How to Deal With an Obsessive Compulsive Co-worker


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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Freelance writer, translator and copyeditor currently living in Amsterdam. Former stressed-out marketing and public relations person in NYC. Likes languages but really doesn't like flowers. Contact through GreenRabbitTranslations.com.
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Discussion

  1. Angela Vaughn on the 7th February

    Dealing with and being an OCD person is difficult, just as dealing with someone who has ADD. I think am OCD, but not to the extremes; as the post described it varies on how serve it can be. Most people describe me as particular. If you ration with me and there is a good argument for change to my routine or the ways I do things I can easily change my mind set. But being barked orders, that it has to be done XYZ way it makes someone who has OCD tendencies to become defensive and stop listening. I think the article is right on with not giving criticism, at least not in a negative way— if you do, make sure criticism is approach in a friendly constructive manner.

    • Ana da Silva on the 10th February

      I don’t think having habits makes one OCD but I agree that telling someone they must do something a certain way doesn’t work with anyone.

      The trouble with OCD starts when you need to be flexible in a situation but the sufferer simply can’t budge. I think Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” is OCD if you want to see what I mean :)

    • Collin on the 6th December

      I’ve had OCD for 10 years now, since the age of 11, and it’s gotten worse and worse since the age of 15 and it’s to the point now where it destroyed my life and luckily I got out of severe 3 year depression a year ago because of it and I’ve got motivation to live again. I can’t do anything I’m currently going to a hospital for therapy, I can’t go into details cause it would take too long but one day I’m going to writte a book about it. I find it extremly difficult at work since most of my shifts are closing and they lock the doors I go in by, and I have to go out the same way I walk into a building or else I’ll have a panic attack, it’s just one of the hundreds of behaviours I do, I’m scared I’ll get in trouble but if they do mention it to me I’ll just have to explain to them my situation

  2. Jennifer Brown Banks on the 7th February

    This is an excellent, informative piece with great suggestions. Though I’m not sure, I think I may have a mild case. :-) But for me, it seems to be of benefit in that it makes me extremely punctual and detail oriented. And that’s not bad in my book. ;-)

    Thanks for sharing this!

    • Ana da Silva on the 10th February

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Jennifer!

  3. xsid on the 9th February

    what if the OCC is a dam sexy one!

  4. Brendan on the 3rd March

    Alright Ana, the article has given me a lot to thing about. I was talking to some coworkers and I told them that I think I be a little OCD. They laughed hysterically and reminded me that I color coordinate my paper clips. So I guess it might be not so little :)

    • Ana da Silva on the 4th March

      That is one of the funniest quirks I’ve ever heard of! I’m glad that I was able to inspire in you some dialogue Brendan :)

  5. RP on the 20th August

    Frankly, I’ve never encountered a problem with an OCD employee that couldn’t be solved with a P45. I give them a chance to improve, and if they don’t I show them the door, for everyone else’s good and for theirs. The worst thing you can ever do with someone whose behaviour is unreasonable is play to their whims. The sooner they realise that their colleagues and bosses aren’t there to pander to their more insane compulsions the better. Generally, I’ve found, by around about their third job (which by that stage will be taking burger orders at a drive through), they finally get the hint that their behaviour is unacceptable, stop acting like children, and start letting other people get on with their lives without undue interference. Just an honest observation.

    • A. Connor on the 30th March

      RP’s comment adds a much needed perspective to this discussion. I have been observing a new employee in my workplace who was hired as an admin. supervisor but worked previously as a para-scientist. This person is sadly unable to hear feedback and has created waves of chaos and complex drama everywhere she goes, which is everywhere, since the goal is apparently to change the world immediately. Perhaps there are career paths for people with OCD where compulsivness and control are useful attributes and interactions with other workers are minimal.

    • Kate on the 11th April

      You have got to be kidding me. OCD is not some quirky personality trait….this is a disease and the problem is people through around the term OCD too loosely. I am 33 and was diagnosed with severe OCD at age 12, participated in Yale Child Study Center at that age and have had to deal with this terrible condition my whole life. I have a Masters Degree in Education and was a Division 1 athlete. Flipping burgers? Educate yourself on the disease before making judgements. OCD is not a choice. This article is entirely too flippant and discusses the stereotypical OCD that television portrays….what about pure O’s, scrupulosity, responsibility OCD? among many others.

  6. Erwin@PinoyWealthy on the 8th June

    I was searching for dealing with OCD as realized that I have this then I found your article. Thanks for the info. very helpful.

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