A therapy client of mine is a mother of two pre-teens and works a demanding job in a high-pressure legal operations team. Her partner lives in a different city for work reasons and as a result, she ends up with the bulk of the day-to-day parenting responsibilities. Often, she jokes about things like going grocery shopping after picking up her daughter from soccer, putting the chicken they’d bought for dinner on the roof of the car while unloading the rest of the shopping, and forgetting all about it. Or working on an important client presentation, going into the kitchen to get some water, seeing a few dirty plates, and then starting to clean them while completely forgetting the fact that she had a deadline for the presentation. These aren’t one-off situations. There seems to be a trail of distraction and forgetfulness, as she herself refers to these occurrences.
She attributes these “detours” to a lack of attentiveness. She sounds apologetic when discussing how she didn’t mean to “mess up.” But she feels like she does, every day.
“Been like this since I was a teen. Always forgetting things. Always lost in class at school. Thought I’d do better as an adult but here we are!”
She is not alone. I engage with quite a few mothers working in corporate jobs who bring up their struggles with memory recall, managing daily tasks and wavering attention spans. Another therapy client of mine puts it succinctly – “the stillness [of being away from my workplace], the lack of contact and chatter… gave me the pause against which I finally felt the depth of my struggle with being able to concentrate.”
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses among adults are growing four times faster than are ADHD diagnoses among children in the United States. ADHD is reported to occur in about 4.4% of the adult population in the US. Still, most scientists as well as mental health practitioners believe adult ADHD remains underdiagnosed.
Adult ADHD is an anomaly in how it is often a trending topic online and yet, a misunderstood subject, particularly in the workplace. This is largely due to the lack of awareness and clarity about what it really is. The biomedical model for psychiatric diagnosis categorizes it as a neurodevelopmental disorder that poses changes and challenges to what are considered standard aspects of cognitive functioning — especially attention and emotional regulation. It alters the executive functioning of the human brain, affects the developmental journey of children, and extends into adulthood. However, in recent years, a growing movement in support of neurodivergence – the inclusion and representation of how our brains can function in different ways as opposed to conforming to a rigid universal standard – has made room for understanding ADHD under a psychosocial lens. This second view contends that ADHD is not necessarily a disorder, but a different type of cognitive functioning based on divergent responses to environmental stimuli.
Our interpersonal and social interaction frameworks are largely based on certain widely accepted social standards. We assume everyone can pay attention if only they try harder, or that occupational tasks should be defined by neurotypical traits such as linear thinking, readiness for socialization and understanding social cues. When everyone is forced to comply with these arbitrary norms, they might not always do well or live up to expectations. This also allows us to question if we should really stop labeling ADHD as a dysfunction or disorder and instead include it in our understanding of how different human brains process information very differently. While these debates remain up in the air, they’re relevant in helping us comprehend the ADHD experience for ourselves and for others around us.
ADHD in children is usually noticed and addressed based on displays of hyperactivity. As a result, other forms of ADHD which don’t include hyperactivity as a very prominent component are largely ignored or misattributed to individual lack of capabilities or “weaknesses.” For example, a subtype of ADHD is rooted in inattentiveness. In this case, there may not be any hyperactivity, but the person could zone in and out of conversations, tasks, and activities without awareness. Or they might procrastinate or have trouble being on time.
Individualization of a neurodevelopmental condition like ADHD creates isolation and perpetuates biases about laziness, poor IQ, lack of impulse control, and the like. This is even more evident when we look at the treatment of working moms with ADHD. Another fallout of these biases is the misinformation exchanged about ADHD in adults. So many of my own therapy clients who slowly started recognizing that they were probably dealing with ADHD had for several years believed that they were just incompetent or incapable.
These misconceptions are exacerbated when we add gender into the mix. Changes in hormonal activity at puberty, during pregnancy or menopause, for example, can further impact how and when ADHD is displayed and noticed. Research has shown that in recent years women in the US between the age groups of 30-45 are more frequently diagnosed with ADHD. This also means that for women, the recognition of ADHD might come at a later stage in life and sometimes converge with changes related to pregnancy and motherhood. This could result in mistaking adult ADHD for what is commonly called mommy brain.
