What are your rights at work if you have ADHD?

Businesswoman with a laptop having a video call Work ADHD
ADHD symptoms can create challenges at work, but with the right support someone with ADHD can thrive. Photo: Getty

Awareness of ADHD — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — has grown exponentially. Despite this, though, the neurological condition is still widely misunderstood.

The stereotype of the little boy who can’t sit still doesn’t take into account the growing number of adults with ADHD and the symptoms that can make work life challenging — especially in a world largely designed for neurotypical people.

Between 3% and 4% of the population of the UK — roughly 1.9 million — have ADHD. And between 2000 and 2018, there was a twenty-fold increase in ADHD diagnoses in adults in the UK, thought to be the result of a greater understanding of the condition.

No one knows exactly what causes a person to have ADHD, but studies suggest it’s linked to a neurotransmitter called dopamine — or rather, a lack of it. This chemical allows us to regulate emotional responses and take action to achieve certain rewards. Neuroimaging has also revealed the structural differences in the ADHD brain.

The symptoms vary, but adults with the condition may struggle with organisation, time management, coping with stress, distraction, completing tasks and rejection sensitivity — emotional distress in response to perceived rejection.

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Understandably, this can create challenges at work. With the right support, though, someone with ADHD can thrive.

Alessandra Gritt, who works in PR and was diagnosed with ADHD in 2021, says she often feels the impact of having the condition.

“There are certain times during my hormonal cycle that my meds don’t have their usual impact, so it can be frustrating when that coincides with a busy period at work,” she says.

“Sometimes I find it difficult to motivate myself to do the fun, exciting things as I do — no matter how much I might want to.”

But with support from her employer, Gritt has created a schedule that suits her. “My focus is better in the afternoon, so I tend to split my day into a morning of admin or more straightforward tasks, like catching up on emails, and plan my more intense tasks for later in the day,” she says.

Being able to work from home is also helpful. “I’ve set my desk up to be as ADHD-friendly as possible,” Gritt says.

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“I have a rainbow-coloured digital clock to avoid losing track of time, and I have everything I need within reach because needing to get up will break my focus. Everything has a place, because clutter distracts me.

“The best thing for my wellbeing has been embracing the way my brain works, rather than fighting it.”

Gritt’s employer reaps the benefits of giving her flexibility — she’s good under the pressure of a deadline, for example.

Unfortunately, not all businesses are supportive — but people with ADHD do have certain workplace rights.

Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people at work — as outlined by the Equality Act 2010 — which the criteria of an ADHD diagnosis would typically meet.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at the law and HR firm Peninsula, explains: “It is also unlawful for employers to put an employee to a detriment because of something arising from a disability. A person can also bring a claim if they disclose that they have ADHD during a job application process and are treated less favourably because of it.”

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Employers are also under an obligation to make reasonable adjustments for employees with ADHD. “Adjustments will vary from person to person depending on their individual needs,” Palmer adds.

“They could include adjustments to physical features of the workplace such as noise levels and lighting, to the employee’s working pattern, or perhaps providing certain software or equipment to help them do their job.”

These changes don’t have to be big, either. Small adjustments can make a big difference, like letting people use headphones to listen to music while they work.

“It can help to have meeting notes and instructions in writing rather than verbally communicated,” says Palmer.

“The onus is on the employer to provide reasonable adjustments for employees, so discussions should take place to determine which adjustments they may need. The key here is to show understanding and flexibility.”

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