The Price of Distraction

A new report published in the online edition of Occupational and Environmental Medicineputs more data behind what we psychiatrists and psychologists have long known from listening to our patients: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is costing American businesses untold millions in lost productivity.

Studies reveal about 4.5 percent of working Americans suffer with ADHD. One of the new findings is that each loses, on average, more than 22 days of productivity annually. That translates into billions of dollars in losses.

I think the toll could be much higher. Undiagnosed and untreated ADHD not only saps productivity in and of itself; it fuels other substantial causes of suffering and lost possibilities, including substance abuse and dependence, workplace accidents and inability to master new skills and reach increased levels of education and performance.

Many patients of mine only learn after visiting with me that their use and abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs (including cocaine) has been partly driven by searching for relief from the constant psychological discomfort of underlying ADHD. Treating the ADHD makes it possible for them to become sober.

As an expert witness in cases involving the workplace, I know that ADHD is the music playing in the background of life-altering (and economically devastating) injuries.

Other patients I have treated tell me that they gave up hope for advanced training or for advanced degrees because they cannot focus long enough to master new skills or new knowledge.

The modern workplace may itself be accelerating the costs. Voicemail, e-mail, text messaging, video conferencing and telecommuting translate to a free flow of ideas, rapid transfer of information, and flexible lifestyles. But they also call for quick changes of focus and self-direction. For those with ADHD, the information super- highway can look a lot more like a maze.

American employers would be well-served to offer education about ADHD, and confidential screening and treatment for it. Even more could be saved -- in human and economic terms -- if that screening took place earlier rather than later, as part of our public education system. It any expanded screening and treatment program, it will be critical that ADHD is not oversimplified. While stimulant medications can be tremendously helpful, patients of mine with ADHD have had complicated life stories, often marked by emotional turmoil early in life.

An essential part of helping my patients feel better includes listening to their stories and convincing them to stop running away from their feelings (by not focusing on them - or anything else).

The best reason for the education system and/or the workplace to undertake new initiatives to diagnose and treat ADHD is that the condition is indeed, treatable.

Once patients identify ADHD as a major factor in their lives and get help for it, the changes I've seen in their lives are astounding and inspiring.