As part of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, I interviewed Kathy Robinson about her journey to an ADHD diagnosis, the impact ADHD has had on her working life and what we can do at Siemens to support.
1. Please tell us about yourself and your role at Siemens.
Kathy Robinson: My name is Kathy and I joined Siemens in February 2010 as PA to the Head of the Large Transmission Solutions business (now part of Siemens Energy). In May 2016, following the retirement of my manager, I felt that I needed to change my role to one that better suited my interests. A role came up in the GB EHS Health Management team and I started as a Health Management Officer. It began as a Well being support and advisory role but as a result of the latest global restructure, the role has now become more focussed on governance.
2. When were you diagnosed and what prompted you to seek a diagnosis?
KR: I was diagnosed with ADHD in October 2019 at the age of 52. My eldest daughter was diagnosed with the condition when she was 16 years old (she’s now 30) and I’ve been her primary support since then. I’ve obviously been aware of her condition and the difficulties she’s encountered over the years; it’s been an ordeal at times trying to distinguish what’s her actual personality and what’s the ADHD. In fact, I now realise that ADHD is part of who she is and I love her for it.
Over the years there’s been a family joke that we have a faulty gene flying around as there are some quirky characters. Family members have always told me that my daughter and I are very similar and I’ve had comments such as ‘You’re both as bad as each other’ … yet, even though I know ADHD tends to be hereditary, I never thought that I might actually have ADHD as well.
In the summer of last year, I persuaded my daughter to seek some support for her condition and as a result she had to go for a new assessment. Part of this assessment meant completing lots of questionnaires and I had to complete 2 of them as the parent. During this process I started to recognise the same personality traits in myself which stemmed back to childhood and I was quite shocked. I asked close family members and friends if they thought that I could possibly have ADHD and the reply was ‘Absolutely!’
I decided to have my own ADHD assessment with a psychiatrist, which resulted in an ADHD diagnosis. I had mixed feelings about this. I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression for most of my life and I had always attributed my difficulties to these conditions, however despite medication and various types of therapy I have always felt that I wasn’t getting to the root of my issues. Having an ADHD diagnosis made more sense of these struggles and explained why I’ve felt, amongst other things, frustrated and unfulfilled. On the other hand, the diagnosis has created some anxiety as I now need some support to help me to understand my particular strengths and how to work around some of the difficulties I have, particularly at work.
3. What was school like for you?
KR: I thoroughly enjoyed my time at primary school. I was very lucky to have forward thinking teachers who made lessons fun with lots of variety. However, when I went to Grammar School, which was an extremely academic environment, I started to encounter problems, as I struggled to concentrate on projects and large pieces of homework. I also found it difficult to keep up in lessons when a lot of concentration was required (particularly in the dreaded double lessons). I often forgot homework and had to borrow a friends at the last minute to try and copy it. Needless to say, my friends got fed up with this.
Over time I became more rebellious and cocky towards my teachers and the establishment and I would sometimes play truant from classes I didn’t like. That resulted in a few detentions and poor end of year reports.
There was one particular occasion during swimming lessons that I remember. I just got out of the pool and left. I had been told that I was being put in for my Gold swimming award and I didn’t want to do it. I’d already achieved up to Silver level in private lessons and I didn’t want to pursue it anymore. When my teacher shouted at me and told me to get back in the pool, I shouted back at her and told her I wasn’t doing it and went and got changed. My teacher was livid but I welcomed the excitement of the confrontation.
When revising for O’Levels my friends started revision at least 3 months before the exams …. I started 3 weeks before and even then, I took the decision not to revise English Literature as I read lots of books anyway. Amazingly, I got 6 decent O’Levels. I wasn’t stupid, I just hated the environment and left school at age 16, whereas my friends all stayed on at Sixth Form and subsequently went to university.
Socially, I had a good group of friends but they sometimes wouldn’t involve me if meeting up out of school or would fall out with me and I didn’t know why. I felt on the edge of the social circle much of the time. I began to take more risks in social settings and looking back I could have got myself into some dangerous situations.
4. Are there any benefits that your ADHD brings to your role at Siemens?
KR: Firstly, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve not yet found a role that taps into all of my strengths and interests and some of my past roles have definitely been wrong for me. Luckily some of my previous employers had an environment where I was more able to use my strengths and some of my roles offered more of a positive balance. My absolute favourite manager to date got the best out of me as she was very caring and supportive but also involved me in the work that she was doing, asked for my opinion and encouraged me to get involved in meetings and other aspects of the business when I wanted to. The role was interesting and varied and she made it that way. The key to getting the most out of an ADHD employee is to find their passion and allow them to work to their strengths. As soon as an ADHD employee gets bored or a task becomes mundane then they switch off and it’s impossible to get any focus back. I would say that my key ADHD strengths include:
ADHD personality – I’m resilient, supportive, compassionate, funny and offer a different perspective. I’ve faced many challenges and setbacks in life and tried (unknowingly until recently) to manage my condition as best I can. As such, I often use humour to show people that a perfect world would be boring and life shouldn’t always be serious. As a result of my own struggles I can empathize with others and I’m keen to offer support where I can. I’m empathetic and intuitive, so I’m at my best when I’m supporting people and helping to make positive changes. I enjoy the immediate feedback and the opportunity to act on this feedback to make a difference. I’m good at seeing the bigger picture and I’m able to see many, if not all sides of a situation. This is useful in conflict situations or when trying to support individual.
