How to recognise ADHD masking at work

A man in a sunny home office writes on a white board with a marker.
People with ADHD sometimes disguise problems with time management or memory by writing everything down or creating systems to find what they need. (Catherine Falls Commercial via Getty Images)

Before setting up her own business, Suzy Rowland had a busy, successful career in corporate communications. But what she was experiencing internally didn’t match her confident, extroverted exterior.

“I became quite proficient at masking,” she says. “I love bright colours and would make sure that I always dressed very well for work – which often provided a point of conversation which meant I didn’t need to make small talk.”

In October 2022, Rowland was diagnosed with ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD brains are both structurally and functionally different, which means the condition affects people in varying ways. Problems with organisation, time management, concentration, forgetfulness, restlessness and impulsivity are common, but it can also lead to difficulty regulating emotions or communicating.

Masking is when someone with ADHD acts in a way they think is socially acceptable, in order to fit in with those around them or avoid being stigmatised. What people do to ‘mask’ varies, but it can mean hiding symptoms by controlling impulses, suppressing emotional reactions or copying the behaviours of neurotypical people. It requires tremendous energy to do – and often leads to exhaustion and anxiety.

Rowland would rehearse what she was going to say in meetings, as speaking made her feel flustered and forgetful. While her colleagues went for drinks after work, she would make her excuses and go home because she found it hard to follow the ‘banter’.

Read more: Does being 'high functioning' mask mental health problems at work?

“I would also avoid certain finance tasks, like estimating, invoicing and timesheets as I found the IT system too confusing and difficult for my ADHD brain to manage,” she explains. “Instead, I would work hard in other areas – particularly high profile, attention-grabbing new business activities – to deflect attention from my anxieties about the financial side of my role. It was all quite exhausting.”

Now, Rowland is now an author and advocate for neurodiverse children and their families at the Happy in School Project. “I’ve learned how to lean into my positive strengths to my professional advantage,” she says.

An estimated 1.9 million adults have ADHD, but this is likely a conservative figure – and charities suggest as many as 2 million have the condition but are undiagnosed. Masking is common, particularly among girls and women.

Hester Grainger, who was diagnosed with ADHD at 43, is an ADHD coach and is also co-founder of Perfectly Autistic, a workplace neurodiversity consultancy.

“Masking is basically the act of hiding who you are, hiding your condition from others in order to try and fit-in. Essentially you are having to play a character every day,” she says. “I often have to desperately try not to interrupt people when they are talking. I often find myself trying not to laugh so loudly. It takes a huge toll and is both mentally and physically exhausting.”

One of the main problems with masking is that it requires intense energy and focus. Although research on the phenomenon is scarce, it has been linked to social anxiety and a loss of a sense of identity, as well as guilt and shame.

Someone who is masking their ADHD may overwork so they appear capable and reliable, or bottle up their emotions, even if they’re struggling. They may also rely on intensive coping mechanisms to appear ‘fine’ on the outside or disguise problems with time management or memory. For example, by writing everything down, obsessively organising paperwork or creating systems to find what they need. It can be time-consuming, and lead to burnout.

Masking can also delay a diagnosis if the true extent of their symptoms – and the impact – is hidden away. Essentially, ADHD masking replaces outward stress with internal stress, which if left unchecked, can lead to anxiety and depression.

Unmasking isn’t easy, especially if someone has spent their whole life hiding their authentic self. It requires people who don’t have ADHD to be inclusive and welcoming of their neurodivergent peers and colleagues.

“Employers can support employees with ADHD and many adjustments don’t cost a penny,” says Grainger. “By understanding and accommodating people with ADHD, organisations can unlock tremendous potential for innovation, problem-solving, and productivity.”

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Small changes include setting an agenda for meetings. “After a meeting, check if everyone has a list of specific actions – if they need them – and make sure that everyone understands their actions too,” she says. “Help people work out their deadlines. This can be extremely difficult when you have ADHD, as your brain thinks everything is urgent.”

Some people may benefit from working remotely or flexibly, or working in an environment that suits them – for example, with fewer distractions than a traditional, open-plan office.

Ultimately, though, individuals with ADHD all have different needs, so it’s important for employers to find out what they need, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Let employees know that the organisation is ADHD friendly and will support colleagues who share their diagnosis,” adds Grainer. “Also offer support through ADHD coaching and neurodiversity training.”

Watch: How to be an ally to your colleague with dyslexia at work

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