ADHD at work: Harnessing the power of neurodiversity to build stronger teams

ADHD at work: Harnessing the power of neurodiversity to build stronger teams

Courtney is the Digital Marketing Manager here at MHS and has been with the company since 2018. She’s creative, passionate, and has a strong vision for herself, her team, and the work we do. As an organization, MHS is involved in the field of mental health, through the products and solutions we offer as well as through our social responsibility and commitment to youth services in our local community. Courtney represents this core value in her work, but she also has a personal connection to the work that we do. Courtney is an adult living with ADHD. After receiving her diagnoses 10 years ago, she reflects on her experience receiving her diagnoses, and why she wants more people to speak up about mental health and neurodiversity in the workplace.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What prompted you to seek a diagnosis from your doctor?

I am an outspoken person, so when I found myself struggling with day-to-day life and responsibilities as an adult in general, I talked to my doctor about it. Immediately, my doctor’s response was, “you’re depressed, take these antidepressants”—they didn’t miss a beat in writing me a prescription. I stopped them to try to better explain by saying, “I’m not depressed. I am sometimes sad, but I think it’s normal ebbs and flows of life.” It bothered me because I was trying to express how I felt overwhelmed a lot of the time, which put me in an almost catatonic state. It’s like my brain wouldn’t slow down, but my body wouldn’t speed up, so it looked like I was on pause. I’m happy that I was self-aware enough to advocate for myself and ask more questions, instead of just accepting the first answer I received.

What was the diagnostic process like?

I didn’t want to self-diagnose, but I had done a bit of my own research and read a lot of books since I’ve always had an interest in mental health and educating myself about it. I didn’t want to offer a suggestion, but I did want to ask if they had ruled out alternatives to depression, so I could anticipate what medication or side effects might be coming my way. I didn’t want a two-minute conversation to dictate my whole experience and possibly the rest of my life.

When my doctor suggested I get tested for ADHD, they referred me to a clinic where there was a trial for a new drug, which lead to assessments and a full panel interview that were required for eligibility (which saved me from paying out of pocket for testing). I was given two booklets (for the Conners Adult ADHD Rating Scale), one for myself and one for an “Observer,” so I handed it to my brother, who I lived with at the time, and told him to be honest. The interview was overwhelming in and of itself; it was scary because I didn’t know what to expect, and I wasn’t trying to achieve any outcome; I just wanted to explore every avenue available. They asked about my fidgeting and other physical manifestations of feeling restless, noticing how hard I struggled to sit still. Overall, it was an interesting process, but I do remember feeling very nervous sitting at a table full of clinicians because I wondered what they were seeing that I hadn’t seen or wasn’t aware of.

What was it like being told you had been diagnosed with ADHD?

After they gave me the official diagnosis they asked, “how do you feel?” and I remember I laughed a bit; I was unsure of how to respond to that question and just wondered, “now what?” I have ADHD Combined Type; I had the whole gamut of symptoms! The same panel who interviewed me asked some additional follow-up questions, and I think I jokingly asked them if this diagnosis was a good thing.
Getting an official diagnosis was a relief to the extent that it explained a lot. It washed over me and gave me a new perspective. As a kid, I was called “a flake” a lot, but now instead of wearing that negative label across my forehead, I could reframe it to understand why I was struggling. It gave me a new language to think about myself; not that “I can’t stick with things,” but now it’s that “I am motivated by starting something new.” It was a relief to hear that I just process things differently. I didn’t have problems in school growing up, my ADHD just showed up in different ways that weren’t as easy to notice, and it felt like I was to blame, but now I understand myself better.

What’s it like now, living with this ADHD diagnosis as an adult?

I rarely hear conversations about what living with ADHD looks like as an adult. I think there’s an outdated idea of ADHD that it’s just 12-year-old boys who are jumping off the walls, but ADHD could also look like someone who is quiet in a meeting and won’t speak up because they’re completely overwhelmed. I’ve learned how to deal with that now; I work best when I have clear priorities and supportive colleagues. It’s also really important for me to step away and detach from work when the day is done so I can focus on personal things without the thoughts from work lingering and overwhelming me. I have learned how to lean into my strengths, like how my ADHD gives me the ability to hyperfocus sometimes – there is no breaking that focus, and I don’t ever want that to go away because I do my best work in that state.

I’m proud of the person it’s made me, and I am happy that now I can share my experience in a positive way. Being more open with friends and coworkers about my diagnosis has changed the way they’ve thought about how to approach their own healthcare, and how to advocate for what they need with their doctors, too.

In what ways does having ADHD manifest at work for you?

