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  • Writer's pictureAnna Granta

Research Proposal - “What barriers do ADHDers face to promotion, and what factors mitigate them.”

Title

The title of this research is “What barriers do ADHDers face to promotion, and what factors mitigate them.”


Abstract

This research will be carried out in two phases to address the two parts of the research question. 


Phase 1 will identify the barriers that ADHDers face when working towards a promotion. I will do this by reviewing the existing literature on ADHD symptoms to inform a survey for HR managers, to identify the barriers they see when ADHDers apply for promotions. I will combine the quantitive data from this survey with qualitative data from interviewing a handful of managers and HR professionals.


Phase 2 will identify ways to mitigate the barriers identified in phase 1, first by reviewing existing literature and then by using a survey and interviews with ADHDers to discover what strategies they have found helpful in practise.


Introduction

In the UK, the Equality Act (2010) provides disabled employees with the right to reasonable adjustments to reduce or remove barriers to employment. Legally, ADHD is considered a disability in the UK (Mental Health Act, 1990). Some ADHDers do not consider themselves disabled or choose to use their rights, however even when ADHDers seek to use these rights they face obstacles. In practise, employers are often unable or unwilling to make meaningful adjustments for staff with ADHD, with 65% of managers saying they do not have the knowledge to support neurodivergent staff (McDowall, 2023). 


Estimates of the prevalence of adult ADHD vary, e.g. 2.5% percent of the UK population (Simon, 2009) or 3-4% (NICE, 2023). Increasing awareness has led to more diagnosed adults (McKechnie, 2023), however most research into ADHD focuses on children and more is needed into the adult experience (Godfrey, 2020).


Previous research has mainly focused on barriers that prevent disabled people from entering employment. The question of what happens next is important but under researched. For example, stats from the NHS show that only 51.3% of disabled employees believe they have equal access to career progression (Workforce Disability Equality Standard 2022 data analysis report for NHS trusts and foundation trusts, 2022). The same report showed that disabled employees were twice as likely to experience capability proceedings.


This research seeks to understand barriers that ADHDers face in accessing promotions and what reasonable adjustments are effective at enabling ADHDers to secure their rights under the Equality Act, which explicitly includes the right to access opportunities for promotion. The outcome is a set of strategies or best practices which ADHD employees and their employers can use to ensure that ADHDers are able to access opportunities for promotion.


Access to promotions is important to individuals, not just from a theoretical perspective of fairness but in terms of outcomes across the lifespan. The disability pay gap was 13.8% in 2021 in the UK (Mayhew, 2022) which equates to fewer opportunities to save for retirement, greater housing insecurity, and many other practical difficulties.


Additionally, ADHDers have valuable strengths to offer within the workforce (Crook, 2023 & Robbins, 2017). Discrimination which prevents ADHDers from fully using these skills harms not only the impacted individuals but also the wider economy. 


Literature review

Martin Seligman defines flourishing as PERMA, positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (2011). Facing barriers to promotion could potentially impact on each of these areas, with the most immediate being engagement and accomplishment. 


Engagement, or flow, occurs when the difficulty of a task matches the skill present (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). As people become more experienced at certain work activities they increase in skill (Roebber, 1996) and need increasing difficulty to experience flow. When barriers prevent promotion employees may not be able to access work challenges that provide flow, decreasing their potential wellbeing.


Barriers to promotion can also damage an employees sense of accomplishment, and their sense of self-efficacy, or control over their lives (Rand, 2018). Seen through the lens of PERMA it becomes clear that a promotion is about much more than money (though the disability pay gap is important (Mayhew, 2022)). Reducing or removing barriers to promotion for ADHDers is a promising area to research, because of the potential to increase flourishing and economic productivity.


Until recently there was a lack of research into adult ADHD experiences (Ramos-Quiroga, 2014). This is now beginning to change, however the research focus is still mainly on negative attributes of ADHD (Fuermaier, 2021) or getting disabled people into employment (Davies 2023), vs ensuring  ADHDers are able to flourish through equitable access to promotions. A medical view is still common (Mao, 2011) which prioritises medical experience over lived experience. 


