I work in public education. I was a teacher for nine years and I’ve been a school administrator (principal or assistant principal) for the last five. Most of the work impacts I share will be from my experiences in that realm, though the struggles I faced I’m sure you’ll be able to relate to regardless of the field you work in yourself.
Similar to home, my classroom and my offices have all shared the common problem of ‘piles instead of files.’ Whether it is the never-ending stack of papers to grade or the endless forms that make their way onto my desk, I always feel inundated with so much paper that I can barely think straight.
The ADHD brain typically sorts everything into mental piles of “now” and “not now.” For me this translates into a lot of procrastination as I wait for whatever the project is to come close to due. The only thing that really flips something onto the “now” side is if the deadline actually has consequences attached. There are some hard deadlines in education. There are many more soft deadlines, the ones that have no consequences when you break them. Once you learn that there’s a soft deadline, well, that project just got put back onto “not now.” I’ve had many projects assigned in September or October get pushed all the way to June that way, much to the chagrin of my supervisors.
Poor short term memory
This one hits pretty hard. There are so many conversations that happen on the fly in break rooms and hallways, and even regular meetings that I just happen to walk into. And people are always asking me to help with things. In my current position as a principal, it’s a huge part of the job. Ultimately, I am a support staff member who helps make sure everything in the school runs as it should. But when those promises are made on the fly, I typically forget them before I am ten feet away. I have unintentionally broken so many promises over the years that I’ve no doubt gained a reputation of at best being flaky, and at worst, being a liar.
I can also come across as disconnected and uncaring because I cannot remember names of people I just met. Most of the time I can’t recall a name seconds after it’s been shared with me, even if I’m trying hard. Then I feel awkward about it and even in the “still new” period where I could ask again, I don’t. And then it grows too late and I feel disconnected and intimidated by further connection with that person. Not a great way to build relationships.
I don’t have the outward hyperactive symptoms but that certainly doesn’t stop my mind from racing. Whether I’m walking down a hallway or meeting with a person one-on-one, my mind is probably attempting to hop back and forth between a dozen ideas at once. This makes it look like I’m not paying attention, even when I am trying my best. I once attended a meeting where I took three pages of diligent notes and was later accused of not paying attention.
Long meetings do stretch my stamina. I will often have to pull out my fidget or stand up at the back of the room to stretch my legs. All the while my mind is desperately trying to be elsewhere.
These are the mundane must-dos of work. When I was teaching this would be grading papers and lesson planning. As an administrator it might be reviewing paperwork, completing observations and evaluations, or setting and reviewing agendas for all the meetings that need to be run. All of these are frequently put off in favor of other tasks that are more interesting or immediately rewarding.
Possibly related to distraction, I struggle reading nonfiction text. Especially when it’s assigned reading. It immediately gets classified a chore and all of a sudden my comprehension level drops to zero and I may spend half an hour trying do read and re-read a single paragraph. Nonfiction texts are frequently used as part of professional development and it’s a constant struggle for me to learn in this manner.
Many ADHDers struggle with time blindness, which is basically the inability to tell how much time is passing. As a principal I might start a project in my office and inadvertently stay working on it for several hours. Just today I was in my office until nearly 7pm, about 3 hours after every other employee had left the site. I missed dinner and a regularly planned evening activity that starts at 7. This can also take place during the school day, disrupting my effectiveness by keeping me engaged in tasks longer than expected.
This may also account for all of the late arrivals at work. Try as I might, get up as early as I like, arriving on time for work seems all but impossible. It’s not like I’m horribly late, but I typically roll in about 5 minutes later than my own expected start time every day. It seems like there’s always some unaccounted for thing that pops up, one more thing I remember, or some time that I just ‘lose’ somewhere in the morning.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)
If you’re not familiar with RSD, the basic idea is that you perceive rejection, even when it isn’t there. So where there’s disagreement, you may read confrontation. Where there’s a helpful tip for improvement, you may hear criticism. Many ADHDers experience RSD symptoms and it is believed that they are taught through experience: as we have suffered so much rejection throughout our lives, we begin to anticipate it everywhere. So when your boss tells you “we need to meet,” your mind may immediately jump to the worst case scenario. Without multiple points of reassurance, I can very easily feel that my boss is “out to get me” every time she comes by my office.
The high stress that stems from RSD and falling behind at work inevitably leads to more sick days taken. Frequently I’ll find myself in need of a “mental health day” just to get away and do something that feels good, or even to do nothing in particular. Where this can get tricky is if I get into playing a new video game or binge-watching a new series. Then one sick day can easily turn into two or three.
Low Impulse Control
Taking multiple sick days in a row when they’re not *ahem* exactly necessary, could definitely be connected to low impulse control as well. My low impulse control can manifest in several other ways at work too. Sometimes it’s giving into my current fixation and spending time on it when I should be working. Other times it’s the need to throw out a joke or snarky response in meetings. It doesn’t matter how serious the topic of the meeting is, a snarky remark is often the first one to roll off my tongue.
Before my teaching career, I actually quit a job on a whim. My wife and I were working multiple jobs as we neared the end of our college careers, and at one point we both worked in a call center as our second or third job. My wife had a day off and I wanted to have the same one so we could be together. When my request was denied, I handed in my badge and quit on the spot. I haven’t done this with my professional career, though I will admit the thoughts cross my mind from time to time.
It all adds up
I’ve shared a lot of impacts of ADHD on the workplace here. What they add up to is supervisors seeing you as disorganized, lazy, flaky, or just plain not caring about your job. Personally, I have spent my entire professional career feeling like a failure because I could never do the job that my colleagues seemed to be able to. I couldn’t keep up. Oh I could pour hours into an extra-curricular club that I was excited about, but I always felt mediocre about my teaching and have felt even worse as an administrator.
I am on my third job in as many years. My last two employers have cited many of the problems above as reasons why we should part ways. I was never outright fired, but we had those conversations where you’re invited to “read between the lines” and move on. In education, when you start to get that kind of pattern on your resume, it raises red flags to future employers. It says there’s a problem you keep running from. I am the primary source of income in my home, so seeing the huge liability I was becoming for my family financially was one of the driving factors behind me seeking therapy this year. That’s what ultimately led to me learning about ADHD and getting my diagnosis.
So although I’m not glad I had all these struggles, I am glad that I finally saw the need to get help. Because now I know the reason behind all of these issues I’ve faced. I’ve been measuring myself against a bar that I could never reach because my own brain was working against me. Knowing I have ADHD is a huge help, because now I can see what all of these problem areas are. I’ve begun treating ADHD with therapy as well as medication so that I can continue to overcome these issues and finally feel successful at work.
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2 thoughts on “How Undiagnosed ADHD Impacted Work”
Ha!—the “now” and “not now”…so describes my thought process. And almost everything in this articles-thank you!
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I’m pretty sure I got that from a Dani Donovan. She made a sketch about ADHD on/off switches, and that’s what was on the switch labeled “time.” It’s very appropriate.