Attention Deficits At Work

We have all heard about chil­dren who have Atten­tion Deficit/Hyperactivity Dis­or­der (AD/HD). Indeed, this con­di­tion seems to affect 5 to 8% of school age chil­dren. Have you ever won­dered what hap­pen to these chil­dren? As many as 60% of them become adults pre­sent­ing AD/HD symp­toms! Ron de Graaf and col­leagues recent­ly pub­lished a study in which they found that an aver­age of 3.5% of work­ers (in ten coun­tries) meet the cri­te­ria for adult ADHD. As you can imag­ine, being an adult with AD/HD can be a chal­lenge at work.

Before we explore this issue let’s start by describ­ing the symp­toms of ADHD.

What is adult AD/HD?

AD/HD is a dis­or­der of the brain. Research clear­ly indi­cates that AD/HD is to a large extent genet­ic, that is it tends to run in fam­i­lies. How­ev­er, AD/HD is a com­plex dis­or­der and oth­er causal fac­tors may be at play.

Typ­i­cal­ly, the symp­toms arise in ear­ly child­hood, unless they are asso­ci­at­ed with some type of brain injury lat­er in life. Some peo­ple have mild AD/HD with only a few symp­toms while oth­ers have more seri­ous AD/HD with more symptoms.

Symp­toms of inat­ten­tion (adapt­ed from the DSM-IV)

* Fails to pay atten­tion to details
* Has dif­fi­cul­ty sus­tain­ing attention
* Does not appear to listen
* Strug­gles to fol­low through on instructions
* Has dif­fi­cul­ty with organization
* Avoids or dis­likes tasks requir­ing sus­tained men­tal effort
* Los­es things
* Is eas­i­ly distracted
* Is for­get­ful in dai­ly activities

Symp­toms of hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty-impul­siv­i­ty (adapt­ed from the DSM-IV)

* Fid­gets with hands or feet or squirms in chair
* Has dif­fi­cul­ty remain­ing seated
* Dif­fi­cul­ty engag­ing in activ­i­ties quietly
* Acts as if dri­ven by a motor
* Talks excessively
* Blurts out answers before ques­tions have been completed
* Dif­fi­cul­ty wait­ing or tak­ing turns
* Inter­rupts or intrudes upon others

Before you start think­ing I knew it! I have AD/HD.

One must have seri­ous symp­toms in dif­fer­ent areas of his or her life (for exam­ple, do the symp­toms make it dif­fi­cult to do one´s job or cause prob­lems in one´s rela­tion­ships?) to be diag­nosed with AD/HD. If you have a num­ber of symp­toms, but none are seri­ous, you won’t be diag­nosed with AD/HD.

How does AD/HD affect per­for­mance at work?

Ron de Graaf and col­leagues recent­ly screened for AD/HD 7,075 18–44 year-old work­ers in 10 coun­tries (Bel­gium, Colum­bia, France, Ger­many, Italy, Lebanon, Mex­i­co, the Nether­lands, Spain, and the Unit­ed States). This was done in ten nation­al sur­veys in the WHO World Men­tal Health (WMH) Sur­vey Ini­tia­tive (link to study below).
As men­tioned ear­li­er, 3.5% of these work­ers turned out to have AD/HD. Most of them were undi­ag­nosed and thus untreat­ed. In the US, the per­cent­age increased to 4.5%. ADHD was more com­mon among men than women and more com­mon in devel­oped than devel­op­ing coun­tries. Let’s think about the AD/HD symp­toms and how they could inter­fere with work:Distractibility or inattention

= Dif­fi­cul­ty to ignore exter­nal dis­trac­tions, such as peo­ple talk­ing or moving
= Dif­fi­cul­ty to ignore inter­nal dis­trac­tion (thoughts), which may lead to daydreaming
= Dif­fi­cul­ty man­ag­ing com­plex or long-term projects
= Dif­fi­cul­ty to find impor­tant papers and to turn in reports on time, which can cre­ate the impres­sion of carelessness
= Poor mem­o­ry result­ing from poor attention

Hyper­ac­tiv­i­ty and Impulsivity

= Dif­fi­cul­ty to stay still dur­ing meetings
= Tem­per outbursts
= Dif­fi­cul­ty to lis­ten, ten­den­cy to inter­rupt, etc, which may cause inter­per­son­al issues

Evi­dent­ly, AD/HD symp­tom can indeed inter­fere with work.

