Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, ranks in the top 10 most disabling illnesses, in terms of lost earnings and diminished quality of life, according to the World Health Organisation.

And at its worst, it’s described as a “24-hour battle with your brain” – a debilitating condition that can make even simple day-to-day tasks difficult to carry out.

OCD affects over 750,000 people in the UK, with 50% of all cases falling into the severe category and less than a quarter being classed as mild cases.

For people with OCD, the work environment can be an extremely challenging place to be.

So, as a leader or people manager, it is vital that you know how to support employees with OCD, so that they are able to feel happy, healthy and able to perform at their best.

In this article, you’ll discover:

  1. What is OCD?
  2. OCD myths
  3. What are the signs that an employee has OCD?
  4. Supporting an employee with OCD

What is OCD?

Have you ever heard someone say something like, “I hate it when my desk isn’t tidy… I’m so OCD”? Or maybe someone’s said to you “I always have to be on time, I’m a little OCD about it”?

Statements like this are incredibly common, because there are many misconceptions about OCD, and the term is misused a lot.

Whilst it’s common to experience minor obsessions, or to prefer things being done in a particular way, it’s important to recognise that this differs significantly from OCD.

In reality, OCD is a complex mental health problem, which can have a huge and disruptive impact on day-to-day life.

To understand what OCD is, it’s best to break it down into two parts: obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions involve having unwanted experiences that can feel out of your control, such as thoughts, worries, images or urges to do certain things.

These experiences come up for people repeatedly, and they often feel like they have no control over them.

Some thoughts or urges can be really disturbing to the person, and they don’t fit with how they see themselves.

They may feel disgusted or disturbed that they’re experiencing these things, which can lead to a feeling of shame.

The second part of OCD refers to the compulsions.

These are activities that someone engages in over and over again to reduce the anxiety they experience as a result of the obsession. The person feels they “have” to do this in order to “get rid” of the feelings they’re experiencing, or to stop their obsession from coming true.

Compulsions can include mental rituals or completing certain activities, sometimes involving doing things a set number of times or for a certain length of time.

The person may have total understanding that doing the compulsion doesn’t make sense rationally, but it can feel really scary not to do it when the feelings are so overwhelming.

OCD myths

OCD is a topic that is shrouded in stigma and misinformation, which prevents people from understanding it properly.

Education and understanding are vital to successful intervention and support – at work and at home.

With that in mind, here are four myths about OCD debunked.

Myth: You can be “a bit OCD”
Truth: In the same way you can’t be “a bit diabetic”, or “a bit bipolar” you can’t be “a bit OCD”. OCD is a serious condition with debilitating effects, and calling yourself “a bit OCD” undermines the very serious condition that some people are living with.

Myth: Liking things to be clean and tidy means you’re OCD
Truth: An obsession with keeping things clean may a common compulsion of OCD, but it’s by no means the only one (and not applicable to everyone with OCD). OCD is far more complicated than just liking a tidy bedroom or a clean sink.

Myth: People experiencing OCD just need to “chill out” be more relaxed
Truth: It’s nowhere near as simple as that. People with OCD find it incredibly difficult to dismiss intrusive thoughts. Over time and without treatment, these thoughts can take over someone’s life.

Myth: People with OCD just have to learn to live with it
Truth: As with many mental health issues or serious illnesses, you don’t have to just “put up” with OCD if it is having a debilitating effect on your life. Treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are available to help people with OCD control their compulsions.

What are the signs that an employee has OCD?

There is a huge amount of stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds OCD, which can often lead to people feeling embarrassed about their obsessions and behaviours, and reluctant to ask for help in dealing with them.

It is therefore important, as a people manager, to be able to spot the signs that a team member may be struggling with OCD.

By becoming familiar with the common signs to look out for, you can be proactive about supporting any struggling employees.

It’s important to note that if an employee does display any of these behaviours, that doesn’t automatically mean that they have OCD. However, whether they are experiencing OCD or not, it could still be a sign that they are struggling and require some extra support.

Your first step in supporting an employee with OCD is learning how to identify the symptoms.

1. An employee is consistently late to work, and looks distressed when they arrive

It’s common for people who are affected by OCD to have difficulty getting to work on time.

However, rather than this being due to oversleeping or lack of organisational skills, it’s more likely to be due to them having to complete time-consuming rituals when leaving the house.

They may also feel the need to keep returning to their home to check that they have not left any appliances on or doors unlocked.

If you notice that someone is regularly late, and also present any of the other symptoms outlined below, consider that they may be experiencing symptoms of OCD.

