Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Fear of being fired: Is it OCD?

May 11, 20237 minute read

Reviewed byPatrick McGrath, PhD

Most of us may be able to relate to a fear of being fired at one point or another during our work lives. But for some people with OCD, this fear may cause them to worry day in and day out about their employment, relationship with their coworkers, job security, and what might happen if they were to lose their job. In turn, these obsessions can severely impact their ability to function in the workplace and make a serious impact on their mental health.

Is it normal to constantly worry about getting fired?

Since OCD tends to focus on areas that are especially important to people, it’s common for people with OCD to experience repeated fears, doubts, and anxiety about being fired from their job. Uncertainty is always present in one’s job performance, and people with OCD often feel unable to tolerate anything less than perfect certainty and security. 

OCD is a disorder characterized by the presence of obsessions—intrusive thoughts, urges, or images that cause distress or anxiety—and compulsions—mental or physical actions done in an attempt to reduce anxiety or prevent unwanted outcomes. Someone with OCD focused on a fear of being fired may have worries that they are going to make a mistake at work if they don’t check something repeatedly, that they’re unworthy of their current role, or that their supervisors are displeased or disappointed with their job performance. Let’s take a look at an example: 

Melissa just started working last month as a school counselor. This is her first job after completing her Master’s Degree and completing an internship. Melissa was thrilled to get this job and is the youngest school counselor at her school. Melissa has also struggled with OCD since she was young, and has been relatively symptom-free for years after completing ERP therapy in college. 

That all began to change as she started her new position. At first she shrugged off her early arrival time, meticulous attention to detail, and repetitive checking of individual education plans, feeling that she was simply doing the best she could for her students. However, Melissa is starting to notice some counterproductive behavior.

On her first day, Melissa learned that the previous school counselor was let go last year because she wasn’t a good fit. This made her curious and worried, but she didn’t feel comfortable asking further. Soon, Melissa started to notice she was staying later and later each day to read and reread education plans to be sure her work contained no mistakes. She found herself seeking reassurance about her decisions and performance daily from the school social worker. Melissa would repeatedly ask her to look over her plans, asking if they looked okay. 

Melissa’s intrusive thoughts about being fired started to grow and grow. She had intrusive thoughts telling her that she was not prepared for this position and had everyone fooled. Melissa felt she needed to get to school before anyone else arrived, even the custodians, to avoid getting fired. She would often arrive at 6 am, two hours prior to her shift. Between arriving early, staying late, repetitive checking, and seeking reassurance, Melissa started to have difficulty focusing on the importance of her job and the impact she could have on the students. 

Every day, Melissa braces herself for being fired, repeatedly seeking reassurance from those around her and developing many rituals to feel secure when her thoughts return. She is exhausted. Melissa decides it’s time to get back into ERP therapy as she is beginning to recognize these are OCD behaviors. 

Common obsessions experienced by people with a fear of being fired in OCD include:

  • Imposter Syndrome: “I don’t belong here and it’s only a matter of time before people find out.”
  • What if I say something inappropriate or wrong?
  • If I don’t stay late every night I will get fired.
  • Someone better is going to come along and take my job.
  • Is my boss in a bad mood? What if it’s my fault?
  • I don’t deserve this position. 
  • Did that email have a typo?
  • Did I remember to file my work correctly?
  • It’s only a matter of time before I make a big mistake. 
  • My OCD is going to cause me to mess something up.

Common triggers

People with a fear of being fired OCD may be triggered by situations involving their work or job performance. Triggers are specific situations, objects, people, or thoughts that provoke obsessive fears; when a person with OCD feels triggered they may experience high levels of anxiety because of that trigger. 

Common triggers for people with OCD focused on a fear of being fired include:

  • Seeing someone else at work perform well
  • Impromptu meetings
  • Making a mistake at work
  • Hearing about layoffs
  • Knowing or talking to someone who has gotten fired
  • Being reprimanded at work
  • Being late to work
  • Upsetting or bothering a coworker
  • Financial difficulty 

How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD involving a fear of being fired and not general anxiety or reasonable worries?

Clinicians who are diagnosing OCD use specific criteria. They not only look for the presence of intrusive thoughts, urges, or unrealistic fears, but also compulsions done in response to distress or anxiety. Here are some things you can ask yourself if you feel you may be struggling with OCD:

Do you experience repeated, unwanted thoughts, urges, or images related to fear of being fired? 

How persistent are your fears around being fired? Are the thoughts distressing or disturbing? 

Do you engage in any behaviors in an attempt to neutralize those thoughts or fears or prevent a feared outcome, such as repetitive checking of work performance, seeking reassurance, or avoidance of performance reviews? 

Do these worries or behaviors take up a significant amount of time? Do they take up more than one hour of your day?

Do these thoughts and behaviors interfere with your daily functioning?

If the answer to some or all of these questions is yes, you may be suffering from OCD. Having an assessment conducted with a trained OCD specialist can confirm whether you are experiencing OCD.

Common compulsions

When people with OCD focused on a fear of being fired experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may feel the need to engage in compulsions to reduce their fear and distress or prevent an unwanted outcome. Remember that compulsions can be physical or mental; just because someone cannot see the compulsion from the outside does not mean it doesn’t exist. 

Common compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with OCD focused on a fear of being fired include:

  • Seeking reassurance from coworkers about job performance
  • Staying late at work to review, reread, and rewrite things for work
  • Repetitively checking emails or other work materials
  • Hypervigilance of supervisors’ tone of voice, mood, etc.
  • Picking up extra shifts or volunteering to work extra
  • Rumination on worst-case scenarios about being fired
  • Avoidance starting new jobs due to the fear of being fired

How to overcome fear of being fired 

OCD with a focus on fear of being fired can be debilitating and interfere greatly with one’s ability to feel comfortable in their job, but like all forms of OCD, it is treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained ERP therapist, you can find relief from the cycle of OCD. ERP is the gold standard of treatment for OCD and is backed by decades of clinical research. Most individuals who do ERP with a trained OCD therapist experience a decrease in OCD symptoms, reduced anxiety and distress, and increased confidence in their ability to face their fears. 

People who struggle with a fear of being fired will work with their therapist to build an exposure hierarchy and begin working on one trigger at a time. Usually an ERP therapist will start with exposures that bring about a low level of anxiety, then work up to harder exposures as confidence is built. When doing exposures, the goal is always response prevention: your therapist will guide you in resisting the urge to respond to fear and anxiety by doing compulsions. Over time, this allows you to tolerate anxiety about being fired, without relying on compulsions to feel better. 

Examples of possible exposures done to treat a fear of being fired include: 

  • Writing a script about getting fired from your job
  • Watching a video portraying someone getting fired
  • Ending work on time, rather than staying late
  • Taking a day off from work with your supervisor’s permission
  • Making a list of your work deficiencies
  • Sending an email to the boss without rereading it

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