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by Katherine Jahangiri

A few years ago, I was a manager at a tech company — a sector known for pushing the envelope in innovation but falling behind in neurodiversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. I was sitting in a meeting when my then-supervisor lamented about a family member’s struggle with their wife’s obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). 

“He needs to divorce her. She’s crazy. You can’t be with someone like that.”

I froze. 

Hearing the meanest thoughts I’ve had about myself spoken by the person who had the power to make decisions about my career advancement was paralyzing. At the time, I hadn’t shared my OCD diagnosis with my boss, but at that moment, the thought of self-disclosure felt synonymous with putting a target on my back.

Workplace mental health stigma still exists

Research shows that my fear was not unfounded. In 2019, a poll by the American Psychiatric Association found that roughly 50% of American workers were afraid to discuss mental health conditions with their employers. Over one-third were worried about job consequences if they sought mental health care. For those of us living with a condition that’s often misunderstood, used as a comedic punchline, or fetishized as a productivity quirk, the thought of disclosure can feel terrifying despite federal workplace protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  

Navigating OCD at work

Back in the meeting, I looked around at my colleagues, waiting for someone to speak up, say something, or change the subject. Instead, there was a mixture of nervous laughter and silence.

This experience reminds me that those who live with OCD may not have had like-minded mentors to guide us through specific challenges that our non-OCD co-workers do not face. Similarly, companies and allies need better tools to understand how they can speak up and advocate for creating more inclusive work environments. Regardless of what side of the equation you fall on, the goal of this article is to help you know you’re not alone and share tools with you to navigate OCD and neurodiversity in the workplace.

Defining OCD

Mental health professionals and individuals living with OCD have made desperate attempts to educate the public on what OCD is and, more importantly, what it is not. Despite these efforts, people still associate OCD with being detail-oriented or particular. 

On the contrary, obsessive ompulsive disorder (OCD) is a neurological condition that causes a person to become caught in a cycle of obsessions (intrusive, unwanted, or distressing thoughts) and compulsions (rituals, repeated actions) to get rid of the thoughts. At times, this cycle is so debilitating that daily function becomes impossible.

To help paint the picture, here are a couple of ways OCD has shown up for me in the workplace:

Perfectionism 

  • Obsession: Hesitation to send an email out of fear of missing critical information, making mistakes, or accidentally including inappropriate words. Fear of being fired if the email was incorrect.
  • Compulsion: Reading the email seven times before hitting send, even after confirming with others that the email was correct. After hitting send, going back to the sent folder multiple times to re-read the email, sometimes up to days later.

Causing Harm 

  • Obsession: Failure to lock the door at the office or accidentally letting an unknown person into the building. Fear that this could result in an imminent threat to safety or end someone else’s life. 
  • Compulsion: Checking and rechecking all of the building doors, even after seeing they were secured. Opening and closing the door seven times to check the locking mechanism and making rounds throughout the building to observe and ensure colleagues’ safety.

How OCD shows up is not one-size-fits-all. For example, I once had a therapist tell me that “OCD has its hand in reality” because the obsessions can come from a place that’s both relatable and understandable by most people. In other words, someone without OCD may have similar thoughts; however, the defining marker is how their presence interferes with a person’s daily life.

Resources for OCD support

Whether you have already disclosed your OCD to your employer, or you’re looking for ways to find support at work quietly, here are five recommended actions:

  • Take advantage of your workplace Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for free access to licensed counselors and mental health resources. 
  • Consider requesting ADA accommodations through your supervisor or the human resources department. Learn more about specific examples and steps for requesting an OCD-specific accommodation. 
  • Ask your therapist to help make a work-specific exposure response plan to address obsessions and compulsions that manifest in the office. 
  • If your company has a neurodiversity or mental health employee resource group (ERG), consider joining. Benefits of ERGs include representation, advocacy for workplace policy changes, inclusivity, and a greater sense of belonging. If you don’t have this type of ERG and you would like to start one, talk to your human resources department of Corporate Social Responsibility champion. 
  • Find a support group. If the thought of disclosing or seeking workplace support seems more dangerous than helpful, find a local OCD support group that you can share your experiences with to know you’re not alone. 

Tools for allies and employers

As it turns out, neurodiversity (of which OCD falls under the umbrella) can offer a competitive edge for companies that see the value in hiring and investing in professionals with cognitive conditions. But before you can take advantage of this, you have a social responsibility to create an environment where we want to work. Here are five tips to get you started: 

  • Facilitate training around language to stop the stigma surrounding OCD and how managers can proactively support mental health. Remind employees to avoid using OCD as a synonym for being particular or detail oriented. 
  • Recognize that the pandemic may have added compounded difficulty for individuals with OCD who have contamination-based obsessions. As we’re returning to work, consider more accommodations like keeping work-from-home options, offering monthly mental health days, and reaching out to create space for colleagues who may need additional help navigating another sudden shift in their environment.
  • Invest in the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and host a lunch and learn for all employees to understand accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Examine your company culture. Often, the idea of being a “culture fit” hinges on how well a person’s personality fits into the office, and individuals with OCD and neurological conditions may fall on the fringes of this model. Instead, consider ways to redefine culture to be measured on the contributions and perspectives a person adds to your company.
  • Create a neurodiversity employee resource group (ERG) to help gain insights about your company’s functional areas you can improve from your neurodivergent employees’ perspective.

Be kind to yourself

If I could go back in time to that conference room, I would have told myself that I wasn’t the problem in that room. In the future, I hope that you know you’re not alone. If you’re navigating your OCD at work, please remember to give yourself a break (both literally and figuratively). You didn’t ask to have OCD, and despite how you may feel, advocating for what you need when it comes to your mental health is a revolutionary act of bravery, not a sign of weakness. 

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