The bustling kitchens and the craft of creative dishes make the hospitality industry a dynamic environment that draws in ADHD individuals. We're more than chefs; we're innovators. Our blend of enthusiasm, creativity, and risk-taking leads to culinary masterpieces. But it's not without obstacles. Our energy and passion also presents challenges in the demanding world
The hospitality industry is gripped by a "work hard, play hard" mentality that can be alluring, yet is often unsustainable. This culture glorifies working to the point of burnout and celebrates it as a badge of honour. The environment doesn’t accommodate the specific needs and challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals, such as ADHD. I know this too well, having experienced it firsthand.
In 1998 I decided to become a chef. I had been earning money to pay my rent, working in a golf club kitchen in Australia washing dishes. One day, I impulsively asked the head chef if he had any apprentice positions. His casual response of “yeah, sure” defined the course of my life for the next 25 years.
In the early days, I found it both exciting and tough. I still recall the thrill of moving to London and cooking in a large fine dining kitchen. My ADHD hyperfocus and cognitive hyperactivity kicked into overdrive. I vividly remember the perplexed look on the head chef's face when I mentioned I had not slept in a week, my mind racing from the excitement of everything I
was learning. Although I was diagnosed with ADHD, I actually knew very little about it.
While I had sparks of creativity, there were days when my inability to sit still, along with a wandering mind, led to inconsistency and impulsiveness in my work. Negative or corrective messages from other chefs felt like a personal failure. In an effort to please others, I developed poor personal boundaries and learnt to mask my challenges. This pattern continued as I moved into private household service, first as a chef, and then as a
travelling butler/house manager for ultra-high-net-worth individuals. After almost a decade of working in private service, I became inspired to learn more about my condition and decided to train as a certified coach and mentor for ADHDers. I believe understanding the challenges ADHDers face is the first step to driving healthier changes within hospitality.
Perfectionism manifests in all-or-nothing thinking, unreasonable standards, negative comparisons, sensitivity to feedback, and even procrastination. Driven by a fear of failure, perfectionism can lead to dependence on other chefs for validation, burnout, low self-esteem, and feeling never ‘good enough’.
ADHDers experience emotions differently, often feeling them more intensely. Our actions are driven by the immediate gratification strong emotions provide rather than reasoning. This emotional intensity can be exhausting, leading to burnout.
Executive Function Challenges
This refers to our brain’s system that helps us plan, organise and manage our time and resources effectively. Self-awareness, including interoception (the ability to understand how we feel in our own bodies) are key executive function challenges. Misinterpreting cues such as exhaustion, hunger, and overall physical health can lead to unhealthy coping strategies.
Unhealthy Coping Strategies
Dopamine plays a crucial role in the brain's reward system, reinforcing behaviours and activities associated with pleasure. ADHDers often have lower levels of dopamine, leading to a constant search for stimulation. To compensate, we may impulsively turn to unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse or risky behaviour.
Hyperfocus and Attention to Detail
Hyperfocus, a highly concentrated form of attention, often allows a young chef with ADHD to excel in their field. This intense focus can lead to a willingness to take risks and produce creative dishes. While beneficial in some contexts, an intense focus on repetitive tasks can be mentally and physically draining, consuming executive function capacity.
After years of negative or corrective feedback, ADHDers often feel like square pegs in round holes, leading us to suppress our true selves to conform to societal norms. This masking can impact mental health, self-esteem, and identity. Additionally, it can prevent access to appropriate support, leading to burnout over time.
Due to the demanding nature of the industry, along with long hours, we tend to use up all our executive function capacity at work. This often takes a toll on our ability to connect and be present with our loved ones.
Managing ADHD Challenges
By applying holistic practices, ADHDers can understand themselves better, manage the condition and begin to live a fulfilled life. Here are some steps to get started:
Sort prep lists and order them according to priority. By structuring tasks, you can organise your daily life and maintain focus.
Use timers to provide structure on tasks, helping you manage your time and keeping you on track.
Gamify tasks to keep your mind engaged and make routine work more enjoyable.
Reframe negative feedback so you can view it as an opportunity to learn and improve rather than a personal failure.
Pay attention to the music you listen to and your overall working environment. Do they enhance your focus and productivity, or are they a distraction?
Exercise regularly to improve your working memory, sharpen your focus and uplift your mood.
Eat healthy foods and practice mindful eating by dedicating time to sit down for meals. Avoid eating while engaged in other activities to prevent overeating.
Practice mindful self-compassion and allow yourself to be good enough; we all make mistakes.
Spend time outdoors on your days off and avoid excessive drinking that could lead to hangovers in bed.
Discuss your challenges with your manager or head chef. By law, in the UK all places of work have to make reasonable accommodations.
Consider applying to Access to Work if you're in the UK, as ADHD is recognised as a disability. Assistance from the DWP may cover the cost of specialist coaching, assistive technologies, and other support.
Implementing these strategies can help you manage your ADHD, turning challenges into opportunities for growth and creativity. Remember you’re not alone and if you need further support, don’t hesitate to reach out.
ADHD Coach & Mentor
Founder of Building Balance