This research seeks to build on the person centred work that is currently emerging from the intersection of positive psychology and neurodiversity, such as Crook (2023). Where Crook has focused on the strengths that emerge from individuals, this research considers both the internal and external factors that enable career success for ADHDers. My research also focuses specifically on the issue of promotion, rather than the broader concept of ‘career success’. Doing this will enable recommendations that connect directly to the rights set out in the Equality Act (2010).


Research Aims

This research aims to improve the life experiences of ADHDers by increasing awareness of the barriers they face to full, rewarding and meaningful employment, including equitable access to promotions. And then to find ways to mitigate those barriers. It is my belief that a clear understanding of the problems ADHDers face when being promoted will enable the development of better interventions to aid ADHDers professional success.


It is my position that more research into the experiences of ADHDers at work is much needed, due to the historic focus on childhood ADHD. I also believe that this research must include ADHDers as active participants, directing the development of interventions, not simply as passive test subjects. Wherever possible, research into minorities groups should be conducted by members of those groups.


In conducting this project, I’m aware of the risks of prompting vulnerable participants to describe and potential relive upsetting experiences, such as being unfairly denied a promotion. I reduced these risks by focusing interviews on positive experiences of what has worked well, and by selecting interview participants who have received multiple promotions. This ensures that they have some positive experiences to increase their resilience to remembering difficult experiences. Additionally, I have undertaken a level 2 course in safeguarding vulnerable adults.


Methods

In phase one this research will identify barriers that prevent or delay ADHDers who are seeking a promotion. I will do this using three different methods, generating a mixture of quantitive and qualitative data. This will allow for in depth understanding while providing evidence that the barriers identified are generalisable to a range of professional environments.


First, I will conduct a literature review to identify common adult ADHD symptoms. Then I will create a survey, based on these symptoms. The survey will be sent to HR personal and managers across different industries to determine which of the adult ADHD symptoms are a potential barrier to promotion, and at which levels they would present the barrier (entry level, mid level, leadership levels).


In addition to the symptoms, the survey will also include a free text entry box to allow respondents to describe any other barriers they see to promoting ADHDers. I will ask if their ideas are theoretical or if they have encounters employees who suffered because of those barriers. The survey will be anonymous, and any potentially identifiable details will be removed prior to including in the research. Respondents will have the option to include an email address if they wish to be kept informed of the research and to indicate if they would be willing to participate in deeper interviews.


The third stage of this phase will involve in depth interviews with up to 6 HR professionals and managers working in tech. This will allow for a deeper exploration of barriers within the tech industry, identifying further obstacles. During these interviews I will explore questions like 

  • Imagine a candidate thinks they are ready for promotion. What is the process they go through?

  • Who determines if they are successful? 

  • What factors are taken into account during the promotion process?

  • Are there any typical or common reasons why promotions are not granted?

  • Which parts of the process are transparent to candidates? Which are not?

  • Are there any subjective factors in the promotion process?

  • Can you think of a time someone with ADHD (or symptoms identified above) was a candidate for promotion? What happened? Or what do you imagine might happen?


I have chosen tech as there are many ADHDers who have found professional success in the tech industry and I wish to explore which features of the tech environment foster this success. It is also the industry in which I spent the first decade of my career and where I achieved several promotions myself as an unidentified ADHDer. Finally, it is an industry I where I have many connections due to my work in software and now as a coach, so I am hopeful that I will be able to schedule the necessary interviews. There are also limitations inherent in this approach, some of the identified strategies may not be effective, or even possible outside of tech. Tech is a male dominated industry and this could skew my sample. To mitigate this I will try to include a couple of non-male interviewees.


In phase two of these research I aim to identify ways to reduce or remove the barriers identified in phase one. This phase will be completed in four stages.


First, I will conduct a literature review exploring existing research on how to reduced the barriers that were identified in phase one. During this step I will create hypotheses for the later stages and for further research outside the scope of this project.


