Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Researchers say the darndest things.

A long time ago, I learned something unexpected from a brilliant researcher who I worked for. When I offered to pick him some lunch for him at McDonald's, he requested a sandwich, fries, and a soda. So I asked him if he wanted it Supersized, to which he responded:

"Oh? Supersized? What's that?"

And here's the moral of the story: when it comes to academic matters, the man is peerless. But when it comes to practical matters, he's not your guy.

When I saw the press coverage last week concerning the new article about ADD and the workplace, I couldn't help but be reminded of that tale of my old boss. For those of you who missed it, I'll summarize it here to save you from slogging through the tedious passive-voice writing that academics enjoy using:

  • Researchers interviewed "nationally representative samples of people" in a bunch of different countries with questionnaires that would determine whether they had ADD.

  • Did I mention that DSM-IV criteria for ADHD "were developed with children in mind and offer only limited guidance regarding adult diagnosis," even though these are the criteria they based their ADHD questionnaires on?

  • Also they based the whole study on interview data, which can be considered the weakest form of evidence? Sorry, I digress...I'm an unproductive ADDer, y'know...

  • They also asked questions about "role performance", which questions such as "Beginning yesterday and going back 30 days, how many days out of the past 30 were you totally uable to work or carry out your normal activities?’’ and ‘‘How many days out of the past 30 were you able to work and carry out your normal activities, but had to cut down on what you did or not get as much done as usual?’’

  • A lot of people whose questionnaires indicated that they screened positive for ADD (as if it were chicken pox or mono, sheesh) were asked if they ever received treatment for ADD, and most hadn't.

  • Based on all of that, we arrive at the gripping conclusion: "The above results raise the question whether adult ADHD is a candidate for targeted workplace screening and treatment programs. ... It might be cost-effective from the employer perspective to implement workplace screening programs with such a scale to detect and provide treatment for workers with ADHD."

Cost-effective? As if! This notion is an attorney's dream. Any employer (in the U.S., at least) would get their butts sued on privacy grounds.

And never mind the obvious illogical leap the article makes. To oversimplify, spike the office water cooler with Ritalin, and employers will squeeze oodles of productivity out of their unfocused hoardes with ADD.

Eh, not so much.

All of us ADDers know that taking the drugs gives you focus. Drugs don't provide ADDers with focus on things that we don't care about. Once during a performance review, another old boss commented, "You like doing the things that you enjoy, and don't like doing the things that you don't enjoy." Heck yeah! In other words, if you like the work that you do, then you will most likely stay focused. If work doesn't interest you, you're more likely to surf Amazon for stuff to buy just to entertain yourself.

The thing is, ADDers may have difficultly finding the right occupation or setting. We get attracted to the shiny, fun stuff and leave the rest in our wake. And face it, some jobs just aren't all that interesting. We've all worked them before. While non-ADDers probably have an easier time muddling through the less enjoyable parts of jobs and careers, getting our ADD selves to do things that don't interest us presents a challenge of epic proportions. As a result, we tend to be less productive because the work doesn't interest us.

I'll make it clear - I'm not justifying ADDers slacking on the job. Not at all. However, the study didn't measure the type of work (other than blue/white collar, etc) that participants did, nor did it mentioned levels of job satisfaction.

You'll find this same nugget of sage advice in a companion interview with the good Dr. Hallowell. When asked what's been most helpful to him in dealing with his own ADD, he included "find the right job" in his list. Exactly.

But never mind getting the right job, folks. Academics know what's best for you! And they us how best to get the ball rolling further on in their conclusion:

"The obvious next step from a public health perspective, given these findings, is to evaluate the extent to which best-practices outreach and treatment would result in improvement in functioning that might have a positive return on-investment for employers."

Hey docs, would you like that Supersized?

All of the authors of this article earn their lving at prestigious universities and medical centers. No doubt they also likely have tenure. Thus, they likely are concerned about their job security as much as they're concerned about the meal size options at fast food restaurants. In short, the idea of employers screening their staff for any disorder - physical or mental - disturbs me. In the cozy world of academic research, the docs probably never considered the ramifications of their conclusion. I know my response if my employer handed me a questionnaire and a pencil. Never mind that, though. Like I said earlier, I'm sure that my employer's attorneys would put the kibosh on the office ADD quizzes before they'd see the light of day.

As someone who was diagnosed with ADD pretty far into my career, I do feel that having treatment for ADD earlier in my working life certainly would have made my life easier. But having my ADD uncovered by my (or any!) employer and being known as "the one with ADD" would have felt uncomfortable, awkward, strange, and definitely exploitive.

So folks, if you have ADD or think that you might, spend your energies on figuring out what your bliss is. And then follow it. It might sound trite, but don't forget that being easily distracted at work might mean that there's something out there that's more enjoyable to do. And that could mean being the best burrito maker, a number cruncher, or the leader of the free world.

I know all of this myself because lately I've also been doing a lot of searching for my career bliss. It's not easy. But I know that spending time thinking about it will certainly be worthwile. And when I find it, it'll be good. And I'll have fries with that, please.

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