Mommy brain is a term that is used to denote the brain fog, interrupted cognitive functionality and periods of memory daze that quite a few women experience during their pregnancies and post-partum phase. A study conducted by the University of British Columbia claims that the physical, psychological, and psychosocial stressors of pregnancy and motherhood change a woman’s brain functions related to emotional regulation and memory recall. Mommy brain is characterized by forgetfulness, difficulty in managing one’s attention span, feeling blank, and fluctuations in cognitive functioning, much like adult ADHD. But a major distinction is that the former is largely a situational and short-term disturbance whereas the latter is more of a deep-seated, long-term, chronic response loop.
Adult ADHD in mothers is inadvertently tied into sociocultural expectations of unconditional resilience from women. Many women who started exhibiting signs of ADHD at a much younger age weren’t given the space to unpack their experiences. And in an organizational working environment, functioning with ADHD is compounded by gender biases that immediately label any type of non-conforming behavior as fragility, incapability and inefficiency — causing further alienation.
When I asked working mothers on my social media platform to share their experiences of living with ADHD, Sallyanne Rock, a UK-based mother of two teenagers and a former service desk manager, wrote to me about how when she first discussed her ADHD with her immediate boss, she was met with a lack of understanding and empathy. This led to her decision not to approach HR and occupational health services within the organization because she had already resolved to leave the job.
“I think that experiencing burnout, realising I had ADHD and recognising that I had been masking my difficulties for a long time was instrumental in my decision to resign. My day to day job involved so many Zoom calls and so much task switching that I felt unable to continue with it. In addition, because I worked in an operational environment, my working day and routine could be interrupted at any moment by a service outage that I would need to drop everything and respond to, which I found incredibly disruptive and difficult to deal with.”
If you think you may have ADHD, consider the following:
Schedule a screening/assessment. Consult with your healthcare provider or employer-sponsored mental health provider to find a trained mental health practitioner to conduct an ADHD evaluation.
Join a support community. Online support and advocacy groups such as these groups from the Attention Deficit Disorder Association and this group for moms with ADHD provide forums where you can chat with other ADHD adults — for information, advice and empathy.
Identify and make room for your ADHD needs. Working moms have a lot to juggle, and repressing any ADHD-related discomfort can lead the stress to vent in unintended ways. Talk to your partner, a trusted friend or colleague about your experiences. If you feel a WFH/hybrid working model or a low-stimulation setup (dim lights, quiet) allows you to be more focused and productive, it is quite alright to discuss this with your manager to figure out a collaborative solution. Choose a method of disclosure in the workplace that makes you feel safe and secure. If you need help preparing for this conversation, you can ask your doctor, therapist, or career coach for their assistance.
Explore workplace tools and set expectations. Take advantage of scheduling apps, project management tools, organizers, and activity trackers to manage your daily tasks and reduce overwhelm. And set expectations about your response time and work habits. For example, let people know that if you are concentrating on a deliverable, you won’t check personal messages or might opt out of a fun office discussion occurring simultaneously. You are not being rude; you just need to direct your attention fully. If switching your video off during Zoom meetings helps you focus better, inform colleagues in advance.
Here’s how organizations can help employees with ADHD:
Design mental-health-inclusive HR policies and foster an environment of psychological safety. The right organizational policies can create an environment where employees can bring their whole selves to work and ask for any necessary accommodations without fearing repercussions. Instead of individualizing employee struggles, build flexibility into your support offerings. For example, flexwork options and childcare programs are life savers for mothers with full-time jobs, while also boosting employee loyalty.
Offer supplementary mental health services. Mental healthcare should be a part of employee benefit programs. Assessments and screening for ADHD are difficult to access and often have very long waitlists. Organizations can contract directly with employee mental healthcare providers to make these services — as well as ADHD-focused occupational therapy — readily available to employees.
Build a mental health-friendly culture. Culture shapes interactions. If the organizational culture either directly or indirectly negates the experiences of those with ADHD, it can sniff out formidable talent and stifle diversity, which has been proven to improve a company’s profitability. Leaders and managers should be coached to respect the lived experience of others rather than enforcing rigid productivity rules that often backfire.
Scherezade Siobhan is an award-winning writer, psychologist educator and a community organizer who founded and runs Qureist — a therapeutic space for psychosocial wellness. Her work is featured and published in Medium, Berfrois, Quint, Vice, HuffPost, Feministing, Jubilat, The London Magazine, The Body Is Not An Apology among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue” (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Bluest Kali” (Lithic Press, 2018). She is the current writer in residence at the University of Stirling and the winner of the Charles Wallace Grant, 2022. Her next book is “That Beautiful Elsewhere” by Harper Collins, set to be released in fall of 2023. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter and Instagram at @zaharaesque.