OCD at work: how to spot the signs and offer support

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Olivia Bamber, Youth Service and Communications Manager of OCD Action, offers insight on some of the challenges people with OCD may face in the workplace and the reasonable adjustments that can be made to help support them. Please note, OCD Action does not employ medical professionals and can only offer support and information.

OCD is often described by those affected as a '24 hour battle with your own brain’. It can be a debilitating and paralysing condition that makes simple day-to-day tasks difficult to complete.

The level of interference on a person’s life will vary depending on their individual manifestations of OCD and the severity it. For example, some people may find it difficult to travel on public transport, whereas others may not even be able to leave the house due to their condition.

With this in mind, it is not difficult to imagine that a person’s ability to function well in a workplace can be affected by OCD. But while there are a number of things that may be challenging, that does not mean people with OCD are not capable of being hard-working and valued employees. The majority of affected individuals will be able to continue in full or part-time work whilst living with their condition, and may actually find it aids their recovery rather than hinders it.

However, as with any mental or physical health condition, small adjustments may need to be made in the workplace to ensure an employee with OCD can carry out their role to the best of their ability.

Signs that someone may have OCD

There is a huge amount of stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds OCD, and this can often lead to people feeling embarrassed or ashamed about their obsessions and behaviours. The average delay between someone developing symptoms of OCD and them going on to seek treatment is 12 years. Within that time, the symptoms of the condition are highly likely to have worsened.

The more at ease an employee feels with their work team and managers, the more comfortable they may feel about disclosing their condition. It is therefore your job to offer support, even if there is nothing visibly wrong with an employee. Regular check-ins can make all the difference to someone suffering in silence.

If you’re concerned that an employee may be struggling with OCD (or another mental health issue), perhaps ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your colleague/employee consistently late or distressed when they arrive at work?

  • Have they needed to take time off without giving a reason?

  • Have they been more irritable than normal, or do they seem to respond badly in certain situations?

  • Do they seem like they are struggling to concentrate on their work?

  • Are they missing deadlines more often than normal, for no explained reason?

  • Do they ask for reassurance about themselves or their work more than others?

  • Do they avoid certain objects or situations?

Answering ‘yes’ to these questions does not necessarily imply that someone has OCD, but it could be a sign that they are struggling and require some extra support.

Making reasonable adjustments for people with OCD

It is a person’s right to choose whether or not they disclose their condition to their employer. As stated in the Equality Act 2010, OCD is defined as a disability, so if someone does choose to disclose their OCD, it is the duty of the employer to make reasonable adjustments for that person.

The adjustments should be chosen by the person with OCD so they feel comfortable with the process. These may include time off for therapy, or flexible working hours.

It’s common for intrusive thoughts to revolve around really ‘taboo’ subjects… remember that these thoughts are the person’s worst fears and are not in line with their morals or beliefs.

Here are a few examples to help give you an idea of the types of challenges that could arise and adjustments that could be made:

Challenge: Difficulty getting to work on time

This can be quite a common problem for people affected by OCD. Rather than the reason for lateness being from oversleeping or disorganisation, it’s more commonly due to someone having to complete time-consuming rituals when leaving the house, or feeling the need to keep returning to their home for fear that they have left appliances on or unlocked.

Reasonable adjustment: flexible working hours.

Challenge: Difficulties with travelling on public transport

Travelling on buses and trains can be an anxiety-provoking situation for many, but for someone with OCD this may bring on the following symptoms (to name just a few):

  • Intrusive thoughts about harm (for example, fearing that they may push someone in front of the train)

  • Contamination fears about sitting on public seats, holding handrails or touching others they may feel are contaminated

  • Sexual intrusive thoughts about others (for example people with harmful or sexual intrusive thoughts may be triggered by seeing a child on public transport).

Reasonable adjustment: flexible working hours or time to de-stress when first entering the workplace.

Challenge: Being around other people

As mentioned earlier, being around other people may trigger intrusive thoughts.

Reasonable adjustment: option to phone in to meetings, or be able to leave meetings or group situations without having to ask.

Challenge: Ruminating (going over and over a thought or scenario in your head)

Rumination is a common symptom of OCD and can often leave people obsessing over a past thought, memory or scenario that they are worried about. This could cause people to lose concentration on work or miss deadlines.

Reasonable adjustment: allowing someone to take short, regular breaks.