Second, I will interview 6 successful ADHDers in tech. I define success as having received multiple promotions. During these interviews I will explore questions like

  • Tell me what skills you get praised for regularly/were called out in your promotions.

  • Have you ever been refused a promotion? What happened?

  • Have you ever experienced (barriers identified in phase 1)? Did they impact promotion opportunities? Why/Why not? How did you over come this?

  • What strategies have you found helpful in gaining promotions?

  • What do you think you do differently to less successful colleagues?

  • Are there any factors outside of yourself that have helped you gain promotions? What were they?


For the third stage, I will conduct a survey of ADHDers who have professional, office based jobs. In the survey I will ask if they have ever used reasonable adjustments, and if so, did they help. I will ask if they have ever used any of the strategies identified in the earlier stages of phase two and did they help? Finally I will ask if they have ever encountered any of the barriers identified in part 1 and if so did they/how did they overcome them.


In the final stage of this project I will explore links between the first three stages. I will seek to combine information from the various sources to answer which strategies can be shown to reduce/remove barriers to promotion? Which deserve further research?


Results

The results of this research will be a set of evidence backed strategies which can reduce or remove the barriers that ADHDers face when applying for promotions. These will be presented as a white paper including policy and practise guidelines. Organisations can reference or draw from these when creating their equality policies, in order to ensure fair access to work opportunities for ADHDers. 


The guidelines will also help ADHDers to self-advocate for reasonable adjustments (to enable them to access promotions) by acting as a reputable and evidence backed collection of possible adjustments. As with all adjustments, they will need to be tweaked to fit the particular circumstances and barriers faced by each individual.


By engaging the ADHD community in this research project I hope to spark further discussions and research which enables ADHDers to access the support they need to have success at work, on their own terms. I will develop hypothesis for future testing about how best to support ADHDers at work. I hope that this project will cement the understanding that it is right and reasonable for minoritized groups to seek not just to be employed, but to be respected, valued, and promoted at work.


Discussion

I have ADHD (self diagnosed, on a waiting list for formal diagnosis since 2020) which influences my view that people with ADHD are valuable at work and should be given the same opportunities as others. This view is also backed up by the Equality Act (2010). Having ADHD gives me insight into some of the struggles those with ADHD may face, and it gives me legitimacy within the ADHD community. ‘Nothing about us without us’ has long been a rallying cry for the disabled community (Koontz et. al., 2022) and the neurodivergent community has reason to be distrustful of research carried out to eliminate conditions, rather than increase quality of life (Botha, 2022). I am clear about being an ADHD researcher with ADHD and believe that on balance this contributes positively to my research aims.


There is some discussion within the ADHD community about whether ADHD is a disability. Personally, I take the view that where there are barriers then ADHDers should be entitled to support. Since the legal basis for support requires a disability I pragmatically class ADHD as a disability. However I caveat this by saying that I do not think that this means there is anything wrong with being an ADHDer, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with having any other disability. Depending on the task, environment and support available, disabled people are able to succeed at the very highest levels. In this sense I do not interpret ‘disability’ as a negative term and draw from the social model of disability (Abberley 1987). In this research I seek to determine what factors best support ADHDers at work.


As well as a researcher, I am also an ADHD coach. This has the possibility for bias as discovering that coaching is the best way to mitigate barriers to promotion could be beneficial for my business. In practise, I am a coach because I believe it is helpful (Kubik, 2010). Were I to discover coaching is not helpful then I would change my work to do something else since coaching is more to me than a way to earn money.


To mitigate this risk for bias I will be careful when writing surveys and conducting interviews not to lead participants towards any particular recommendations. Additionally, coaching is very broad and currently there is little research into what makes effective coaching. I hope that this research can fill in some gaps by providing insight into what specific actions and behaviours help ADHDers overcome barriers to promotion. My results will be made public, so that all coaches can work more effectively with ADHDers seeking promotion.


