A few years ago, I had a large influx of clients. Within a month and a half, I welcomed seven new clients. Of the seven, six confided that they were on leave from work for burnout! One was on sick leave for burnout for the third time and, believing there must be some underlying cause, did his own research and discovered he’d been suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) all along.
I was intrigued by this seeming coincidence. I began reviewing my files to determine the number of clients, past and current, who had mentioned suffering from burnout at some point in their lives. I was shocked to discover that over half, 54%, of my clients had been on sick leave for burnout, depression or stress-related health problems at least once in their professional lives. Some had had several periods of stress-related sick leave.
I began digging deep into the literature and found one study that had been conducted on a group of people who were on long-term disability for burnout or stress-related health issues. What they found astounded me. Within that pool of 62 people, they found 24% suffered from ADHD and up to 56% met the criteria for ADHD but testing results were inconclusive because of other confounding issues.
When you consider that the incidence of adult ADHD in the general population is 4 to 8%, this indicates that there’s an increased risk for adults with ADHD; they are three to six times more likely to suffer from burnout or stress-related health problems.
Seeking to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms of burnout, I began to research in earnest. While there is no diagnosis of “burnout”, we understand it to be extreme exhaustion brought on by prolonged periods of stress. As I learned more, I realized ADHD-related burnout was quite different from neurotypical or “textbook” cases of burnout.
ADHD-Related Burnout vs. “Textbook” Burnout
The underlying cause or reason that people burn out differs between the two groups. Neurotypicals (people without ADHD) who burn out often do so because they are trying to prove themselves. They (or others, such as their parents) face high expectations and are trying to “over-perform” as a way of getting noticed. People with ADHD burn out because of the stress brought on by a fear of losing their jobs. They work harder and put in longer hours trying to catch up because they don’t feel productive. They try to make up for their poor productivity and to hide the shame they feel about their inability to meet their workload.
Neglecting your own needs can exacerbate burnout. These two groups (neurotypicals vs. adults with ADHD) neglect their needs for different reasons; whereas ADHDers skimp on sleep, abandon exercise routines and work through their lunch hour and late into the night in an effort to keep up with what they see as the “normal” demands of their job, neurotypicals do the same but because they choose to use that time to fit in more projects that will give them more visibility.
Another difference between the two groups is that while in both “textbook” and ADHD-related burnout, employees suffer from cognitive impairment such as lack of focus, poor short-term memory and challenges with managing their emotions, for neurotypicals, the impairment is due to their prolonged stress and will abate after a period of rest. For adults with ADHD, the cognitive impairment is typically symptomatic of their ADHD (made worse by the stress to be sure) and is at the source of the burnout. Those symptoms remain even after long periods of rest, so a second or even a third bout of burnout is inevitable unless changes are made beyond simple rest, because the source of the burnout has not been addressed.
Recognizing the Source of Burnout is a Prerequisite to the Right Treatment
It’s true that in all burnout cases, rest is needed to reduce the effects of prolonged stress. However, for ADHDers, the treatment must also include an “attack” on the underlying source of the burnout, by managing the ADHD symptoms. The objective is to reduce the level of impairment resulting from the ADHD, and so allow the ADHDer to improve his or her work performance. One of the most dramatic ways to optimize focus improve productivity is for the ADHD-burnout sufferer to learn ADHD-friendly energy and time management strategies as well as organizational strategies. Helping the ADHD employee build awareness of the signs of overwhelming stress and helping them prepare a plan of action to enable them to respond to it effectively is essential to prevent future burnouts.
Finally, beyond simple rest, burnout victims benefit enormously from “recovery activities” such as improving health hygiene (sleep, exercise and nutrition), connecting with family and friends and engaging in creative activities. These help reduce the effects of stress and cut the level of stress to a manageable level.
In today’s society, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to eliminate stress that could lead to burnout. However, we can learn to effectively manage that stress by recognizing the true underlying causes of ADHD-related burnout and treating the problem at the source.