OCD Presents Unique Challenges in the Workplace

man with OCD at his work

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) disrupts millions of people’s relationships, self-esteem and home lives each year, but the disorder can also be extremely difficult to manage in the workplace. The patterns and rituals that hallmark the disorder, such as repeatedly checking the door to be sure it’s locked, can negatively affect a person’s job performance and ability to reach their goals.

OCD is a type of anxiety disorder that causes sufferers to have continuous undesirable thoughts, known as obsessions, usually in conjunction with repeated actions and behaviors to ward off the undesirable thoughts. Common OCD behaviors are counting or numbering objects, checking things or washing the hands repeatedly with the false belief that the unwanted obsessions will leave. The behaviors, also called rituals, only lessen the anxiety for a short time, and people with OCD can have great difficulty managing daily tasks.

In the workplace, the disorder may mean a person has to have everything on their desk precisely arranged before they can begin a task or attend a meeting. It may mean the person may become overwhelmed by troubling thoughts and need a few moments away to regroup periodically throughout the day.

OCD in the workplace often creates misunderstandings between coworkers, employees and supervisors. A person with OCD may need to check and recheck their files before entering a meeting, thus being viewed as disorganized or late. The symptoms of OCD may also slow a person’s progress on tasks, giving the impression that they are putting jobs off or are unmotivated.

Strong communication with a person’s employer about the condition can help, and may help create the modifications that make workplace success possible for people with OCD. Some of these modifications include allowing the person to telecommute from home or giving them project deadlines as much in advance as possible.

However, people with OCD have no legal obligation to provide information to their employer about the condition, nor can the employer legally discriminate against them for having the disorder. Still, many people with OCD struggle at work in silence because they fear negative opinions from coworkers, disapproval from their supervisor or being overlooked for certain projects.

Certain career options may create a better environment for people with OCD than others. For example, working law enforcement or some form of regulatory job means strict guidelines and rules are enforced. These rules may help a person with OCD cope with their need for control and organization. Because people with OCD are typically drawn to step-by-step processes, activities like business planning may be good career paths. Accounting and finance careers can also be healthy for people with OCD, as can technical jobs that can be done on one’s own, like Internet-based design or programming.

Though finding the right fit for a career can be a challenge for someone with OCD, millions of people with this disorder maintain productive, satisfying careers. The condition is treatable, typically with a combination of therapy and medications – and remaining in communication about the disorder can also help employees make any needed modifications to thrive at work.

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