Finally, I wish to disclose that I worked in tech for 10+ years before becoming an ADHD coach, and I coach and train many people within tech. This could be a source of bias. It is also a source of insight and, practically, connections which will enable me to find participants for this research project. I am aware that there are problems within tech and areas of good practise which other industries can learn from. In this research I intend to focus on good practise, but believe it is important to acknowledge the issues with a lack of diversity as this may impact on how applicable my research finding are. To mitigate these issues, I will ensure that I interview a couple of non-male participants.


References 

Abberley, P, “The Concept of Oppression and the Development of a Social Model of Disability”, Disability, Handicap & Society, 1987 No. 2(1) pp. 5-19


Almalki, S. (2016). Integrating quantitative and qualitative data in mixed methods research—challenges and benefits. Journal of Education and Learning, 5(3), 288. https://doi.org/10.5539/jel.v5n3p288 


Arnold, B., Easteal, P., Easteal, S., & Rice, S. (2010). It just doesn’t add up : ADHD / ADD, the workplace and discrimination. | Melbourne University Law Review. MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY LAW REVIEW, 34(2), 359–391.

Barton,  L.,  “The  Struggle  for  Citizenship:  The  Case  of  Disabled  People”,  Disability,  Handicap & Society, 1993 No. 8(3) pp. 235 - 248.


Botha, M., & Cage, E. (2022). “Autism research is in crisis”: A mixed method study of researcher’s constructions of autistic people and autism research. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 1050897. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.1050897


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.


Crook, T., & McDowall, A. (2023). Paradoxical career strengths and successes of ADHD adults: an evolving narrative. Journal of Work-Applied Management. https://doi.org/10.1108/JWAM-05-2023-0048


Davies, J., Heasman, B., Livesey, A., Walker, A., Pellicano, E., & Remington, A. (2023). Access to employment: A comparison of autistic, neurodivergent and neurotypical adults’ experiences of hiring processes in the United Kingdom. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, 27(6), 1746–1763. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613221145377


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Fuermaier, A. B. M., Tucha, L., Butzbach, M., Weisbrod, M., Aschenbrenner, S., & Tucha, O. (2021). ADHD at the workplace: ADHD symptoms, diagnostic status, and work-related functioning. Journal of Neural Transmission, 128(7), 1021–1031. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00702-021-02309-z


Godfrey, E., Fuermaier, A. B. M., Tucha, L., Butzbach, M., Weisbrod, M., Aschenbrenner, S., & Tucha, O. (2020). Public perceptions of adult ADHD: Indications of stigma? Journal of Neural Transmission. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00702-020-02279-8


Koontz, A., Duvall, J., Johnson, R., Reissman, T., & Smith, E. (2022). “Nothing about us without us:” engaging at users in at research. Assistive Technology, 34(5), 499–500. https://doi.org/10.1080/10400435.2022.2117524


Kubik, J. A. (2010). Efficacy of ADHD coaching for adults with ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 13(5), 442–453. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054708329960


Mayhew, M., Davison A., Putz C. and Ainslie D. (2022). Disability pay gaps in the UK: 2021


McDowall,  Almuth  and  Doyle,  Nancy  and  Kiseleva,  Meg  (2023). Neurodiversity at work: demand, supply and a gap analysis.  Birkbeck, University of London, London, UK.


McKechnie, D. G. J., O’Nions, E., Dunsmuir, S., & Petersen, I. (2023). Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnoses and prescriptions in UK primary care, 2000-2018: population-based cohort study. BJPsych Open, 9(4), e121. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjo.2023.512


Mao, A. R., Brams, M., Babcock, T., & Madhoo, M. (2011). A physician’s guide to helping patients with ADHD find success in the workplace. Postgraduate Medicine, 123(5), 60–70. https://doi.org/10.3810/pgm.2011.09.2460


NHS England » Workforce Disability Equality Standard 2022 data analysis report for NHS trusts and foundation trusts. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2023, from https://www.england.nhs.uk/long-read/workforce-disability-equality-standard-2022-data-analysis-report-for-nhs-trusts-and-foundation-trusts/ 


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