Challenge: Sharing a workspace

For some people with OCD, in particular those with obsessions revolving around order or contamination fears, a shared workspace may trigger anxiety and panic.

Reasonable adjustment: allowing an employee to have their own desk and an agreement with other staff not to use that desk in their absence.

Challenge: Not being able to get to work at all

As with all mental health difficulties, or just general stresses of life, sometimes people may wake up and actually just feel like they cannot face the day. This may be particularly apparent for someone affected by OCD.

Reasonable adjustment: time off for therapy or doctor’s appointments, opportunity to work from home or have shorter working hours.

Supporting someone at work

If you have noticed anything that you think may be of concern, it may be an idea to try and gently broach the conversation with the person you are concerned about.

It is a good idea to read up about OCD first of all so your colleague can feel as comfortable as possible when explaining what is happening to them – after all you may be the first person they have spoken about this with.

Try to be as non-judgemental as possible if the person with OCD chooses to disclose their fears to you. It’s common for intrusive thoughts to revolve around really ‘taboo’ subjects… remember that these thoughts are the person’s worst fears and are not in line with their morals or beliefs.

OCD affects roughly 1-2% of the population, but with the right support and appropriate treatment, people can recover and live happy and successful lives.

If they feel comfortable talking to you but you are not their line manager, perhaps gently suggest that they speak with their manager about it too, and offer your support with that conversation.

Although there are very few positives to living with OCD, people with the condition tend to be extremely empathetic of others who may be struggling. Once you have lived with a condition that is as debilitating as this, it’s sometimes much easier to understand what others are going through. Therefore someone who has been affected by OCD may be able to use their past experience to help support other colleagues, which could be of benefit to your organisation.

OCD affects roughly 1-2% of the population, but with the right support and appropriate treatment, people can recover and live happy and successful lives.

Having a supportive and comfortable working environment can aid this recovery, so employers can make a difference to many people’s lives by putting good support systems in place and being attentive to their employees.

Want to find out more?

Take a look at these useful resources:

What is OCD? A brief introduction:
www.ocdaction.org.uk/resource/introduction-ocd

Treatments for OCD:
www.ocdaction.org.uk/resource/what-cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt

www.ocdaction.org.uk/resource/medication-ocd

Talking to someone about getting help:
www.ocdaction.org.uk/resource/talking-someone-about-getting-help

Supporting a person with OCD:
www.ocdaction.org.uk/resource/supporting-person-ocd

OCD & work – your rights:
www.ocdaction.org.uk/resource/employment

About Olivia Bamber

Olivia

OCD Action is a national charity which supports people affected by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and related disorders, including family, friends and professionals.

Replies

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11th Jan 2018 20:02

does anyone have any tips on how to deal with someone who projects their OCD onto their colleagues, like complaining about what other people have on their desks and mis-interrupting policies and procedures to justify their own behaviours, i.e. a clear desk policy which relates only to private & confidential information being used to bully colleagues into remove everything from their desk, even during the course of a working day.

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By PCPaul
to ClarinePowell
11th Jan 2018 21:28

Hi Clarine
OCD sufferers are not exempt from informal or formal management action if they behave unprofessionally in the workplace. The manager may want to seek your colleague's consent for occupational health advice to get a better understanding of how their disorder affects their behaviour. Has your colleague actually said they have OCD, or are you assuming they have OCD because of the clear desk issues? You may want to read the OCD articles on this site to understand the condition is not just about wanting clear desks.

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to ClarinePowell
26th Jan 2018 16:31

Hi Clarine, has your colleague disclosed to you that they actually have OCD and the reasons why they find this situation distressing? Perhaps it'd be worth having a polite conversation with them and ask them about why they are acting this way, is there anything that can be done to support them, and gently reminding them that other employees are entitled (under your policy) to have items on their desk. OCD Action would be happy to have a chat with you in more detail if you'd find this useful. Just drop me a message and I can send you our details. Olivia

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avatar
11th Jan 2018 20:02

does anyone have any tips on how to deal with someone who projects their OCD onto their colleagues, like complaining about what other people have on their desks and mis-interrupting policies and procedures to justify their own behaviours, i.e. a clear desk policy which relates only to private & confidential information being used to bully colleagues into remove everything from their desk, even during the course of a working day.

Thanks (0)