Oh boy! It turns out I have something in common with one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris: he too was an obsessive-compulsive child. I would rather have in common with him a list of successful books but (for now) I’ll live with this. As humorous as I find Sedaris’s accounts of his obsessive-compulsive behavior, the disorder can be difficult for the sufferer and those around him, such as co-workers.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) comes in different forms. There are times when the sufferer would like to change his habits but unlike a person who simply has poor manners, the person with OCD might in fact need therapy to change the undesirable habits. Still, at work there are times when obsessive-compulsive habits might actually come in handy: imagine a co-worker who is, without fail, always on time for all work commitments, someone who always double checks everything so that errors become rare in your department and your boss loves it!
To get some insight into the professional relationship with an obsessive-compulsive co-worker I contacted the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and Phillip Hodson, a Fellow there, kindly answered all my questions by email.
WA: What are the categories of OCD behavior?
PH: True OCD is an anxiety disorder which may be mild or severe characterized by such things as repetitive checking behaviour (did I lock the door?) or compulsive handwashing. In severe cases, people may take an hour or more to get out of bed because they have to count all the squares on the wallpaper first. Jack Nicholson played a character in the movie [“As Good as It Gets”] who needs to eat lunch at the same table in a local restaurant everyday and will shift anyone out of the way who try to stop him. He also never walks on the cracks in the pavement. Then there are people who aren’t especially anxious but who have an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder which causes them to try manically to keep control of things and do everything perfectly – it has much in common with types of autism. And then there are people who have no clinical condition as such but who simply want to keep their lives spick and span but they are far too tidy and possibly houseproud for the rest of us.
WA: How can OCD behavior interfere with co-worker relationships?
PH: The problem with OCD is that it may infuriate those on the receiving end and can compromise efficiency and punctuality. Problem-solving usually requires open-ended, creative thinking. Someone with OCD will only want to stick to with “the way we’ve done this before”. Those with OCD are sometimes paralysed when there’s a need to cut corners or speed up production. However, obsessional tendencies may be useful where the job involves safety checks.
WA: If the behavior of an OCD co-worker is affecting one’s own work, how should that person proceed to let the OCD co-worker know about this situation? Is talking to a manager the best approach? Talking directly with the person?
PH: I don’t believe you should become an unpaid therapist to your co-workers but common sense suggests trying to reason with them in an encouraging way before you go to the bosses. Perhaps you could reassure by suggesting an experiment – “Let’s just try and do it without counting all the components first and see whether your fear is justified – I’ll help you with it”.
WA: Tips for dealing a co-worker who suffers from OCD?
PH: Avoid criticism – it’s tough to look at the world through such constantly fearful eyes and nobody “chooses” to be like this. Give colleagues objective feedback – “I know you were worried it wouldn’t work out but look at the results. We arrived there on schedule and everyone is happy with us! Perhaps it’s okay to be more flexible after all?” You need to be patient and prepared to repeat the message.
WA: Tips for staying productive while working with a co-worker who suffers from OCD?
PH: I suppose as far as possible you should try to mind your own business. When you have to liaise with this colleague, make some allowances but try not to catch their anxiety. The difficult with emotions like anxiety is that they are infectious. One mantra may help you – “All that really matters are health and children – the rest is management”.
WA: A person who suffers from OCD might pay more attention to detail than someone who doesn’t suffer from the disorder. Do you agree? What would be some advantages of working with someone who suffers from OCD?
PH: They make good safety checkers – but poor airline pilots. One airline captain who suffered from OCD famously crashed by running out of fuel because he was so determined to isolate the cause of a different fault on the flightdeck!
WA: In your experience, what are the major complaints from people who suffer from OCD regarding their co-workers?
PH: In general they often feel misunderstood and unfairly harassed. But then people with moderate to severe OCD are likely to find the workplace a source of enormous worry anyway – and those with the worst symptoms, however clever or well qualified, prefer to drop out or seek the most menial routine jobs. In the most tragic instances, people with top degrees are working as lavatory attendants.
WA: Could you please expand on that?
PH: What I meant was that strong OCD is characterised above all by high levels of anxiety and fear of disaster – therefore a stressful work environment where tasks need to be completed to professional standards swiftly and reliably is burdensome. There is some truth in your second point – people with OCD do prefer predictable routines, usually. They often indeed settle for repetitive menial work – but in every workplace there’s threat – and even the most routine jobs can get disrupted by changes in product demand or technological innovation.
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His website is www.philliphodson.co.uk and he provides counseling services online as well as in person.
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