Impulsive/spontaneity – I can be impulsive but this means that I can jump straight into a task, no questions asked, without doing endless research and just get stuck in and turn it around quickly. I’m also prepared to take more of a risk and don’t like settling for the status quo. I’ll therefore look for different ways of doing things and not accept something just because it’s always been done that way.
Multitasking – I enjoy variety and I’m definitely happier when I’m physically doing something or talking to people, rather than having to think endlessly. This is because my mind is constantly juggling a million thoughts, so a ‘doing’ task stops the thinking for a period of time, whilst I focus on what I have to do. Because of this, I’m happy to do most things and get my hands dirty even if it isn’t part of my specific role. In the past, I’ve even cleaned the office toilets and cleared out rubbish to a skip. Innovative/creative – I can think outside of the box and like to come up with different ways of delivering support and services. Because I look at the big picture and don’t focus on details, I question complicated processes and look at more simple, effective ways of doing things. Hyperfocus – I’m good in a crisis. This is because I see it as exciting or challenging. When I’m passionate about something I have enormous focus and energy and will work on a task endlessly. I won’t want to finish that task until I’m happy that I’ve completed everything I set out to do. When there isn’t a crisis or stimulus, life can become mundane for me.
5. What challenges do you experience at work as a result of your ADHD?
KR: The challenges I tend to encounter are:
Distractibility – I can be easily distracted from tasks or during meetings, so I have to work incredibly hard to keep pulling my focus back to the task at hand. The distraction could be something that’s caught my eye out of the window or a pencil dropping or a phone in the distance and this will start my mind wandering in a completely new direction. It can be almost impossible at times to pull my attention back, particularly if I find the task/meeting boring.
Poor memory/lack of focus – I struggle to remember details of meetings or discussions and can forget tasks or deadlines. My mind frequently drifts, and I constantly have to refocus and remind myself what I should be listening to or concentrating on. When I do get focused, I can be engrossed in a task today but then when I pick it up tomorrow Ill struggle to get my focus back. Even when I think I’m organised and make lists and create folders, I often forget to look at my list or can’t remember where my folder is located.
Boredom – I have a strong need for stimulation so I can easily get bored, especially when this involves detailed and routine tasks. If I’m not interested or stimulated, I just cannot focus or concentrate, try as I might.
Long term projects – I find it very difficult to organise long term projects as I can lose direction or interest. I need short timescales with immediate feedback to retain my interest and motivation.
Attention to detail –I tend to be a ‘bullet point’ kind of person. I struggle to get into the finer points and can therefore miss key information at times. I tend to skim read, pick out the highlights and then form a summary in my mind. I find data reports difficult to follow as they often just look like pages of numbers to me.
Decreased energy/lack of sleep – because my mind is exposed to so much stimuli and is constantly running at 100 miles per hour, I can get brain overload and find it very difficult to switch off. The constant energy required to focus and concentrate can really drain my energy levels. I am a very poor sleeper as its hard to switch my mind and body off at night. It can take a while to get to sleep and I wake up frequently during the night. When I wake, my mind starts again. This causes fatigue which can have an impact on work.
Low self-esteem – due to the struggles I’ve had over the years I can feel frustrated, embarrassed and demoralised, despite my best efforts. I’m my own worst critic and often feel that I’m not good enough or clever enough at work. This results in anxiety and avoidance of tasks that I know I’ve failed before. However, I’ve been very good at hiding this.
6. If there was one thing that Siemens could do to make your time at work easier, what would it be?
KR: The main thing for me would be for Siemens to look at my strengths and the skills I have to offer and find a role (or adjust my role) to utilise those strengths. Historically, most organisations have created a role (and job description) based on what it thinks it needs and then tried to get an individual to fit into that role. I believe that the way forward, to create a more flexible, innovative environment, is to look at individual skill sets and understand how those strengths can add huge value to the workplace, even though they may not fit the traditional job description.
I’d also like to see Siemens increasing awareness of conditions such as mine so others can understand my difficulties and why I must work differently – but also see my strengths and that I have lots to offer. It would be nice to see a support process in place to help me find some solutions. I don’t want to be treated as ‘special’ as I believe we are all individuals with our own needs and as such, we should all be treated in a more inclusive and supportive way.
I’m very lucky to have flexible working and be home based so I’m able to manage my time and take breaks to suit me, whilst still getting the job done.
7. If there was one thing that you would like other people to know or do differently, which would have a positive impact on you, what would it be?
KR: I’d like people to learn about ADHD (and other neurodiverse conditions) and see that people with these conditions have some excellent skills and talents. Stop seeing these people as different as we are all individuals with our own idiosyncrasies.
My thanks go to Kathy for her time, openess and honesty.