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‘All of my senses are on fire’: Why modern offices are failing ADHD workers

open plan offices ADHD
open plan offices ADHD

Michelle Bellyou often leaves work exhausted and unable to speak.

After getting home, she can do little more than take off her coat and shoes, stare at the walls for hours and cry from her sofa. The cause? BT’s open-plan office.

Bellyou has ADHD and autism, which means she is easily overwhelmed by things in an open plan environment that her colleagues can tune out.

Bright overhead lighting, noisy phone calls, unpredictable office temperature and lingering smells from the communal kitchen are all triggers that can overload Bellyou’s senses, sending her into a downward spiral.

These distractions cause headaches, stopping the 42-year-old from focusing on her work and communicating with her colleagues.

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“I’ll try and concentrate so hard on what people are saying that I won’t hear them because all of my senses are on fire,” says Bellyou, head of implementation at BT.

Bellyou’s co-workers are often completely unaware of the internal battle she faces.

“A lot of us mask so much, you wouldn’t know that that was a problem. We hide it very well,” she says.

Bellyou’s experience will be familiar to the thousands of workers across the UK who have ADHD or other conditions that can trigger similar reactions such as autism.

Employers are under more pressure than ever to work out how to support staff with a wide range of mental health and developmental conditions.

The number of people being diagnosed with ADHD has risen rapidly in recent decades. Meanwhile, the prevalence of mental health issues has also surged: a recent NHS survey found that one in five children were suffering from probable mental health disorders, such as anxiety.

Yet while the need for more tailored support is growing, many offices are becoming worse environments.

After Covid restrictions were lifted, bosses rushed to reduce their office spaces and move to open-plan buildings they argued would encourage hybrid workers to collaborate.

Private offices and assigned desks were replaced with hot-desking, phone booths and breakout areas.

Canary Wharf tenants HSBC and law firm Clifford Chance are among the institutions that have announced their intentions to downsize since the pandemic.

For staff who have conditions such as ADHD and autism, all this can be destabilising.

“It can completely destroy someone’s career,”  says Henry Shelford, chief executive of charity ADHD UK.

Shelford, who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, says many open-plan offices don’t have enough quiet spaces for people with conditions such as his. Some workers who have ADHD can feel pressured to wake up at the crack of dawn to secure one of the few suitable spaces, he says.

Early mornings can be a problem because many people with ADHD often work late into the night, catching up on tasks they struggled to concentrate on during the day.

Amelia Platton, a trainee solicitor at Clifford Chance who is autistic and dyspraxic, stresses that not all workers with conditions such as hers want to be tucked away in quiet corners. The trainee lawyer, who was diagnosed last year, says there are some days where she needs to be surrounded by her colleagues for stimulation.

However, she says moving to new desks in different departments has at times been disruptive for her. She prefers the predictability of having her own space where she can control the lighting and air conditioning.

Emily Banks, founder and chief executive of Enna, a specialist recruitment agency for job-seekers with ADHD, autism and dyslexia, says employers can be afraid of giving preferential treatment despite being legally required to provide reasonable adjustments.

The recruiter recalls finding a job for someone who then quit because her boss refused to provide noise cancelling headphones and quiet working spaces.

“The manager said: ‘Well, if we offer this to you, we’ve got to offer it to everybody’,” says Banks.

Not all companies are so obstinate. Many City employers, particularly the bigger ones, are thinking about how to help staff with conditions that affect how they interact with the world.

Big Four auditor Deloitte allows ADHD workers to book desks away from noisy breakout areas and windows if they are sensitive to light. Barclays’ Glasgow campus features swings for those needing physical stimulation. HSBC’s Sheffield branch avoids spiky and strong smelling plants, while dialling down the bank’s red colour scheme.

Leanne Maskell, director of coaching company ADHD Works, says even simple gestures can make a difference, such as having spare laptop chargers and work passes on hand for ADHD workers who struggle with forgetfulness.

Alongside ADHD coaching and other adjustments, Bellyou’s managers allow her to work from home any time she needs. It may sound simple, but Bellyou says it is important.

“It means I can be better at my job for them.”

A BT spokesman said: “At BT, we are committed to making sure our working culture is fair and inclusive – enabling all our colleagues to make their distinctive contributions to the benefit of the business.”

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