Friday, 12 April 2013

ADHD at work: helping others over getting the task done?

New research looking at how ADHD affects performance at work. The condition has a high prevalance, with 4.4% of American adults estimated to have it, and a body of research suggests that it can influence work outcomes like productivity, work conflict and turnover. Jonathon Halbesleben, Anthony Wheeler, and Kristen Shanine have just published research suggesting that ADHD may have consequences via two routes: encouraging behaviours that are not pointed at intended goals, and eroding the benefits that workers normally experience when they are in an engaged state.

The research applied its investigations to three samples of slightly different demographics, each numbering hundreds of participants (between 170 and 257). Samples were drawn by different methods and measured on two occasions six months apart using slightly different tools ; this variance made it possible to internally replicate any findings and make them more generalisable. Job performance was partitioned into multiple factors: performance of work tasks, and frequency of discretionary organisational citizenship behaviours (OCBs) towards either the organisation or other individuals. In the second and third sample, participants' performance was also rated by their coworkers or supervisors, using the same task/OCB measures. ADHD was measured throughout using a standard self-report scale, and used to create three group of low, moderate and high ADHD risk, with about 10% being in the latter across samples, and the rest evenly split between low and moderate. Participants reported work engagement using a scale capturing vigor, dedication, and absorption.

Replicating previous work, ADHD was negatively associated with job performance on all measures in all samples, with the exception of sample two's self-reported task performance. Engagement was shown to be significantly related to performance within all the samples, but greater ADHD diminished the relationship: in fact, for the high ADHD group the relationship was not significantly different from zero. Halbesleben team had predicted this pattern: whereas engagement  normally provides excess work-related resources that can be channeled towards work outcomes, the problems that people with ADHD report in prioritisation and completion of tasks means that they struggle to make the most of these extra resources.

If ADHD leads to attention-grabbing features of the environment triggering behaviours that crowd out goal-directed ones, then we might be able to see this in the types of performance that are more affected. The researchers predicted that as OCBs are often themselves triggered by environmental events, such as a colleague asking for help, they would do fairly well - at the expense of task performance. When these discretionary behaviours involve helping an individual, the short-term incentives, like gratitude or social pressure, can be particularly acute.

The self-report data didn't show this pattern. However, coworkers and supervisor ratings (from samples two and three) showed a stronger negative relationship between ADHD and task performance than between ADHD and OCBs. As the researchers note, 'whereas others view those with ADHD as diverting their attention toward less task-relevant behaviors, the employees themselves do not view themselves as doing the same.'

The paper suggests some clearer mechanisms of how ADHD may influence work performance, and in doing so helps us develop our ideas about how to support people with this condition. Previous ideas, such as time management tools, quieter work areas and reduced clutter (physical and on our computer homescreen) could all minimise the impediments between the state of engagement and productivity. Meanwhile, we can recognise that the possible tendency for people with ADHD to be more likely to put energies into positive discretionary behaviours - similar to research on impulsivity we've reported on - is both a potential organisational asset, but also something that we should be careful not to exploit, as it may be a barrier to effective performance on mandated tasks.

ResearchBlogging.orgHalbesleben, J., Wheeler, A., & Shanine, K. (2013). The moderating role of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in the work engagement–performance process. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18 (2), 132-143 DOI: 10.1037/a0031978

Further reading:

Kessler, R. C., Adler, L., Ames, M., Barkley, R. A., Birnbaum, H., Greenberg, P., . . . Ust√ľn, T. B. (2005). The prevalence and effects of adult attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder on work performance in a nationally representative sample of workers. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 47, 565–572. doi:10.1097/01.jom.0000166863.33541.39


  1. As the article recognized that environmental factors triggered people who have ADHD, people who are diagnosed with this need something to stimulate them more than the average person to get tasks done. Yes, maybe cleaning off their desk would help them focus more and not get as distracted, but they still need something to stimulate them because their attention span is much shorter than normal. For example, in a learning setting a student needs something more to stimulate them to so they can use elaborative rehearsal, which is to build on something one already knows about to put something to long term memory (Don Hockenbury and Sandra Hockenbury 239).

  2. People with ADHD need more stimulus for the brain to function than the average person so even though in the article it says they should minimize distractions and this will help because it will minimize non work related activities and energy but knowing what we know about attention and stimulus this will not only lead the person with ADHD to not getting more work done but may actually decrease because the brain will then still not have enough stimulus. If they got to work with music or have a television on while they were doing work this would make their brain settle down because it would have enough stimulus. People with ADHD have the power to not be distracted by that external noise therefore being able to focus on a task.

    1. (Hockenbury fifth edition)