Get easily distracted? Perhaps it's medical

October 20, 1994|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writer

They're the employees who can't seem to get organized, don't finish the paperwork, always miss deadlines. They're the workers who can't make it through that long-range project, are easily distracted, can't sit still.

They're people like Joshua Gottesman, a certified public accountant who upset his bosses because he couldn't focus on stacks of income tax returns, though his supervisors described him as "brilliant."

Lazy good-for-nothings? Not necessarily, researchers say. They may, like Mr. Gottesman, have attention deficit disorder (ADD), a neurological condition that can make the workplace a nightmare for bosses and employees alike.

As more and more adults are diagnosed with ADD, employers find themselves trying to cope with yet another disability. They've already outfitted offices for physically disabled workers and offered counseling for alcoholics.

Now they're dealing with a disorder that's not visible.

Joshua Gottesman had typical work problems.

In his first job out of Towson State University, "I worked at a small firm in Baltimore, and I drove the manager nuts," said Mr. Gottesman, 33, who was diagnosed with ADD 18 months ago.

He worked with tax returns. "It was boring," Mr. Gottesman said. He found he couldn't sit still and focus on them. His attention shifted quickly to any new task. "Something new always seemed more interesting. You always do things on the spur of moment. You never think about the consequences."

His supervisors were frustrated. "They saw what I could do," said Mr. Gottesman, who grew up in Randallstown, "but they couldn't get me to work at a consistent level."

When he consulted a psychologist, he realized that his problems hadn't started at the office. It took 6 1/2 years, three colleges and a couple of majors before he got a degree. Even in grade school, he'd been the class smart aleck -- because, he now realizes, he couldn't pay attention to the teacher.

Today, Mr. Gottesman is helping design computer software for KPMG Peat Marwick LLP in Montvale, N.J. Peat Marwick transferred him to that position -- a better fit than the accounting he had been doing -- after he told them he was diagnosed with ADD.

Eighteen months ago, Mr. Gottesman said, he feared that he wouldn't be able to keep his job. Now, on medication and in his new office, "I'm in a much better life and work situation."

Leland L. "Ted" Cogdell Jr., of Greenbelt, was diagnosed with ADD five years ago, when he was 23. Today he is an editor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Working on publications, he said, fits his skills in verbal reasoning. But ask him to listen to a lecture filled with technical details and "I'm way off in space. I'll drift away."

He's learned how to compensate. For instance, he said, "I don't do well with verbal instructions. I'd rather write it down, or sometimes I can't retain it." His boss has had to give him "a little more time and some understanding and some sensitivity."

"It's an emerging issue," said Susan Meisinger, a vice president at the Society for Human Resources Management, headquartered in Alexandria, Va.. "The whole issue of psychological and psychiatric disabilities are just now rising in the consciousness of employers."

Last week, the first national conference on ADD in the workplace was held in New York at a meeting of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder.

Appropriate jobs

People with ADD tend not to do well in jobs that require focusing for long periods on one task or include a lot of paperwork.

The condition, which many researchers believe is genetic, has symptoms that include difficulty in staying focused for long periods, moving from one uncompleted task to another, and trouble in absorbing directions. Treatment includes behavior modification programs and medication -- typically the drug Ritalin, sometimes combined with anti-depressants, such as Prozac.

Doctors used to believe that children with ADD outgrew the problems at adolescence. Now they see the symptoms persisting.

But with that come some desirable traits. People with ADD, doctors say, often tend to be creative and impulsive, the kind of people who move fast, quickly come up with novel ideas and solve problems well.

"Some things that seem to work well for people with ADD are sales, owning your own business, law enforcement, the media -- TV, videos -- something that allows you to move around a lot," said Patricia Latham, a Washington lawyer whose clients include adult ADD sufferers.

"The least successful are where you're sitting behind a desk, doing a lot of paperwork."

Researchers are beginning to gather statistics on how many adults suffer from ADD. They estimate that between 1 percent and 7 percent of American children have the condition, and 25 percent to 40 percent of those will have symptoms as adults.

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