Hannah Lanfear, founder of The Mixing Class, believes a significant share of the bar industry workforce is neurodivergent and that, with understanding and awareness, that's a good thing.
It was November ’19. Shaking with terror and with my forehead pressed into the floorboards I reflected that the business I had spent years pouring my heart into was ruined. I was going to have to tell 60 students, many of whom had booked flights and hotels to attend my courses, that I wasn’t going to be able to travel to Australia because I had lost my passport.
It was unthinkable. I had turned the house upside-down twice, stripped every cupboard, every drawer. I’d dismantled the house but it wasn’t to be found. I sank into a panic attack and reflected on the last time I had it in my hand. I’d got a sandwich at the airport when I landed home a few weeks ago. Passport in my hand.
Passport in the sandwich bag? Sandwich bag in the bin. Oh god. I’d have to refund thousands and thousands of pounds I didn’t have.
This is just one example of my ADHD. But it comes in many forms. Over lockdown I was snapping at every tiny thing, I would burst into tears over hardly anything, and was burning out fast. Yes, I was tired, but my response was disproportionate. Something wasn’t right.
Attention Deficit [Hyperactive] Disorder affects around 2% of the population, and is a neurodivergence that affects the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is responsible for organisation, cognitive flexibility, self-control, and maintaining attention. It’s not a great name for it really, if anything ADHD causes a surplus of attention that oscillates at top speed.
Our brains don’t operate like others, instead of cognitive thoughts we are driven by emotions. When everything you do is propelled by passion or panic it’s thoroughly exhausting, to the point of regular burnouts.
While the hyperactive-type of ADHD is usually caught early on in kids that act up at school, those with inattentive-type ADHD are often missed, resulting in a modern-day deluge of adults who are only now getting to the root of their lifelong struggles. As children we were called clumsy, forgetful, easily distracted.
Our problems didn’t go away as we aged, they just changed. As Hacha’s manager Robyn Evans tells me: “I think people don’t realise it’s not just about focus. It’s that the inability to focus isn’t just isolated to paying attention to a task. It’s not being able to focus on anything you do, even subconsciously, resulting in forgetful and often impulsive behaviour.”
While the path for diagnosis means painfully long waiting lists, the good news is that, once diagnosed, there is an array of treatment to help you manage your symptoms, and with a new understanding of yourself, a sense of acceptance that may have been missing your whole life.
It’s important to note that having ADHD doesn’t equate to stupidity – on the contrary, we are often bright and brilliant, but the rigours of educational institutions don’t fit our frenetic brains and, thanks to the structure of pretty much everything, societal barriers have shut us out of many paths in life.
Is it any surprise then, that so many of us ADHDers fall so readily into vocational work, like bartending? We are social, we like not being stationary, we are incredibly empathetic and therefore excel at hospitality. We love getting hits of dopamine – tasks we can complete quickly and get instant feedback for making our brains happy, such as seeing a guest enjoy a drink you made or smashing out a round of 10 cocktails.
While the statistics aren’t available to prove it, I believe our industry is rich with neurodiversity – full of wonderful nerds who thirst for learning. As Dean Callan (of Dean Callan Show fame and ADHDer) tells me: “I attribute my “creativity” or capacity to think outside the box to it. I think it helps that some people come to a bar looking for a conversation with an interesting character. Thinking differently, or having had a different experience of life makes your chat more engaging.”
Hospitality makes for a wonderful career that can hold phenomenal opportunities, the admission fee only a quick smile and a desire to do things well – talents an ADHDer can excel at, but it’s not without its challenges. ADHDers can have overlapping neurodivergences and research shows many experience social anxiety. In situations involving alcohol we drink faster and our brains are more prone to blackout, according to studies. In an industry that often lacks empathy to the needs of an individual, this electrical storm often means pinwheeling from job to job.
An employer may make efforts to avoid hiring the type of person who might forget their shift, forget a round for a table, or who may struggle to complete more complex tasks, but they’d be missing out on the incredible superskills of ADHDers. If we are enthused about a task, we are obsessive about doing it well! We can get fixated on learning, will go deep on cocktail history or spirits production (hello, this is me). We love making guests happy, and can be the life and soul of any bar – the person your regular guests return for.
But in return for that brilliance, it’s vital that employers understand that neurodiverse teams need compassionate management. This might mean adjustments to better accommodate those who need clear structure, ensuring the rota can be accessed online, giving creativity the chance to flourish, allowing continual growth to feed minds, and creating a company culture that inhibits the likelihood of substance abuse.
If ADHDers aren’t interested in a task then wild horses cannot drag them to complete it, so make sure to give complex tasks in little chunks, and that there’s an engaging and rewarding aspect to them.
Our industry can offer fulfilling careers for those whose brains work differently, and while that’s the goal, sadly it’s just not what’s happening. In researching this article I have heard harrowing stories of renowned bars treating neurodivergent bartenders with contempt. A cocktail bartender, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that after informing their employer about their neurodivergence, they got fired.
I’ve witnessed the crippling anxiety a friend of mine experienced as a bar supervisor after being threatened with disciplinaries for being late with complex paperwork, despite her remonstrations that the task was structured in a way that made it incompatible with her ADHD. For business owners to be cutting fast and loose with the Equalities Act is leaving them wide open for lawsuits, because, friends, it’s not “oh hey, it would be nice to be more accommodating to the neurodivergent”, it’s “hey motherfucker, you have to: it’s the law”.
For happy, engaged bar teams, we must build greater awareness and understanding, not just of ADHD, but of the rich tapestry of neurodiversity among us, because it is a diversity of ideas that makes us more empathetic, more creative, and holistically stronger as an industry, and that’s something we all benefit from.
Oh, and if you wondered what happened to my trip to Australia: by the seat of my pants and a whole lot of trouble and money I managed to get a new passport. I made it in time to teach my courses and The Mixing Class lived on.
For more information on neurodiversity within the cocktail industry, Hannah’s Tales of the Cocktail seminar, Cocktails & Spirits & ADHD, is free to view on YouTube, and features Dr Nancy Doyle, a leading expert on neurodiversity in the workplace. Her company, Genius Within, has a trove of resources for businesses as well as neurodivergent individuals.