ADHD Can Mean Underemployment for Some Adults

Adult ADHD can impact your earning power. Researchers found that high school graduates with ADHD earn about 17 percent less than their peers. They are also more likely to become unemployed and to receive disability benefits related to their inability to work.

The symptoms of inattention, short-term memory difficulties, and poor organizational skills are part of the problem and lead to the income gap based on poor performance reviews.

“Once employed, the condition can interfere with job performance, so it has an impact on advancement,” says Richard Gallagher, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone in New York City. Dr. Gallagher was not part of the study.

Adult ADHD contributes to underemployment

Underemployment occurs when a person’s skill set is greater than required for the job they currently hold, often in a lower-paying position. Many underemployed individuals would prefer full-time work that meets their training, experience, or education, and includes a salary that meets their experience in their field.

“People are struggling with this,” says David Ballard, PhD, assistant executive director of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “Research suggests that people with ADHD are often underutilized, underemployed, and in jobs that are below their actual capabilities. Often, how they’re functioning may not reflect how smart and capable they actually are.”

The recent study followed high school graduates who did not go on for further education for up to 16 years. Several earlier studies found similar differences in employment and income when adults with ADHD are compared to their peers in training and educational levels.

Study author Andreas Jangmo, a doctoral student at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, says that school performance, symptoms of adult ADHD, and co-occurring conditions, especially language disorders, play a role in underemployment.

“Our study shows that this occupational gap between individuals with and without ADHD is persistent over time, and starts already in young adulthood,” Mr. Jangmo says.

“Problems in controlling attention and controlling behavior—core problems in ADHD—hinder the capacity to learn and apply skills,” Dr. Gallagher adds.

Improving employability begins early

A diagnosis of ADHD, or suspected but not yet diagnosed ADHD, doesn’t mean a young adult will necessarily be limited in lifetime earnings.

Early diagnosis and treatment for ADHD, including academic accommodations, [] can help to decrease the gaps in skills and knowledge coming out of high school that affect employment. Treatment that includes behavioral management and skills training can also better prepare the young adult for the workplace.

“If children go untreated, they are missing out on developmental opportunities, and this deficit will be a problem for them later on,” says CHADD resident expert L. Eugene Arnold, MD, MEd. “Later achievements may not be attained because of a lack of foundation, and that is how treatment in childhood could affect adult adjustment.”

Young adults can also improve their earning ability by improving or starting a treatment plan. That may include working with an employment professional or seeking further training that helps them develop coping skills to address their ADHD symptoms.

Adults with ADHD may consider seeking workplace accommodations. This is a highly personal decision, since not all employees want to reveal their diagnosis to human resources or a supervisor. It may be for their own reasons, or it may be because they’ve judged that their workplace might not be welcoming if this information were shared. However, once the information is disclosed, many workplaces can provide some reasonable assistance and there are legal protections that may be helpful.

Learn more about ADHD and earning potential:

Join the discussion: How would you advise a young adult, just starting a career, and struggling with ADHD?