Attention Disorders at work
For people with ADD, work is a battleground, where they endure daily assaults on their self-esteem and constant frustration. (ABCNEWS.com)
By Tristanne L. Walliser
Feb. 4 — Milele Landrum painfully remembers what it was like starting her work day.
“Our district meetings would begin at 8 a.m,” she says. “By 8:15 a.m., I was at my wit’s end. I’d begin to fidget. I’d need to go to the bathroom. I’d need to go get a cup of coffee. I was like a mischievous child—it was so self-sabotaging and often I felt very bitter and angry.”
Landrum, who is now a career trainer at Mount Hood Community College in Portland, Ore., describes a work life fraught with frustration and immobilizing confusion. “I’d never been able to stay on a job longer than 18 months.” she says.
Despite frequent job changes, Landrum considered herself “fairly successful in life.” It never occurred to her that she might have a real problem that was getting in the way of optimum work performance. But two years ago, she was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), a condition that affects an estimated 6 to 10 percent of adults.
Like Landrum, many adults with ADD see the workplace as a battleground, where they endure daily assaults on their self-esteem and constant conflicts with coworkers.
“I’d been characterized as belligerent and a bully by my colleagues,” Landrum says. “If I had an idea or task that needed to get done, I would disregard all other ideas because I was so hyperfocused on what I wanted to do. But at other times, I would just stagnate and be overwhelmed by even the simplest tasks.”
To Tell or Not to Tell?
Workplace awareness of ADD has grown considerably since the passage of the 1990 American Disabilities Act.Under the provisions of the act, adults with diagnosed ADD can demand workplace accommodations, just like people with other types of disabilities.
But many people with ADD are reluctant to admit it to their bosses or ask for special help. If they don’t disclose it, they may have trouble on the job. Some fear they may lose credibility at work, or that they may even lose their jobs.
Whether you let your boss know you have ADD or not, counsels Dr. Lynn Weiss, “You need to learn how to use your ADD to your advantage.”
“The point is not to change you into a non-ADD person,” says Weiss, who has ADD herself and is the author of ADD on the Job, “but to make adjustments for they way you are. To use an analogy from nature, if you take a cactus out of the desert, and put it in swamp and it goes rotten, you don’t give it medication to keep it in the swamp.”
Other ADD experts agree.
“Above all, do something you like,” advise Drs. Edward Hallowell and John Ratey in their book Answers to Distraction. “Motivation overrides ADD, so if you’re doing something you like, chances are your ADD will not get in the way too much.”
Because everyone with ADD is different, the “right career” really depends on the individual. Some people with ADD need a great deal of structure, while others do well if they lots of independence.
“In general, ADD people are not well-suited to a regimented corporate jobs or a rigid hierarchical company,” says Dr. Kathleen Nadeau, a psychologist who also has the disorder. “A job that minimizes paperwork and is not too detail-oriented is very well-suited to the ADD person.”
The author of ADD in the Workplace, Nadeau advises people who have it to expect to have multiple career tracks, and to experiment with work till they find something that suits them.
Be Your Own Boss
Self-employment is one option for people with ADD, because the person who acts as his or her own boss is better able to control work flow and environment.
“One of the biggest problems I had in the workplace was not being able to deal with office politics,” says Melissa Petty, a Dallas psychotherapist who chose to become self-employed when she learned she had ADD. “Many ADD people don’t get the right signals.”
Because of these uncertainties, Petty was in a constant state of anxiety that she might be humiliated or get fired. “If you’re unhappy in your job, cut your losses and quit now,” she advises.
Let’s say you do like your job, but still have trouble coping. By getting professional help for your ADD and making a few workplace changes, experts say, you may see significant improvements.
“Now that I’ve seen a therapist, gotten medication and joined a support group, I’ve changed immensely,” says Landrum. “I’ve learned to use my time much more effectively. And I now use stackables, color-coding systems and highlighters all the time.”
It also helps in if you work in a place where the attitude towards ADD is enlightened, but that’s not often the case.
That’s too bad, say Nadeau, because ADD has a “tremendously positive side. ADD people are high-energy and incredibly good brainstormers. They will often happily work 12 to 15 hours by choice. The business community should not fear ADD. Instead, they should see that they have a potential gold mine here.”
My Desk Is a Mess! Do I Have ADD?
Who among us hasn’t had the occasional discombobulated day at work, when we feel messy, disorganized and incapable of setting priorities? What with endless e-mails, phone calls and meetings, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at work. But does that mean you have ADD?
“ADD is like life these days,” write Drs. Edward Hallowell and John Ratey in their 1995 best-selling book, Answers to Distraction. “The fast pace of everyday life, the search for the sound bite, the proliferation of the fax machine, cellular telephones, computer networks, bulletin boards, and e-mail systems, our widespread impatience, all these very American traits are also very ADD-like.”
Given the similarities between modern life and ADD symptoms, it’s no wonder many people would turn to ADD as an explanation for their work problems.
Your desk may be cluttered and you may not be meeting your deadlines, but that doesn't mean you have ADD, says Dr. Martin Teicher, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
“To determine if ADD was the cause of your clutter,” says Teicher, “You’d have to go through a careful diagnosis. If ADD was not present before age 7, you don’t have it. ADD has to have emerged during childhood.”
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