Ron de Graaf and col­leagues found that work­ers with AD/HD spent more than 22 few­er “role per­for­mance” days per year (includ­ing 8.7 days absent) work­ing com­pared with non-AD/HD work­ers. AD/HD work­ers said they could not car­ry out their rou­tine tasks.

Fur­ther­more, com­pared to women with­out AD/HD, women diag­nosed with AD/HD in adult­hood were found to be more like­ly to have depres­sive symp­toms, be more stressed and anx­ious, and have low­er self-esteem.

What can adults do if they think they present AD/HD symptoms?

They should see a doc­tor to seek diag­nos­tic and take appro­pri­ate med­ica­tions. Per­haps try to struc­ture and orga­nize their envi­ron­ment dif­fer­ent­ly to help cope with the chal­lenges. Per­haps find lit­tle ways to grad­u­al­ly train attention.

In any case, this is an impor­tant mat­ter, for employ­ees, and for companies.

Pascale Michelon— This arti­cle was writ­ten by Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, Ph. D., for Dr. Mich­e­lon, Copy­right 2008. Dr. Mich­e­lon has a Ph.D. in Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­o­gy and has worked as a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in Saint Louis, in the Psy­chol­o­gy Depart­ment. She con­duct­ed sev­er­al research projects to under­stand how the brain makes use of visu­al infor­ma­tion and mem­o­rizes facts. She is now an Adjunct Fac­ul­ty at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, and teach­es Mem­o­ry Work­shops in numer­ous retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties in the St Louis area.

Fur­ther reading:

- Link to the cita­tion and study: Here.

- Promis­ing Cog­ni­tive Train­ing Stud­ies for ADHD.

- Mind­ful­ness Med­i­ta­tion for Adults & Teens with ADHD.

- Work­ing Mem­o­ry Train­ing for Adults.


  1. Mary Lummerding on July 31, 2008 at 7:42

    This col­umn miss­es an impor­tant part of being ADHD: the enter­tain­er, the ideas per­son. ADHD can be a very pos­i­tive thing. They think out­side of the box. They stim­u­late the rest of us. They can find jobs to suit them instead of try­ing to adapt to an unsuit­able job.
    They don’t need med­i­cine unless they are try­ing to con­form. They can exer­cise to work off excess ener­gy. Employ­ers should offer gym facil­i­ties or encour­age exercise.
    My expe­ri­ence is from being mar­ried to one and rais­ing anoth­er, who is 19 yrs old.

  2. Alvaro on August 1, 2008 at 8:43

    Hel­lo Mary: I´d say both Yes and No. Yes in that every per­son has cog­ni­tive strengths and weak­ness­es, and we can both improve on the lat­ter while cel­e­brate the former.

    No in that ADD/ADHD is a seri­ous con­di­tion that mer­its inter­ven­tion to help the live and work of the per­son involved. Some­times I get the impres­sions that 50% of adults would say they have atten­tion deficit when, as indi­cat­ed above, it may range around 3–5%. I have seen no research indi­cat­ing that being diag­nosed with ADHD makes one more cre­ative or have more ener­gy. We may be mix­ing things.

  3. Dr Antonio Méndez Pérez on August 12, 2008 at 12:31

    We are think­ing about an study of two groups of work­ers to obtain if there is a direct rela­tion between work acci­dent and DDA.

  4. Dr Antonio Méndez Pérez on August 12, 2008 at 12:34

    What is the test you think we must use in this study.?
    One group will be work­ers with­out accidents,the oth­er work­ers with mul­ti­ple events per year.
    The per­son that make the test dont know the group that the work­er is included.

  5. Alvaro on August 14, 2008 at 11:05

    Dr. Mendez Perez, I will send you an email to see how we can help. Un saludo

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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