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Navigating a corporate career with ADHD

We subconsciously perceive at maturity, human brains are complete, sophisticated, and emotionally evolved. Realistically with undiagnosed illnesses/disabilities such as ADHD, awareness of self has been limited by access to support networks, doctors and educational material.”

For those who haven’t seen the children's animation 'Ice Age 2', I highly recommend it as a hilarious educational exercise.


Manny the mammoth discovers he's not the last mammoth on earth when he meets Ellie, a female mammoth who was raised by an opossum family and mistakenly believes she is one of them.


Manny is confused as he can clearly see Ellie has the physiology of a mammoth. It takes the greater part of the film to convince her of her true identity.


The scene I want to highlight is Ellie's childhood recollection of growing up slightly (a lot) different from her opossum brothers. Picture the landscape these marsupials inhabit - lots of climbing trees.


Now imagine you have no thumbs to assist and weigh enough to snap the largest of branches. Everyone around you has no problem, effortlessly scurrying up and down. How do you feel? Confused? Frustrated?


This is much like someone discovering as an adult that they were never neurotypical (an opossum) and suddenly realising why things come quite easily to others but are difficult for them (mammoths).


It’s a neat metaphor for the unconscious assumptions we make of people with an underlying mental disability/illness such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).


ADHD brains function differently. While there are common symptoms – inflexibility, forgetfulness, inattention, impulsivity, emotional dysregulation, hyperactivity – how they manifest can be very different.


I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 28 after my son was recommended for attention deficit testing and diagnosed with significant markers for ADHD. Throughout this process it became painfully obvious many of his issues reflected my own adolescent experiences.


As a young girl, ADHD wasn’t considered a common diagnosis because I didn't react with backflips after a glass of cordial. My primary school grade reports commented 'disruptive, distracted, average grades, speaks without thinking, good start but ideas need more development'.


While I sympathise with my teacher’s frustrations, I strongly believe if diagnosis and treatment had been recognised it could have made an immense difference to my development.


I am elated to now have a diagnosis that says I learn differently, and that's ok! However,  little adjustment to flexibility and open communication with friends and colleagues is required.


We subconsciously perceive at maturity, human brains are complete, sophisticated, and emotionally evolved.


Realistically with undiagnosed illnesses/disabilities such as ADHD, awareness of self has been limited by access to support networks, doctors and educational material.


The following are reflections and my personal observations of the mannerisms and habits that resonated with my ADHD during my career.


Casual Seating Positions


I can't count the number of times I have caught the frown on a colleague’s face when they approach as I sit with one leg folded up on the office chair or my knee parallel to the computer screen. Worse than being unprofessional this is also 'un lady-like'. 


Medical journals refer to this as symmetrical tonic neck reflex (STNR), which explains the inability of ADHD children to maintain upright postures. The top half of the body is constantly fighting to be opposite to the lower half.

Stuck Moments


The best analogy I have heard for this is asking someone to place their hand in a boiling pot of water. It can physically be done, but your survival instinct prevents your body from completing the action. This stuck feeling can come with completing the simplest of tasks with ADHD.


It's an overwhelming feeling and can foster negative self-criticism. Thoughts of inadequacy, failure and constant comparison to how effortless peers are managing the tasks.


Feeling accepted and safe in any work environment is a right for everyone. I urge you to take care and exercise empathy when a colleague gives any indication they are struggling. Try to help them in a non-judgmental and respectful way.


Brain Fog & Forgetfulness Trepidation


Ever written a shopping list only to realise you left it at home and now find yourself blindly walking through aisles grabbing things you didn't plan to buy? Apply this difficulty to your everyday routine and you have ADHD.


Retaining information after being given verbal instructions or as a multi-step request in a fast-paced environment is not viable. Especially if there’s no opportunity to take notes.


I need to back track and reinvestigate the next steps, like walking into a room and not knowing why you're there. A default reaction can be rushing through tasks all at once before distractions impact information recall.


