Executive function challenges in the workplace: What employers need to know

By Serena Kappes

So you have an employee who has shared with you that they have executive function challenges. What does this mean, exactly? How does trouble with executive function play out in the workplace? And how can you make sure this employee will perform and thrive in their role?

What is executive function?

The term executive function refers to a group of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We all use these skills in our everyday lives to help us navigate the world.

Executive function skills are “kind of like the orchestra conductor of your brain,” says Paul Yellin, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and director of the Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education.

Having trouble with executive function can be especially difficult in the workplace. Dealing with multiple projects, shifting deadlines, and managers with changing priorities can be challenging to say the least. 

Problems with executive skills can make it harder to see a task through and on time. “If you know what you need to do and you know how to do it, but you still can’t get it done, that’s often a problem with executive function,” says Yellin.

Who struggles with executive function?

We’re not born with executive skills. We develop them over time, generally from the preschool years to our mid 20s. Challenges can appear at any age, but many people won’t notice their struggles until well into their 20s or even later.

Plus, not everyone’s executive function is fully developed by their mid 20s. The part of the brain that controls executive function — the prefrontal cortex — develops relatively late.

This means that in the workplace, there’s a wide variety of development in people’s executive skills. “Executive function challenges are extremely common,” adds Yellin. 

Having trouble with executive function is closely connected to ADHD. Everyone with ADHD has some degree of executive function challenges. But it’s not only people with ADHD who have executive function challenges.

In other words, it’s everyone with ADHD plus many, many more people who struggle with these skills. These are all invisible disabilities, which are far more common in the workplace than you might think.

How executive function challenges play out in the workplace

Trouble with executive function can show up in many ways. Here are some skills an employee with these challenges may struggle with:

  • Retaining information to use it right away (working memory)
  • Understanding different points of view (flexible thinking)
  • Thinking before acting or speaking (self-control)
  • Paying attention
  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  • Following multi-step instructions
  • Shifting between priorities
  • Starting tasks and staying focused on them until they’re done
  • Regulating their emotions 
  • Keeping track of what they’re doing (self-monitoring)

And here are some ways an employee with executive function challenges might have difficulty in the workplace:

  • Repeatedly missing deadlines
  • Having trouble deciding how to prioritize tasks
  • Difficulty shifting between responsibilities 
  • Getting distracted in meetings 
  • Speaking up at inappropriate times
  • Challenges following through with projects
  • Regularly procrastinating getting started on tasks
  • Having chronic lateness

Struggling with executive function is not a reflection of someone’s desire to do good work or to be a productive employee. “I think it’s often mistaken as somebody having little motivation or somebody who procrastinates,” says Yellin. “It’s perceived as a character flaw instead of as a cognitive process.”

How you can help an employee with executive function challenges

Start conversations. Let your employee know there’s no shame in disclosing their issues to the broader organization. An employee might be embarrassed to admit they’re struggling or afraid they’ll be stigmatized. But in fact, employees who disclose their disabilities are more than twice as likely to feel regularly happy or content at work than those who have not disclosed to anyone, according to a 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation. Encourage company leaders to speak up about their disabilities as well. That helps create an inclusive environment where employees feel free to be their authentic selves. 

Ask questions. Executive function challenges affect people differently. By asking questions about struggles the employee might be facing, you’ll have a better sense of how you can help. “It’s often a matter of understanding the specific needs of the individual and the workplace and figuring out what a solution might be,” adds Yellin. Questions can include: 

  • “What’s the hardest part of dealing with your job responsibilities?” 
  • “What has been helpful to you in the past?”
  • “What do you see as your biggest challenge?”
  • “What do you think would make a difference for you?”
  • “What can I do to help you with your challenges?” 

Create systems that can help. “Some people learn better through visual cues, some through auditory, some through written,” says Jim Rein, MA, former dean of the Vocational Independence Program at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). 

“An employer can identify the system that works best for an individual employee, and then use that to provide information and direction.” Providing information in multiple ways (written, spoken, and otherwise) also gives people the chance to get important details several times.

And accommodating employees who have trouble with executive function doesn’t have to be expensive. According to a survey by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), 58 percent of accommodations cost nothing. And nearly all of the rest involved a one-time cost that averaged only $500. Here are some examples of low-cost accommodations that will help employees with executive function challenges:

  • Providing checklists for tasks that need to be completed.
  • Using agendas for meetings.
  • Helping plan and prioritize job tasks. “If you feel then that they need help in organizing and planning, ask questions like, ‘What do you see as the most important task?’” says Rein.
  • Encouraging the employee to write down instructions for a task. And then confirm that they’ve been captured accurately.
  • Providing a clipboard to keep at work stations to review instructions.
  • “Breaking down tasks into manageable components, and then providing feedback on each one is really helpful,” Rein adds.

Technology can also be very useful: Smartphone reminders, timers to alert when a task needs to be completed, and calendar apps can all be helpful. Sending calendar invitations to employees with built-in reminders before a meeting or event is also effective.

Acknowledge their strengths. An employee with executive function challenges may be incredibly creative. They may also come up with unique, out-of-the-box ideas. Make sure you provide positive feedback and let them know that their talents and abilities are valued. 

“The person who is struggling with executive function has some strengths in other areas that may be exceptional,” says Yellin. “Be cognizant of where their strengths are. How can you build on those while you’re working on the challenges?”

With the right support, employees who struggle with executive function can improve skills, be more productive, and feel more confident. And that leads to an inclusive workplace where employees feel motivated and able to do their best work.

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