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Last month, I felt my mental health getting progressively worse. I continued doing the things I needed to keep myself afloat and feeling okay, but despite my efforts, I quickly realized I wasn’t getting better.
On top of having trouble eating and getting adequate sleep due to my heightened anxiety, I was nervous about how my mental state might impact my work at a job I deeply care about and love.
I knew I had to take a bold step and be honest with my manager about what was going on. During a tearful Zoom call, I opened up and told her the truth—I was really struggling.
I didn’t know exactly how she would respond, and I was blown away by her kindness, empathy, and compassion. She listened carefully to everything I shared with her, and we calmly discussed how we could delegate my projects so I could take the day to focus on feeling better.
This allowed me to meet with my psychiatrist so he could adjust my medication.
As anyone who takes medication for mental health knows, this can be a balancing act that requires the right amount of fine-tuning. A wrong or missed dose can wreak havoc.
Thankfully, as I write this now, I am feeling like myself again. So much so that I can finally write about what it means to live with OCD.
Understanding obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
I don’t talk about it often. And I've definitely never written a public blog post about it.
Like three million other Americans, I have obsessive compulsive disorder, and I’ve been struggling with it on and off for close to ten years. And, like the majority of those with OCD, it took about as much time to receive an official diagnosis. But receiving the diagnosis has made all the difference.
OCD is vastly misunderstood. Contrary to the way it’s displayed in pop culture and mainstream media—as a funny personality quirk (think “I’m so OCD!”) or minor inconvenience (see the TV show “Monk”)—OCD, at its worst, can be debilitating.
It can manifest in a variety of ways. The most commonly known are compulsive hand-washing, checking to see if electric or gas appliances are turned off a countless number of times, or excessive cleaning, but it is so much more than that.
The best way I can describe what happens with OCD is that a person’s brain gets stuck on a particular irrational thought that causes extreme anxiety. Doctors and researchers say that it might be tied to an overactive limbic region in the brain.
A person then performs mental or physical compulsions in order to relieve the anxiety, but there’s a catch: the compulsions only work temporarily, and the OCD cycle only tightens its grip.
The impact of OCD at work
When left untreated, OCD can impair daily tasks as simple as getting dressed and ready for the day. It can also impact relationships. Knowing this, it’s not surprising that OCD can have an effect on employees in the workplace as well.
High anxiety levels, racing thoughts, and the compulsive behaviors intended to keep anxiety at bay can take up the headspace and time that a person would normally choose to devote to the things they value most—like work, relationships, and everyday tasks and activities.
How to support an employee with OCD
OCD is known to wax and wane. It’s often referred to as a “volcano” that can go dormant for years, only to erupt during particular moments of stress in a person’s life.
However, it’s highly treatable. Through cognitive behavioral therapy, the right medication, or both, people with OCD can learn their triggers and effective ways to cope. With time and commitment, people with OCD can manage their symptoms so that it hardly affects them.
Like all mental health challenges, employers can support their employees who are struggling with OCD by fostering a culture that allows people to be open and honest about what they are dealing with, just like I was with my manager.
Employees may also benefit from a flexible work schedule that allows them to go to therapy. And, with the knowledge that those with OCD can be particularly vulnerable during stressful life events, employers can make a point to check in on them, ensuring that they know they are supported and cared for.
In doing these things, employees are empowered and liberated to get the care they need, just as they would for any physical illness or injury.
My hope for you
As I write this, I am actively pushing away fears of stigma and being vulnerable. However, I have found comfort and solace in countless other OCD stories, which have helped me to know that I’m not alone.
It’s my hope that sharing my story will play a small role in doing the same for others who face similar challenges, while helping employers understand what many of their employees are going through and the difference they can make.
Read this blog about working with anxiety next and how you can help your employees better manage it.