It becomes difficult to conquer the anxiety of approaching colleagues numerous times to repeat small details.

draganab/ Getty Images



Dopamine is a big deal for brains. It transmits important messages around the body like reward systems, movement, thinking and emotion. When the switchboard in our head has a faulty circuit, these messages glitch and don't always fulfill the intended purpose.


Like a rainstorm, stimulant medication is used to flood the brain with the missing dopamine it isn't producing naturally. This reduces fidgeting, impulsive behaviour and low attention spans but isn't a complete cure and should be paired with cognitive therapy/training.


Often my productivity is motivated by the novelty of task switching.


In theory, by switching tasks when the attention span has worn thin, a new shiny challenge will fire up the neurons again. Realistically this can lead to a trail of unfinished tasks.


To combat this I use alternative strategies like noise blocking head phones to ignore the lure of distractions, completing small tasks on days I know my reward system needs extra hits of 'achievement satisfaction' and deferring big tasks for days I can challenge myself.


As an employer, supervisor or peer your involvement is valuable, try;


  • assisting with setting shorter deadlines than actually required
  • creating a culture that fosters ‘focus periods’  
  • having regular workload check-ins
  • reminding peers of your appreciation for the good work they put in


Thinking out loud


Ever had a hole in the clothes washing machine filter? There's always tiny specks of lint everywhere, impossible to remove! Reflecting on the amount of 'word vomit' my internal filter bypasses, there's always the internal cringe followed, 'why did I say THAT?'


Usually it's because processing information internally before formulating and executing logical responses is corrupted by my faulty switchboard. Once it escapes my mouth – just like the lint – it’s hard to take back.


This malfunction can lead to an alteration of perception, socially awkward moments, sloppy work and displays of out-of-character immaturity in between high functioning proficiency and no longer being viewed as the reliable, trustworthy person suitable for the job.


For neuro-divergent people on the receiving end, the alienation becomes unbearable and the demotivation triggers the urge to change jobs or search for a place to fit in.


Please take a minute to evaluate your own exchanges with colleagues for inclusivity;


  • Do you favour conversations with particular people and not others because of common interests?
  • Are you giving opportunities for all team members to have input of the discussion?
  • Do you show non-dismissive body language (eye contact, engaged facial expressions)?
  • Do you notice outliers and make effort to ensure they feel welcome?
  • Lastly if you yourself struggle with speaking candidly to peers, are you prepared to work on developing assertive communication to voice uncomfortable topics for your needs to be met?


Emotional Leakage


Performance reviews can be terrifying. For me they feel like school report day because of emotional dysregulation – the inability to control and execute appropriate cognitive functions. It’s a commonly occurring trait with ADHD. When triggered, a normal emotional response becomes an intense and uncontrolled outburst.


We've all sympathised with the parent in the restaurant with a toddler. Stubbornly refusing to eat or running between legs, boisterously shrieking, we accept this as normal behaviour.


As an adult, being sabotaged by emotional dysregulation can limit your professional capacity. I cannot emphasise how distressing and undignified it is fighting for control of emotions around peers.


It isn’t intended to cause drama or harm. It has taken me a long time to understand altercations can be revisited and repaired when I’m in a better position to manage my self-control.


At the heart


I could fill several more pages with experiences and challenges.


Mental illness/disability remains a systemic issue for inequality within workplaces because not all disabilities are physically visible and some yet to be diagnosed.


Please be open minded – some brains are on different operating systems to yours. They are no less valuable to the team and can often surprise with creative solutions to problems no one else thought of.


Being undiagnosed or diagnosed late in life can impact your professional life, including underperformance, motivation loss, micromanagement and lacking the confidence to apply for senior roles.


Education, awareness, and empathy are all key elements to improving company culture and encouraging tolerance towards employees with neurological disorders.


Hana Killoway is a Private Advice Assistant at ANZ

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