2. An employee is regularly taking time off without giving a reason

As is the case with many mental health issues, sometimes people who are affected by OCD may wake up and actually just feel like they cannot face going into work.

3. An employee is struggling to engage with their work

Employees with OCD may at times seem disinterested, disengaged or even lazy – when in reality they are just struggling to focus on anything other than the unwanted thoughts caused by OCD.

These obtrusive thoughts intrude into other thought processes, which causes difficulty with concentrating on and engaging with work tasks.

4. An employee is struggling with their workload, but cannot give a reason why

If an employee’s obsessions and/or compulsions are taking up a significant amount of their capacity, then they may struggle to keep up with deadlines.

5. An employee is constantly asking for reassurance about themselves or their work

Excessive reassurance-seeking typically accompanies OCD, as it is a common attempt of individuals to rid themselves of the uncertainty at the core of the condition.

Keep an eye out for employees who are constantly asking questions like, “is this piece of work okay?” or “are you happy with how I’m doing?”.

It’s good to seek consistent feedback, but if the level of reassurance they seek seems very excessive, then it may a sign of something more debilitating.

6. An employee avoids particular objects or situations

Employees with OCD may try and avoid certain situations that trigger their obsessions.

For example, if intrusive thoughts around cleanliness and germs are an issue, then that individual may try to avoid communal toilets.

Look for employees that avoid certain situations for no obvious reason.

Supporting an employee with OCD

When an employee with OCD informs their employer about their condition, in order to support them effectively, it is important to gain a good understanding of the extent of the individual’s condition and how it affects them at work.

Work with them in a positive, constructive and empowering way to identify the kind of support they might need to continue to perform their role.

Below, you’re going to learn the steps you need to take for supporting an employee with OCD.

1. Create a supportive environment

While this tip is useful for every mental health issue, it’s still well worth reiterating!

Our organisatios have done so much to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace, but sadly it still exists, and is felt keenly by people with OCD.

People might not want to tell someone about the thoughts they’re having out of fear of judgement, or worrying what this means about them as a person.

The more at ease an employee feels with their work team and managers, the more comfortable they may feel about disclosing their condition – and that’s when you can start to help!

Create a supportive environment by:

2. Introduce flexible working hours

As noted above, people with OCD often have difficulty getting to work on time. If possible, reduce the impact of this by allowing them to be flexible with their working hours.

It may also allow them some time to de-stress, if they have found their commute to work distressing.

3. Make reasonable adjustments to the working environment

The working environment can be extremely distressing to individuals with OCD.

For instance, for someone with compulsions surrounding cleanliness and contamination it may be difficult to work in spaces with lots of people, or have other people use their desk.

Work with the employee to find out how you can make their workspace more facilitative to high performance.

Examples of adjustments could include:

  • Preventing other employees from using their desk
  • Finding a place for the employee to work away from other people
  • Allowing the employee to work from home

For a more in-depth look at this, check out our blog on reasonable adjustments for mental health.

4. Allow the employee extra time to keep up with their workload

Particularly on bad days, individuals with OCD may find it difficult to keep up with their workload.

This can cause them to experience high levels of work-related stress, while also meaning that their work quality suffers.

You can release this pressure, by allowing them extra time to complete work tasks. This will also help the employee complete the tasks to the best of their ability.

5. Regularly check in with the employee

In order to support an employee with OCD effectively, it is important to always have a good understanding of how they’re coping in the workplace.

So, be sure to regularly check in with them, and let them know that you’re there to support them if they need it.

During these conversations, empower the employee to identify the support they need to perform to their best

Reassure them that you’re there to listen and, if needed, encourage them to seek support from a relevant healthcare professional.

You can follow our 5-step CLASS Approach for help with starting those conversations.

6. Encourage the employee to seek support

The average delay between someone experiencing symptoms of OCD and seeking treatment is 12 years.

Within that time, the symptoms of the condition are highly likely to have worsened.

Play your part in reducing that time, and encouraging your employees to get the help they need faster.

If they are showing signs of having OCD, you should encourage them to contact their GP.

You can also encourage them to take advantage of internal support services, such as an EAP or occupational health.

There are also number of fantastic support services out there, providing information and support for people affected by OCD. These include:

No one should feel alone

Experiencing OCD can feel very lonely and isolating.

Compulsions can often be very time-consuming and disruptive to someone’s life, affecting their ability to work or engage in activities they usually would.

These compulsions can also be hard for others to understand if they’ve not felt this way themselves, impacting on relationships with those who are close to them.

No-one should feel alone in the workplace, it’s incredibly important that the employee knows that there is support available to help them stay in work and perform to their best.

As a leader, you can create a positive, supportive working environment, in which individuals living with OCD can excel.