Written by Claire Pech – Careers Advisor – Claire Pech Careers
Having worked with students and adults with ADHD and their families, over time I see some common challenges and benefits of having ADHD, in relation to career planning and career satisfaction. I have seen students who are incredibly frustrated with some of their own ADHD symptoms, and I will talk about this further. I have also seen students who love the energy, hyperfocus and impulsivity their ADHD gives them, and at times that can be an asset for their career.
In this article I will address four areas:
- If ADHD can impede career planning
- Whether having ADHD causes challenges for career satisfaction
- How having ADHD can be a positive in a career,
- How neurotypical people can learn from people with ADHD in relation to their own career planning
Can ADHD impede career planning?
The examples I am giving in this article are anecdotal in nature. There are lots of articles and papers in great sources like Additude Mag, but I will keep this personal and based on my experiences, over a few decades working with students. So, the question is “What have I noticed as the drawbacks in career planning – especially in the senior years of high school?”
I have found students need the following skills when career-planning, (in no particular order):-
- Planning skills
- Organising skills
- Time management skills
- Forward thinking capabilities
- Imaginative capabilities
- A sense of self-efficacy/hope/wishful thinking/positivity
People with ADHD have impaired executive functioning skills. This means that planning and organising skills do not come as naturally to those, then people who don’t have ADHD.
For Year 12 students in Australia, there is a vast amount of information that circulates about Universities, TAFE, tertiary courses, open days, special schemes, early offer schemes, disadvantage schemes, apprenticeships, work experience opportunities and many more. The number of resources that are now accessed has exponentially increased in the decade that I have been in this role in my school. If I was in Year 12, I would be overwhelmed by the amount of choice, the amount to understand and decipher and also the amount of flexibility and multiple options available. A large part of my job is selecting which information will be relevant to my student group and also which information is not going to be necessary for them to be bombarded with. Information overload can be a serious Year 12 hazard.
To get applications in on time, deadlines must be met. When I went to University, a million years ago, we had three course choices to fill in, in a paper-based form. We had one date deadline. That was it. No schemes, no special considerations, no extra points for doing anything other than those last exams. This could be considered a curse back then. But it was also a blessing from a planning point of view.
This is now a typical Sydney Year 12 students’ profile for a tertiary application. They can apply to:
- University of Technology Sydney (UTS) directly for early offers – for 3 choices.
- Macquarie University directly for the Leaders and Achievers Program with written application – for 5 choices.
- ANU directly for the Early Offer process – for 5 choices.
- Notre Dame or ACU or Western Sydney directly for another early offer program for 3 choices.
- University Admissions Centre (UAC) Application for the main December round – for 5 choices.
- UAC for the January Round, which allows another 5 choices.
- Educational Access Scheme – application for any long-term disadvantages throughout Year 11 and Year 12 (for example having ADHD). This requires more forms to be filled out by the applicant, and also to manage for their doctors/specialists and the school to sign off on it. Relevant documentation also needs to be supplied and added and uploaded to their UAC application.
- Potentially a private college/university application for example with Torrens University
- Potentially a TAFE application
You can imagine how overwhelming all of this is and this is for any student. This is on top of the usual assessment deadlines and study regimes. Even as I wrote that down, the list felt exhausting. Each of these schemes have separate dates to apply by and to. They have separate bits of paperwork, portals, and processes. They have separate log-ins and passwords too. In short – organisation and time planning skills are needed. In the last three years alone these processes have multiplied in line with COVID supports that the Universities and tertiary institutions have put on.
If planning and organising skills are already at a disadvantage, trying to manage all of this, can be next to impossible.
We then build into this that students have to consider what tertiary courses best suit them, what options are the best for them, students need to be able to forward-see a little bit as best they can. For all students this can be tricky. This is why I suggest doing as much research as possible, getting out to open days and being involved in this process. Simply reading about a course off a website or brochure just won’t cut it. Students need to feel their way and ‘attend’ to make these bigger decisions.
In order for students to succeed whether at an apprenticeship, at TAFE, in work, or at university, they need a sense of self-efficacy. They need to feel that they can and will succeed. Often with the schooling system, students have experienced struggles in the classroom with concentration levels, with lack of focus, maybe with impulsivity. This can have an impact on their self-esteem, and their sense of being able to complete the courses they have chosen.
So how can these shortcomings be overcome?
