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Living and working with ADHD: An interview with Hannah Adelsberg-Mclean

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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most common behavioural disorder in the UK, affecting around 5% of children and young people. What’s less often noted is that many adults also live with the condition.

At RBS, we’re working to help develop a truly inclusive culture, one that enables people, with all abilities, and those who care for others, to bring the best of themselves to work.

Having a disability should not deter anyone from wanting to start their working life with Early Careers, as the potential to progress is available for everyone. By promoting awareness of disability and its impact, we can create a better bank for colleagues, customers and the communities where we work.

Our colleague, Hannah Adelsberg-Mclean was diagnosed with ADHD in 2015. Hannah works as a Change Analyst in our Personal & Business Banking Services team, a role which involves great focus and attention to detail. Here, in her own words, she vividly describes what living and working with ADHD is really like.

Living with ADHD

My ADHD is a bit like my five-year-old self. I try to push her aside, but she's noisy and fierce. I'm not proud to admit it, but she's my driving force – and that can be both motivating and destructive.

I might burst into tears just because I had my heart set on pancakes, and they're no longer on the menu. I know that sounds really immature, but in the moment my emotions take control and I'm a helpless passenger. Afterwards my adult self takes over, picks up the pieces and apologises, and feels generally really awful.

It's like when I was made, my emotions were turned up an extra notch, but my ability to control them was turned the other way.

And the motivating part...?

On the plus side, if I'm interested in something, there's nothing that can pull me away. Whether it's writing or reading, or completing a piece of work, I can't move on from it until I'm finished. If there's something I want to do, and I'm not doing it, every single little task – right down to going to the eating lunch – is a barrier to me.

I first went to the doctor in August 2013, after my partner pointed out that some of my behaviour was ‘different’. Almost two years later I was officially diagnosed with ADHD. Finally getting a diagnosis felt like such a relief.

Working with ADHD

It’s hard to explain, but for me sounds don’t get lost in the background, patterns on people's shirts are distracting, smells are intensified. At work I constantly have music in my ears to shut out background noise and create a controlled environment.

As a Change Analyst my work requires real concentration. I’m often writing documents that can be long and complex, and it’s crucial we get them right. I also spend a lot of time in meetings or on the phone to various members of different teams. All this might sound like a tall order.

Some days I'll do a week's worth of work and others I'll barely make it to meetings on time. If my brain's fixated on something else – the next chapter of my novel, or the fact that I've got an episode of Agent Carter to watch – then it's like trying to sprint through treacle to pull myself back on track.

Whilst I always catch up with myself, it causes me a lot of stress. Sometimes I've had to walk away from my desk and cry because I feel overwhelmed by my to-do list or frustrated with myself for not being able to get it together. It's humiliating. And I do take it home with me.

Support at Work

I’m terrified of sounding like I'm giving excuses. "Sorry I haven't done this today, I’m having a bad ADHD day" sounds so weak when someone's seen you power through half a Project Initiation Document in a day. Thankfully, my manager is very supportive and he’s doing all he can to learn about ADHD and how best to support me.

He understands that it's not because I'm not trying. In the past that’s been a difficulty: through no fault of their own, people don’t necessarily know much about ADHD. When I’ve said, “I'm having a bad day, I just can't focus", a common response has been, “Oh, we all have days like that.” And then I get stuck, because I can't quite explain how it's different for me.

Thankfully that’s changing. With the help of Enable, our employee-led disability network, and the support of colleagues right across our business, awareness about ADHD and a whole range of other mental health issues is definitely growing and we’re shaping a culture where people don’t have to cope with these things alone.

Positive Changes

Up until recently, I'd been afraid to ask about workplace adjustments. This was partly because I hadn't been formally diagnosed; because I was afraid of being treated differently; and I also didn't know what was out there. Now I wish I'd done it earlier.

There's a lot about my role that can be personally challenging, considering the high level of concentration required. Ever since I spoke up about having ADHD, my manager has been amazing at helping me remain engaged and focused. We have a check in call every morning and he's altered how we approach some of the more formal meetings: we have them on the go and he keeps the paperwork to a minimum.

Through a scheme called Access to Work, I've been provided with a number of things that have helped my work-life immensely. A Livescribe digital pen helps me to correlate my notes with recordings of meetings and discussions, allowing me to pin-point parts of conversations that I need clarity on. Likewise a dictaphone’s been provided, so that I can support my somewhat dodgy short term memory.

I've also recently - again through Access to Work - started some workplace coaching with a company called Genius Within. They’re helping to not only rebuild my self-confidence but break down my learning styles and help implement workplace techniques that will support self-sufficiency and help me manage on the days that I struggle most.

In all honesty, with the support that I've received from the business following my official diagnosis and how wonderfully I've been treated by my colleagues and upper management, it's made me wonder why I struggled in silence for such a long time.

In spite of everything, I wouldn't change a thing about my brain.

My ADHD allows me to love and work passionately, to see colours more vibrantly. I live outside the boxes and always colour outside the lines. Change doesn't scare me. I embrace it and thrive on it. And you can always trust me to give 100% to everything I do (whether it's a good idea or not!)

Some call it a burden, a disorder, or a deficit; I don't think so. It's just who I am, who I've always been.

Thanks to Hannah for sharing her experiences. It’s encouraging to see the support that’s available for people coping with ADHD and the positive effect it can have.

Hopefully, this isn’t the end of the story. There’s still lots to be done raising awareness about mental health, and shaping together a flexible, caring and inclusive work culture where everyone has the means to reach their potential and help others do the same.

You can find further information and resources on ADHD here.