Building Better Tech Cultures for People with ADHD

Many tech workers with ADHD don’t fit the stereotypes.

by Anonymous Author on August 15th, 2016

Close your eyes and imagine a software engineer with ADHD. You’re probably picturing a white man, more into computers than people. He might interrupt his colleagues, ruffle feathers with his bluntness, fidget endlessly. People overlook his “deficits” because he can code… and because of his race and gender.

Many tech workers with ADHD don’t fit those stereotypes. I’m one of them.

I was diagnosed as an adult over a decade ago. My late diagnosis fits the pattern: studies show that marginalized people including women, people of color and/or people of lower socioeconomic status are less likely to be diagnosed as children. ADHD is a neurological disorder characterized by inattention and impulsivity, and there are two major types: inattentive and hyperactive. It’s often comorbid with other mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression (shout out to my fellow ADHDers who are collecting all three). Although most people struggle to pay attention from time to time, ADHD is characterized by pervasive and severe symptoms that impact daily functioning. Sleeping on piles of undone laundry, utility bill shutoff, losing my keys several times a day: that’s what my life was like before diagnosis.

Key lost on a concrete floor.

Photo CC-BY mihi_tr.

After years of treatment, medication, and behavioral modification, some things have gotten easier for me; other things remain hard. Tech companies can be a distracting environment for anyone, but distractions hit ADHD folks a lot harder. The challenges of being a woman in a technical role combine with my struggles to focus, negatively impacting my productivity and self-esteem. Women, and other intersectionally marginalized folks with ADHD, face unique challenges working in the tech industry.

Workplace distractions

Trouble getting started is my worst ADHD symptom. When I sit down to write code, I stare uncomprehending at the variables on my screen, not knowing where to start and lacking the executive function to find a way in. If I get stuck for too long, I spiral into shame, anxiety, and self-doubt. ADHD stigma couples with the pressure gender minorities in tech face to “prove it again,” yielding debilitating impostor syndrome and a negative feedback loop of lowered productivity.

In addition to internal struggles, many external factors tank my productivity. The ubiquitous open floor plan office is basically hell for me. I lack the ability to filter out constant chatter from my coworkers, barking dogs, blaring music in common areas, people playing foosball. I tried working from quieter areas, but I received feedback from my coworkers that they didn’t feel like I was part of the team because I was away from my desk so much.

Don’t even get me started on Slack. Slack hasn’t replaced email. Instead, it’s another platform that is even more difficult to step away from. Slack’s slick UI (and useless “Do Not Disturb” mode) mixes with tech cultural values to produce expectations of 24/7 connectivity. In the past week alone, I have received Slack messages from a coworker past 10PM, unintentionally messaged a coworker who was in the hospital, and been instructed by my manager to message a coworker who was out of the office on vacation. Studies have shown that the ability to disconnect completely is crucial for maintaining mental health, and since under-represented and intersectionally oppressed folks face work stress that white cis het neurotypical men don’t, disconnecting is even more important for us.

Teambuilding and cultural mythology

A row of empty bar stools at a dive bar, Christmas lights strewn along the bar top and posters on the wall in the background.

Photo CC-BY Kinolamp.

In addition to myriad work-related interruptions, tech workers are also expected to participate in a constant parade of bullshit social activities. I’ve been invited to three offsites in a three week period: one for my cross-functional organization, one for my project team, and one for my immediate team. Often, these events involve alcohol, which isn’t great for many ADHD folks with co-morbid substance disorders. A lot of people with ADHD struggle with loud and chaotic social environments, and making small talk, so it’s hard to plan an offsite that’s going to be inclusive of our needs.

I avoid these events when I can, but I’ve received pushback in the past. One of my coworkers made a meme about me skipping an offsite and sent it to our entire department. I don’t care if other people want to spend their time socializing, but I need to spend my work hours doing my job, because I’m already behind. While building relationships with my colleagues is important, I can do that by working together on the things we’re building. The way tech is so consumed with team building, and the mythology that we’re all friends outside of work, is yet another symptom of how broken and exclusionary the industry is.

Mental health is still taboo

In spite of the never-ending conversations about diversity in tech, mental health is still a taboo topic. I am afraid to come out at work and ask for support or accommodation, because the last thing I want is to draw scrutiny towards my shortcomings. Double standards come into play too. The ADHD-related forgetfulness of white men is often affectionately ignored, filtered through tropes like the brilliant, absent-minded professor. But people who aren’t white or male are perceived as incompetent for the same behaviors. Thus, people like me feel pressure to hide and conform. Impersonating a neurotypical person is exhausting and adds another layer of stress on top of existing challenges.

When I have come out about my disability, I’ve been told “no, you don’t have ADHD” or “ADHD doesn’t exist.”  I have a hard enough time believing that my struggles are the result of biology, not character flaws. I need your support, not your assertion that my struggles aren’t real. And ableist language abounds: people toss around words like “crazy” and laugh about having “ADHD moments.”

Policies and expectations

Everyone needs time to rest and recharge, especially folks who struggle with mental health issues. Although my company has an unlimited vacation policy, I feel guilty taking time off, painfully aware that I’m already less productive than other engineers. By avoiding vacation, I’m putting myself on the road to burnout.

Sea-green Adderall pills on the interior of the plastic pill jar.

Photo CC-BY Tony Webster.

I am immensely privileged to have health insurance that covers mental health care; some of my coworkers who are contractors don’t have that luxury. Even for those with health insurance, access to medication can be challenging: there’s a well-documented psychiatrist shortage in the United States, and providers cannot give refills for many ADHD meds, which are controlled substances. So, I have to see my doctor every month, and then drop off a new paper prescription at the pharmacy. Fitting these doctor appointments into my demanding work schedule is difficult. It’s ironic that the people who categorically have a harder time jumping through hoops have to jump through even more hoops, just to get the medication that we need, while other people who don’t need it often abuse it recreationally.

Mental health and inclusivity recommendations

How can tech better support workers with ADHD, especially those from under-represented groups, who face even more cultural stigmas and pressures?

To start, tech companies should banish open floor plan offices, or at least make them quieter. Allow people to work from wherever they are most productive, without repercussions for “not being a team player.” Establish quiet zones, and cultural norms or signals to allow workers some amount of uninterrupted work time.

Make offsites optional. Explore alternative ways to build team cohesion. Explicitly state that you don’t expect workers to be constantly present on Slack, and then follow through. Establish a minimum vacation policy so that employees know what’s expected of them, and support workers in actually taking that time off. Stop having so many useless meetings for the sake of meetings. Run the meetings that are absolutely necessary as efficiently as possible.

Apply flexible work policies fairly and consistently across the board — don’t privilege engineers here. Make sure that your health insurance policies provide decent mental health coverage for everyone, and advocate for contract companies used by your company to provide these benefits as well. As Maria Noel Fernandez has said: “Tech companies really have such a say, a responsibility, and opportunity to make sure that their subcontractors are allowing their workers to have a voice on the job, allowing their workers to have a decent wage, that they have benefits.”

Believe people when they say they have invisible disabilities. Don’t jokingly toss around terms like “OCD” or “ADHD” to describe your behavior, unless you’re actually struggling with these conditions yourself. Work to remove ableist language (such as “crazy”) from your vocabulary. Do append people with mental illnesses, neurological conditions and invisible disabilities to your list of diverse groups we need to care about, and for.

These suggestions won’t fix everything, but they’re a start. If tech actually cares about neurodiversity and keeping people like me around, there’s much more work to be done.