I would suggest enlisting the help of your schools Careers Advisor early. Try and let them know your interests, your plans and your future goals so they can support you as much as possible. You can co-create documents that allow you to list your plans, and that can be shared with the necessary agents (parents/family/careers advisor) to help support these plans. You can then continually check in with them to ensure you are on track. I tell my students in Year 12 that they can book in with me as often as they see fit. Students who need help in managing the administrative requirements need more check-ins and more supports.
Enlist the help of support in terms of the administration needed to complete these applications. That may be someone at home (a parent) or a sibling who has been through this before, or even a tutor or private careers coach. They will know some shortcuts, but remembering that each year the gold posts change slightly. Make your calendar/diary/reminder-system your best friend. Find out what works for you. For me – I am a paper-based person. I love a solid diary (in my hands). I use one for school. I use one for homelife. And I have done this since the age of 18. I know everyone uses Google Calendar and Outlook (I use these also) but my preferred method is always paper-based. It can’t be anything where a battery supply can let me down. Finding the best tools for you, can really be of value. For my Year 12’s I have email reminders that are pre-set, to remind them of the various schemes a few days before they close. That will keep them on track. Using the tools and strategies that are best suited to the student can be critical.
How does ADHD create challenges during one’s working life?
Now that I have touched on some of the issues facing the typical student in managing to get their career planning off the ground, I also come across people who find their ADHD getting in the way of their working life.
From the Additude Magazine article of 15 June 2022, it reports on a survey of 1450 adult workers with ADHD. An interesting 56% of them chose not to tell their employer about their neurodiversity. I was delighted to read that over half of respondents were very happy or happy with their working life. Whilst only 10% were miserable or very unhappy. This leaves about 40% of respondents sitting in the middle, neither miserable but also neither happy or satisfied with their roles.
Common issues reported:-
- Lack of motivation
- Repetitive work
- Lack of completion of tasks.
58% of respondents found that ADHD had an impact on their working life but in a way that they felt could be overcome with strategies. Of those hindrances participants ranked these issues:-
- Distractibility: 88% (solutions were noise-cancelling headphones, quiet office areas, tech set ups to avoid time wasting)
- Difficulty managing time: 77% (solutions: diary solutions, reminders, smart phones etc)
- Disorganisation: 65% (solution: planning tools, diary, concise note taking)
- Concerns with working memory: 62% (again note taking, voice recordings, voice to text email)
- Boredom: 54% (solution: deadlines, having others zoom in to stay on task, regular check ins, varied work tasks)
- Heightened emotionality: 49% (solution: self-imposed time outs, practiced self-care)
- Impulsivity: 47% (solution: blocked sites eg. gambling or shopping sites)
- Social challenges: 40% (solution: some liked to share their diagnosis, form support groups, find an advocate)
- High energy: 29% (finding high-energy work environments where those temperaments were celebrated. E.g. libraries are probably not the best work setting!)
Anecdotally, I know some adult workers who prefer to have high exercise loads to help them focus throughout the day. Some examples of some working habits that help (which would also help in the school day):-
- Exercising first thing in the mornings (relevant research here)
- A plan and To-Do list for each day and sharing this list to stay accountable
- Regular movement breaks
- Regular social breaks if human interaction helped
- Timed allocations for checking-in and responding to emails
- Having a team member checking in to see where everyone is up to (i.e. keeping workers honest and accountable)
- Distracting behaviours blocked (e.g. social media checking, news feeds limited to timers, tiktok has a new functionality where you can set your daily limit use)
- Walking meetings rather than sitting
- Voice to text functions to allow for emails to be sent whilst dictating and walking rather than sitting and stagnant
- Finding where flow happens best (could be out walking, communicating, and moving, standing, being outdoors etc)
- Knowing how to get the best outcomes possible and repeating these behaviours e.g. “I had the most amazing and productive meeting when I walked around with Sandra in the parklands, and we put together a really creative proposal idea everything just came together.” Try and emulate what went well.
- There is some evidence from this paper that suggests that people with ADHD who are able to move more in their work life have less wage differentials.
Whilst we know that people with ADHD can have these challenges that can feel like hard work, we also need to acknowledge the huge benefits that people with ADHD bring into the workforce. There are now many books about ADHD being a superpower. There are boundless examples of people with ADHD and how they have contributed to society. A few examples from this list being Michael Phelps (swimmer), Simone Biles (gymnast), Walt Disney (cartoons), John Lennon (lead singer of the Beatles), Emma Watson (actress), George Bernard Shaw (playwright), Ryan Gosling (actor) to name a few. It is important to harness the positives and seek supports for the challenges.
