CANOE Network

The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Pacing body, racing mind

By Carter Hammett
Special to the Toronto Sun

So it's a beautiful summer day and you're on a lunch break, walking down the street talking to a friend. All around you, streets are teeming with life. There are cars and busloads of tourists. You cross the street to bypass the construction that blocks your path. Off in the distance, you hear an ambulance blaring its sirens. Suddenly, a pigeon swoops out of nowhere to attack the crumb dropped from your sandwich.

Still, with all of these distractions, you remain engaged, focused and undeterred as you speak. Imagine, however, being unable to filter out the data bombarding you. The end result would be information overload, akin to living in a sonic whirlwind. Now, imagine living in that state, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sound overwhelming? The world of some with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) might be comparable to this.

Toronto neuropsychologist Dr. J. Douglas Salmon Jr. describes ADHD as, "A neuro-cognitive disorder characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity which is more frequent and severe than that experienced by others of the same developmental stage." Thought to affect 2% to 4% of the population, there are three types of ADHD: Inattentive, Hyperactive and Combined.

Filter out distractions

ADHD affects the frontal lobes, the part of the brain responsible for targeting, integrating and synthesizing data received from other brain areas. The frontal lobes also play a vital role in filtering out external distractions and irrelevant information.
ADHD can be accommodated in ways that enhance a worker's performance and contribute to the overall productivity of the workplace.
This includes:
  • Providing a non-distracting work space or working from home.
  • Avoiding multitasking, frequent interruptions in work, and distractions that can be heard or seen , including working close to other people.
  • Checklists.
  • Flexible work hours. Allowing the individual to arrive early, work late or on weekends can enable a worker with ADHD to be more productive, if they are easily distracted.
  • Removal of nonessential duties.
  • More structure and deadlines. Two 15-minute meetings a week can help the employee stay on track.
  • Avoiding high stress occupations and dangerous work environments.
  • Reassignment to a vacant, "better fit" position.
  • More frequent performance appraisals.

  • People frequently confuse learning disabilities (LD) and ADHD. The two conditions often co-exist, and exhibit similar characteristics. Furthermore, an estimated 80% of all persons with ADHD also live with some form of LD. Until recently, ADHD had been more frequently diagnosed in men. It is estimated that up to 70% of young offenders are living with ADHD. In women, ADHD may manifest itself as behaviour that appears "spacey" or daydream-like.

    Other characteristics can include: problems following established challenges or proper procedures; low tolerance for frustration; insecurity; mood swings; poor self-esteem; finger drumming, feet tapping or pacing; poor stress and time management skills; feeling disappointed or discouraged; longstanding unhappiness; and often, feeling unable to reach their potential. ADHD can also co-exist with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other conditions.

    Workers with ADHD often remain un- or under-employed. Planning, memory, teamwork and organization can be problematic. Some employees with ADHD remain undiagnosed or unaware of their condition; another by-product of living with an invisible disability. Further complicating these factors is the prejudice, unintended or not, on the part of some employers, who resist hiring someone with a condition they do not understand.

    Kathleen Nadeau, editor of A Comprehensive Guide to Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults (1994) has identified a number of "crisis points" she suggests may be "typical" in the work lives of adults with ADHD. These include:
  • A new position requiring tracking, prioritization, multitasking and rapid processing of detailed paperwork;
  • A promotion requiring supervision and management of others;
  • An organization is taken over by a new management team that is inflexible and detail-oriented;
  • Supervision which is critical, detail oriented and inflexible.

    The common theme appears to be an "overload" reaction for the ADHD employee, where competencies in planning, organization and time management exceed the worker's ability to cope.

    Albert Einstein

    But, it's not all bad. Many persons with ADHD, including Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein, succeed, and some flourish in their careers. As Nadeau, states, "because of the variety of ways ADHD manifests, it is impossible to make general statements about their positive traits. However, some make excellent salespeople, promoters and lobbyists due to social skills and boundless energy. Others are blessed with an endless flow of creative ideas and associations which make them marvellous brainstormers and catalysts. Many hyperactive adults use their enthusiasm effectively in entrepreneurial activities. Although planning and long-term follow-through tend to be difficult for many ADHD adults, some are able to respond superbly to situations calling for crisis intervention or immediate problem solving."

    Additionally, the energy exhibited by some with ADHD may allow them to tackle shift work quite well.


    The last decade has seen the rise of a relatively new form of assistance for workers with this disability: The ADHD coach.

    ADHD coaches help employees develop strategies that can be integrated into daily work routines. Coaches act as mentors, catalysts, and provide ADHD employees with structure and work to enhance competencies that are a "good fit" with career choices.

    Sometimes, ADHD coach fees are covered by employee assistance plans (EAPs) or insurance programs. They can be an invaluable source of support and structure to the worker with ADHD.

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