Living with ADHD used to affect my work a lot more than it does now, since I’ve got a better handle on it. I don’t necessarily think in a linear path and tend to take a lot of what feels like sharp left turns along the way, that probably only make sense once you see the whole picture or final outcome. A few ways I feel like ADHD has helped me in my chosen career path would be:

  • I can see patterns where others might not, which helps me continuously innovate and challenge the status quo—it took me a while to realize this was a good thing and something ADHD helps me with.
  • I don’t only see what’s right in front of me, I tend to start further down the line with ideas and work backwards from there to tee up clear next steps I can take today—removing some of the stress of working too far in the future but still considering it early on.
  • I am an octopus at work (and in life in general); I don’t (or can’t) get tied up in minutiae, but I can jump into various projects to solve challenges and help my team by giving context to see the bigger picture.
  • Getting big projects and tasks over the finish line is challenging for me as an individual, but it’s less of a bad thing now that I’m lucky enough to lead a motivated team of amazing people who can do just that.
  • Since I can still get overwhelmed or lost in too many details and priorities, I had to learn how to regularly set SMART goals, and I use that skill to empower and support my team to find the best way to get things to that finish line while tracking progress along the way.

I love understanding and learning how other people found a solution or path that I wouldn’t have thought of; I think that’s the coolest thing. It’s a great comfort to me that that I’ve found a career path that fits with my way of thinking.

What made you open up about living with ADHD work?

ADHD can be invisible in the workplace, just like it can be for children in school sometimes. If we don’t talk about it as adults, how does anyone know that it’s safe to share?

I was initially worried that I’d be treated like I was as a child, such as, I’d be told to slow down, patronized, or be criticized as impatient or too loud, so I kept it close to my chest for a long time. And it did hurt when people would in a roundabout way do this by telling me to just stick to the plan or “stay in my lane” when I always want to do more than someone expects or asks of me; it’s just how I operate.

I’m less concerned now because I don’t see it as something that hinders me anymore. It’s a positive; like I mentioned before, when I hyperfocus, there is no breaking that. I do my best work in that state. Because of the work going on at MHS, Jessica McCabe, a YouTube content creator with an ADHD diagnosis who makes ADHD-related videos, came to visit the office, and I was invited to do an interview with her for her research. I really like her content, especially about being a female adult with ADHD, and it felt like information I didn’t get to hear when I was going through the process myself. It changed for me to see how openly Jessica and others spoke about this, and nobody thought any less of them for it. I also spoke to a coworker about their struggle with their own doctor, and I shared my experience and offered ideas for what questions to ask. I was happy to share with someone close to me and see how it changed how they thought about asking for help.

Has your work-life changed since being more open about living with ADHD?

I’ve learned a lot over the past ten years. I wish I had known what to ask for from my leaders and coworkers sooner. Now, I openly accept and encourage subtle (or direct) reminders from colleagues and leaders, especially because it is difficult for me to remember to do something if it’s too far in the future (calendar reminders are my go-to solution for this). I don’t mind when people check in on me; I won’t be offended. If I do forget to follow up on something, I just want people to understand it’s not because of malice or that I don’t care; sometimes, I am too overwhelmed to stay on top of everything and I am likely making a conscious effort to draw boundaries and set priorities.
It is really important to me now, as a leader, that my team and colleagues feel comfortable talking to me openly about how they are feeling; there’s a sense of “we’re all human beings doing their best.”

Whether you have a diagnosis or not, everyone has something going on—they are fighting a battle you might know nothing about. I, for example, am battling with myself 90% of the time to slow my thoughts and stay focused.

What do you wish people knew about ADHD, or working with people who have ADHD?

My biggest fear about not talking about mental health is that adults will accept a blanket approach when dealing with it. It’s important to have the vocabulary to describe your feelings and not limit yourself from all the possibilities. I fear that someone would be in the same seat I was once in at their doctor’s office and might quietly accept a potentially incorrect and dangerous diagnosis without first considering or asking what else might be going on.

Getting my diagnosis was a pivotal moment for me. I didn’t know how much it mattered for a long time, so I struggled and thought I had to hide it, but I’ve learned that there are positives now, both in my diagnosis and in talking about it more openly. Now, knowing what I know from taking the time to be more self-aware and learning from all the amazing and intelligent people I work with at MHS, I have better vocabulary and terminology to identify nuances in diagnoses to understand more about myself and others. Taking a moment to pause and get educated about how you’re actually feeling and how to explain that to doctors and coworkers can be beneficial. I can’t imagine how things would have turned out had I not simply asked my doctor about other options. I am just so grateful my neurodiversity is embraced and valued in my workplace, and I hope other neurodiverse individuals feel the same way.

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