How does ADHD have a positive force in one’s working life?
There are many amazing positive traits that people with ADHD bring to all sorts of jobs, industries and career areas. In this article alone they list 50 great job suggestions that people with ADHD can thrive in. There is no common link between them all. Many are jobs where you are on your feet and moving, for example a teacher, a nurse, a stable hand and so on. But there are also some which are obscure such as a monk, an accountant, a harp instructor (!) and more.
So what are some of the common positives that can really enhance your career?
There are plenty of graphics, especially for children, like this one above that showcases the positive work attributes of ADHD including:
- being creative
- being a great problem solver
- having good intuition
- being curious
- having great energy supplies
- being able to hyper-focus
- having a sense of humour and so on.
These are all common traits that I see often at school, in the workplace, with colleagues and in my own home.
I also often see a common link between ADHD and entrepreneurialism. A few of the commonalities that I have come across are:
- a boundless energy needed
- a positive outlook to know all will work out
- a desire to work for yourself when working for others has not worked out well
- a desire to be the creator of your own destiny
- a willingness to pick yourself up after another set back
- a resilience in getting on with it
- being able to steer your own ship
- having new ideas
- being creative
- being able to see solutions that others cannot see
- being imaginative and finding unique ideas to common problems
Dr Novotni in this article says “Whilst it is important to manage your challenges, it is also important to exploit and build on your strengths.” She suggests finding the positive traits that work for you in your job (e.g., being creative in the advertising meetings) and try and make a daily commitment to build upon that skill at work. Find a place to really shine a positive light on your ADHD trait that enhances your career.
How can neurotypical people learn from people with ADHD in relation to their own career planning?
Advice given to people with ADHD to overcome their adversities can also apply to people without ADHD to thrive in their work life. I feel people without ADHD could really learn from following some of this advice. I would suggest others can learn from the ADHD community by following some of these guidelines.
- Following what you really enjoy. I don’t like the phrase ‘find your passion’ as it can be cliched and passions change over time, but if you love people and you enjoy being around them, and you feel energised by others, then it really makes sense to choose a job where people are a focus. This could be teaching, nursing, coaching, fitness training, customer service and so on. Whether you have ADHD or not this is advice I would give to anyone in terms of finding job satisfaction.
- Use your strengths as much as possible. If you are great with numbers and you enjoy using them, then seek out work using numbers. If you love food, you adore cooking, you get a buzz from producing meals for crowds, then follow with that line of thinking. Whatever you are good at, usually feels good to do. It will mean that work that you do will be less likely to feel like a chore, and less likely to become monotonous. I adore everything to do with careers and I have never bored of finding out more. If I had to work with numbers, it would be a very different story. “Follow your nose” is a phrase I use a lot to see where your interests take you.
- Use your supports for you to work successfully (whether it is hiring others who are great at administration or using software that helps you out or having a brilliant executive assistant who keeps you on track). If you have ADHD or not, we all know what our shortcomings are, and we all need supports in certain areas. I happen to work beside the I.T. Department which means all my IT needs are taken care of quickly. Know the supports you need and use them as much as you can. Don’t shy away from the supports, but be proud to know you use them. I had a real estate agent who knew his administrative skills were his weakness, but his relationship-management skills were second to none. He won in new business, he made his company millions and he hired the best assistants who had the administrative skills that he lacked.
- Lifelong learning – make this your mantra. We all need to upskill and as long as you are interested in your subject matter it should not feel laborious. I learned a great piece of advice about a decade ago which said spend 5% of your work time learning new things about your job. If you are interested in your area this should be fun to do. That is when you know you are in the right career.
I hope I have highlighted some areas where people with ADHD need support in terms of career planning and career progression. I have tried to offer up some solutions for overcoming those hurdles. I have also tried to highlight how having ADHD can be a great force in your career and how those strategies used can be great for anyone in search of career satisfaction and learning how to thrive in any career.
- Career Choices and Work Place Challenges in those with ADHD
- Adult ADHD in Motion: Workplace Physical Activity and Improved Occupational Outcomes for Adults With ADHD
- ADHD Benefits in the Workplace (CHADD.org)
- Disrupted network architecture of the resting brain in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (Sripada et al., 2014)
- Neurobiological circuits regulating attention, cognitive control, motivation, and emotion (Arnsten & Rubia, 2012)