One of the hardest parts about living with OCD is having to manage it at work. Imagine showing up to your office in the morning, dressed nicely, and opening up your laptop to a slew of emails. However, unlike your colleagues sitting near you, the more you sift through your inbox, the more your mind wanders and begins to reflect on the feelings that you had a minute earlier while walking past your coworker. The thoughts begin to rage: Did you make eye contact with her and smile? If you didn’t make enough eye contact with her, will your coworker get into a horrific car accident on the way home from the office?
You may know the fears are irrational—how could looking at your coworker prevent something terrible from happening to her? Yet, despite the fear’s illogical nature, it feels real enough to begin doing mental jujitsu. The more you tell yourself, “that’s absurd,” the more the fear finds loopholes in your logic and casts doubt on your ability to disprove it completely. You feel like an airline pilot flying without a barometer, unable to determine the sky from the ground.
While the chaos is running rampant in your brain, you realize that the first meeting of the day is about to start. To keep producing for your job, you must find a way to “snap out of it” and participate in a conference call with your largest customer. It doesn’t go completely according to plan: Instead of listening to your customer’s needs and preparing to answer their questions, you spend the entire time in your own head, trying to logically disprove your magical thinking-related fears to “save” your coworker. As a result, you give very poor responses to your customer’s questions, causing them to leave the call feeling frustrated.
Your OCD has sparked a new set of fires at work, but despite the challenges, you’re not able to address them with urgency. The reason: the stress from your professional issues pales in comparison to the distress you are feeling from OCD. The condition has paralyzed you from feeling any other emotion in life. Weeks later, because of your performance at work with your largest customer, your boss puts you on a performance improvement plan and your job is now at-risk.
It’s a common story, silently affecting millions of people around the world today. Before getting treatment, I was once one of these people.
Although I didn’t have magical thinking themes like in the example above, I had intrusive thoughts with mainly mental compulsions, commonly known as “Pure O.” I was rarely mentally present, and it made work nearly impossible. Once I got exposure and response prevention (ERP) treatment though, I learned to manage my OCD, regained my personal life, built my career from the ground up, and became a leader in the digital health industry.
My hope is that you can avoid suffering with OCD at work like I did by managing it before it ever gets to a breaking point. However, if you or a loved one have reached your breaking point, it’s possible to get back on track. Here are three tips that I would give to anyone with OCD for managing the condition as a professional, no matter where you are in your treatment journey:
Invest in Your Health First
Invest in finding a great therapist with specialty training in OCD and ERP. The benefit of doing this first is that research shows it’s the fastest way to manage your OCD symptoms. With untreated OCD, it will be nearly impossible to do anything else. You will likely be in OCD’s grip throughout each day, trying to keep your head above water.
At NOCD, all of our therapists specialize in treating OCD with ERP, many of whom accept insurance and can meet with new members for their first telehealth session within 7 days. Each NOCD Therapist is trained in OCD and ERP by our clinical leadership team and is mentored by them daily to offer the best treatment experience possible. We built this service knowing how important it is for people with OCD to work with a specialist.
For some people, a NOCD Therapist might not be the best fit, and if that’s the case, we understand. Still, it’s critical to work with a licensed therapist who specializes in OCD and ERP as a first step. There are other therapists trained in treating OCD with ERP on the IOCDF website and through Psychology Today; however, we recommend that you interview any prospective therapist before booking an appointment (even those at NOCD).
Once you begin managing OCD and the condition is somewhat under control, it’s critical to build and maintain your personal foundation, since it makes you feel better throughout the day and can help you do “response prevention” more easily when OCD pops up unexpectedly. If your personal foundation weakens, life can feel harder, and you are more likely to experience burnout at work due to the stress outside of work. That feeling could lead to a relapse in OCD symptoms. You can strengthen your personal foundation by exercising daily, sleeping at least six hours per night, spending quality time with your family and loved ones, and eating a balanced diet filled with protein, vegetables, and fruit.
It’s not always a linear journey, but once you have a stronger personal foundation and have seen clinical improvement in your OCD symptoms, you’ll not only be managing OCD, but you’ll be accelerating forward in your career.
Set One Clear Professional Goal, and Build A Close Support Network to Keep You Accountable
It’s nearly impossible to manage OCD and work professionally without a specific goal. Additionally, once you’ve set your goal, you need a support network to hold you accountable to it, especially when you face short-term challenges. These should be people who are close enough to you to positively remind you of your goal when times get tough, and who know you well enough to offer you transparent feedback if it’s warranted. It’s not easy staying up late for calls, navigating people management challenges, and dealing with unexpected adversity throughout the day, but it can be easier when you have a clear goal that you are striving towards and people in your corner. Spend the time to build such a network.
Your close network might know you have OCD struggles, but they won’t let you use them as a crutch while you strive to achieve your long-term goal. They will hold you to a standard of excellence. For instance, some of my close colleagues at NOCD will joke with me and say, “Stephen, I won’t give you reassurance on that question. You’d better start accepting uncertainty.” Over time, by having great support, your brain will be focused more on solving problems professionally than on your obsessive fears.
Find An Industry You Love, and Focus on Supporting Others Within It
With a strong personal foundation, the confidence in your ability to manage OCD, a clear professional goal, and a supportive personal network, you will likely begin to build momentum professionally. The next question then becomes, “how do I maintain progress?”
That’s where loving what you do comes into play. If you are in an industry that fits your personal skill set and mission, it will be easy to maintain momentum, since you feel like your daily focus has a purpose. Every milestone you complete is a point on a roadmap toward achieving your goal. If instead, you aren’t feeling like your work has a purpose and that you’re not in an industry that meets your long-term goals, then create a plan to leave it, in order to find something else that is a better personal fit.
When you find your professional “goldilocks” industry and meet like-minded people, go out of your way to personally support them in their growth. By focusing your efforts on supporting other people in your industry while also achieving your primary goal, you will likely consistently unlock doors that you never knew existed. Moreover, by making your work about helping others as opposed to helping yourself, it will be more enjoyable and easier to manage stress. Again, managing (rather than removing) stress is the key to keeping your core foundation stable, keeping OCD in check, and maintaining momentum towards your one goal.
If you have any questions about managing OCD as a professional, please don’t hesitate to personally contact me. You can reach me at email@example.com. I try my best to respond to all emails.