The workplace is full of habits and rituals. You may always hold staff meetings at 9 a.m., eat lunch precisely at noon and double-check that the coffeemaker has been unplugged before leaving for the day. Some people, however, are plagued by persistent thoughts and recurring behaviors that interfere with normal life—a mental illness called obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.
OCD’s toll on the workplace
About 1.2 percent of Americans 13 years and older have OCD. Yet, studies have found that it takes an average of 17 years from the time OCD begins for people to obtain appropriate treatment. Consequently, OCD can take its toll in the workplace, affecting your workers' attendance, productivity, judgment, ability to work with others and quality of work. In fact, the financial cost of OCD to the U.S. economy is estimated in excess of $8 billion per year. For these reasons, early diagnosis of OCD and proper treatment are in the employee and employer’s best interests.
Signs and symptoms
People who suffer from OCD experience disturbing and intrusive thoughts, images or impulses that are temporarily relieved by performing rituals. For example, people obsessed with germs or dirt may wash their hands constantly. People who repeatedly rearrange things may be preoccupied by order and symmetry.
You may notice an employee with such behaviors, which can interfere with work:
- being overly meticulous and needing to have things “just so”
- excessive cleaning, checking or repeating
- frequently seeking reassurances from others
Morale problems, lack of cooperation, concentration and communication issues and increased absenteeism are other clues that OCD may exist. If such behaviors affect job performance or appear to threaten your employee’s health, you need to take action.
What supervisors can do
Often, people with mental illness are aware that something is wrong well before they seek professional help, but do not realize that their health problems also are affecting job performance. By bringing changes in work performance and behavior to your employee’s attention, you may prompt your employee to take the first step toward seeking a diagnosis and proper treatment.
Acquaint yourself with company-sponsored health benefits, specifically mental health coverage and employee assistance programs (EAP). Make sure your employee is aware of available resources and suggest that the employee seek professional help if personal or health issues are a concern.
Learn more about OCD and local help agencies. Doing so will prepare you should your employee voluntarily disclose any health problems. Do not diagnose. Rather, encourage your employee to seek professional help from an EAP counselor or other health or mental health professional.
Provide staff sensitivity training that includes information on mental illness and other disabilities. Doing so helps reduce stigmas.
When OCD is disclosed: ADA protection and reasonable accommodations
Once an employee discloses having OCD, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the employee from being discriminated against because of mental illness. ADA law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations at the employee’s request. Reasonable accommodations for an employee with OCD may include:
- Eliminating minor job duties that challenge your employee’s condition. If your employee compulsively checks, reassign tasks requiring counting or verification, or get a job coach to help the employee focus on the big picture.
- Offer flexible schedules. Allow an employee with OCD to make up hours missed because of doctor’s appointments. Or, if your employee’s medication causes drowsiness in the morning, allow the employee to come in later and work later.
- Consider structural needs. An employee obsessed with having things “just so” may appreciate having an assigned parking spot.
- Make job performance expectations clear. Help the employee set professional goals. Encourage the employee to continue with medication and treatment.
National Institute of Mental Health
National Alliance on Mental Illness
International OCD Foundation
ADA Home Page