Proper Fit Is Key For Workers with Adult ADHD

By Jeremy Smerd

Jul. 1, 2006

It took more than 40 years, four doctors and a misdiagnosis of depression before Lew Mills, a family therapist in San Francisco, was identified as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

    “It was a slow process,” says Mills, who was properly diagnosed in 1998 and is now 49. “Now there’s much more willingness to make the diagnosis. Then, adult ADHD was a new idea.”

    Once considered a mental disorder affecting only children, psychiatrists now consider ADHD to be a lifelong condition. And many adults, like Mills, are being retroactively diagnosed. The number of adults age 20 to 44 who take ADHD medication has grown 139 percent in the past five years, according to a study released in March by Medco Health Solutions.

    Despite rising prescription drug costs, which Medco says totaled $600 a person last year, up from $250 in 2000, awareness of the disorder will help employers tap into the talents associated with adults who have ADHD while avoiding the pitfalls.

    By conservative estimates, about 8 million adults show symptoms associated with ADHD: disorganization, impulsivity and inattention. Those characteristics can make people feel out of con- trol, anxious and depressed.

    When employers think about people with ADHD, they might see Bart Simpson misbehaving in school. But adults with ADHD, which used to be known by the stigma-inducing name of “minimum brain dysfunction,” also tend to be creative problem solvers, risk takers, and big-picture thinkers, says Kathleen Na­deau, the director of the Chesapeake ADHD Center and author of ADD in the Workplace.

    Nadeau cites as an example JetBlue founder and CEO David Neeleman, who turned a tendency to misplace plane tickets into the breakthrough concept of paperless tickets.

    “What’s critical is for companies to match the person with the position,” Nadeau says. “They are going to be dreadful employees if you put them into a position they are not suited for.”

Exact matches are not always possible. For employees struggling with tardiness, disorganization or other issues, work coaches and professional organizers have been known to help, Nadeau says.

    Like so many other adults with untreated ADHD, Mills found himself in a job that didn’t fit. As a consultant in the late 1990s in charge of managing a handful of clients, he found it difficult to organize and prioritize his work. Rather than dig in and make phone calls, he became overwhelmed by the procedural details of his office life.

    His anxiety paralyzed him. Soon he quit, with the company’s blessing.

    Estimated economic losses associated with ADHD are staggering. Adults who have ADHD have a higher unemployment rate, switch jobs more frequently and are out sick more often because they are more likely to suffer from stress, depression, anxiety and other emotional problems. All told, lost income for adults with ADHD nationally totals $77 billion annually, according to a study published by Joseph Biederman, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and the chief of Pediatric Psychopharmacology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

    Since receiving effective medication and counseling, Mills has seen a turnaround in his work. He returned to family and marriage therapy and has seen his practice grow as his clinical and organizational skills improved. He listens more attentively and can quickly pro­cess new information to help diagnose patients.

    “It’s hard to put your finger on it, but there is a change in perspective once you’re diagnosed,” Mills says. “A diagnosis is helpful in understanding what is difficult. It also helps me be easier on myself. I’m not sitting there saying I’m nuts.”

Workforce Management, June 26, 2006, p. 12Subscribe Now!

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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