“But… you don’t look like you have ADHD!” Structured schedule, scattered mind: about neurodivergence in the workplace
Neurodivergence can be defined as having a ‘differently wired brain’ than most people (who are, in contrast, referred to as being neurotypical). I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 26.
Investigating what was ‘wrong’ with me was not induced by hyperactive behavior at school, or major difficulties during my studies. The reason I reached out to professionals was a chronical feeling of ‘not fitting in’ at work, which made me experience high levels of distress, insecurity, and demotivation. This became detrimental to my physical and psychological health.
For me, ADHD is all about (sometimes highly illogical) oppositions. I absolutely despise any type of routine because it makes me feel numb, but without I’m likely to forget anything that is usually considered to happen ‘on autopilot’. Most of my colleagues think of me as a structured person, but my thoughts are all over the place and the (seemingly) organized behavior is just a method to get my scattered mind together.
I can’t seem to focus on anything, but if something grabs my interest, I’ll get absorbed by it and will forget to eat or drink for 12 hours straight. Because of these contradictions (and the preconceptions around ADHD), many people initially couldn’t believe my diagnosis. Family and friends have more than once called me a ‘walking contradiction’ – and I couldn’t agree more.
Being diagnosed with a condition that is called ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ does not feel accurate. The challenges I need to overcome daily do not involve a shortage of attention, but a difficulty to regulate the right amount of attention, at the right time, in the right direction. Moreover, the hyperactivity component gives the impression that all people with ADHD continuously radiate high doses of energy, whilst the restlessness often manifests itself in the brain, optionally becoming visible on the outside.
I discovered that the central thread through my experiences with ADHD is the difficulty to manage the exposure to stimuli. The shortage of dopamine (causing ADHD symptoms) can lead to feelings of ‘underwhelm’, which triggers a desire for more stimuli. Simultaneously, troubles in the executive functioning make it difficult to adequately process stimuli, which paves the way for overwhelm and accompanying drawbacks. The ‘sweet spot’ between under- and overstimulation is narrow, and many people with ADHD feel like they are on a perpetual quest to achieve and preserve it.
Having an atypical brain isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I enjoy how my ADHD has led to many unexpected and extraordinary situations, simply because I almost never feel withheld from ‘just doing’. Furthermore, an improperly working filter also means experiencing everything very intensely, noticing details that others don’t, and being sensitive to other people’s moods and emotions. Moreover, most people with ADHD are blessed with a ‘hyperfocus mode’, with which they can put a 40-hour work week into a 12-hour race-against-the-clock session. Related to this is the ability to thrive in times of crisis: many people with ADHD flourish under chaotic and uncertain circumstances and are great troubleshooters under high pressure. And finally, ADHD is of course known for its association with fast and out-of-the-box thinking, imaginative power and tons of creativity.
Working with a differently wired brain requires other types of support than employers are used to. Sensitivity to external stimuli, for example, makes it impossible for a person with ADHD to work in open office spaces. Also, since neurodivergent employees often have deviating daily rhythms, they can benefit from determining their own work schedule. Above all, however, it is important for employers to realize that the work should be aligned with the needs of the individual, which requires a tailored approach.
In my opinion, three factors are of major importance here. The first key factor is providing the employee sufficient autonomy in the job to enable customization (when, where and how the work is executed). Secondly, neurodivergence should not be approached as a ‘problem’: focus on the employee’s capacities and talents and create an environment where they can flourish, instead of trying to ‘fix’ their shortcomings. And last, but certainly not least: invest in a safe and trusting work environment, such that barriers to talk about neurodivergence are eliminated and needs and expectations from both the employer’s and employee’s side can be discussed and aligned.
When I started working at the university, I immediately felt that the environment suited my neurodivergent brain way better than the organization I previously worked for. My supervisors, for whom I’m deeply grateful, have played an important role in this. Many neurodivergent people initially believe that something is wrong with them, and that they need to change themselves to fit in. From my experiences, however, I have learned that this cannot be a healthy nor sustainable solution, and my job switch shows that sometimes the surroundings need to be adjusted to the person – not the other way around.