts out.
What makes the difference is getting diagnosed, figuring out how to manage your particular symptoms and identifying your strengths.
8. ADHD COMES WITH STRENGTHS?
Some would argue that there is no upside, but once I was diagnosed I understood why I had written hundreds episodes of radio and television yet never finished a screenplay. I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. Now I break big tasks into small steps. I let other people do my paperwork. I focus on creating and rely on other people — Production Managers, Line Producers, Post Production Supervisors — to handle the logistics. I’m not great at organizing and tracking progress. But they can’t come up with a dozen ideas for a TV show.
In our book, ADD Stole My Car Keys, Dr. Jain and I list 155 traits, beliefs, behaviours and misbehaviours common to adults with ADHD — 23 of them are strengths, including: creative, lateral thinker, loyal, intuitive, sensitive, risk-taker, cross-disciplinary, empathetic, great under pressure, and able to hyper-focus when interested.
We can be very successful. Just ask Sir Richard Branson, actress/singer Zooey Deschanel, or that hairdresser who loves being on her feet, moving, talking and creating new looks for a dozen different customers a day.
9. SO, AN ADHD DIAGNOSIS CAN ACTUALLY BE A GOOD THING?
Totally. As long as it’s diagnosed by a doctor and a comprehensive or multimodal treatment plan is in place.
10. SHOULD I WORRY THAT AN EMPLOYEE IS TAKING A STIMULANT MEDICATION?
Do you worry that 90% of your employees rely on a stimulant called caffeine? That many of them are having five “hits” a day because they can’t focus without it? Or that some of your staff inhale another stimulant called nicotine?
In fact, after I finally worked up the nerve to try an ADHD medication, I told my wife, “It’s kind of like the best cup of coffee in the world. And unlike caffeine I don’t get a wailing headache if I skip a day.”
11. WHAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE? WHAT MAKES ONE JOB ADHD-FRIENDLY AND ANOTHER A CONSTANT STRUGGLE?
1) The employee: every person is unique, and every person with ADHD has a unique combination of challenges and strengths.
2) A boss who understands: providing the right accommodations, most of which are free or relatively inexpensive, can make all the difference.
3) The right role: an accountant at a large firm was on the verge of being fired because his ADHD led to mistakes and missed details. An ADHD expert suggested he become a salesperson for the accounting firm’s services. He was a natural — on the go, charismatic, seeking new challenges, always learning more. In fact, he doubled the firm’s sales. Same field, different position, completely different outcome.
It all starts with knowing what ADHD is, what it is not, and what can be done about it. After that, the sky is the limit.