The Part of Work My OCD Affects the Most


Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) has the potential to affect all areas of someone’s life. People may find that it can strike hardest in the areas that are most important to them. For me, one of these areas is work, and OCD has affected me in several different ways at work.

I also have borderline personality disorder (BPD), so loss is something I fear a lot, and I have a deep fear of losing my job, thinking I’m not good enough. My major OCD symptoms revolve around counting and measuring things. I have a job I know I am good at, but the OCD makes me doubt myself and fear the worst.

A big part of the job is answering emails. My OCD brain has seized upon the number of emails I have as being really significant to my efficiency in the job. A major problem I have is the fear of running out of emails and being fired. I had a previous job years ago where I regularly ran out of work. Although never being fired, my brain has connected the two things and I developed a number of compulsions around it. It was years before I realized this was OCD; and as a result, this is a really hard one to get over. Although I’ve made good progress after having cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the fear still strikes whenever things are going OK at work. It’s a busy job and we often have way too many emails. As soon as it begins to quiet down, that’s when I start to panic. I feel like if I answer all my emails, I’ll never get any more and my manager will realize I’m not doing any work and fire me. My manager has given me no end of reassurance that this is not a reason to fire someone and there will always be more work to do, but reassurance doesn’t always last and my manager has now realized it’s bad for me, so they have stopped giving it; which is absolutely the right thing to do, but does feel scary for me.

The compulsions I have around this are not to answer my emails. When the OCD was at its worst, I would panic when I had less than 50 or 100 emails. One time, I had 320 and still worried I’d better slow down so I didn’t run out. I’d find non-urgent things to do slowly so that I could avoid answering the emails. I would put off important work until the deadline because it reassured me to know I still had things to do. I’d do things like slowly delete files from my desktop instead of starting important tasks. A previous manager suggested I write a list of things I could do if I ran out of work, but I never started the list because I was worried once I finished the list I’d have nothing left. People would tell me that even if I ran out of emails, more would come in. But despite me knowing logically that this was the case, I’d be overwhelmed by the fear that the day I ran out was the day I never got any more, and surely then I’d be fired.

Once things got busier at work again — as they always did — I’d already be behind from avoiding taking advantage of quieter times. Then I’d get overwhelmed by emails and get really stressed and unhappy. Ironically, last year things got so busy that my OCD actually went the other way. Rather than worrying about running out, I worried I had too much. It was a busy time and thinking I had too much was much more realistic than worrying I would run out. But my OCD seized upon that too. I have 11 different mailboxes for different bits of work, and I’d sit there adding up the numbers with a calculator. I needed to know exactly how many emails I had in total, and I’d feel really anxious if I didn’t know. It was a compulsion, and again, it was stopping me actually answering the emails. It was at this point that my manager suggested I take some time off, and I went to the doctor and got myself signed off for a month.

Time off to relax and working through OCD books helped, and luckily I have a really supportive manager who couldn’t have treated me better. I went back to work feeling a bit better — working half days and reducing my workload for a while. But soon I was back to stressing I might run out and get fired. Talking it over with my manager helped, and her refusal to reassure me was what I needed in the long term. While being supportive, she also made it clear that they need people to do the job efficiently and avoiding the work may result in some work being taken off me. That scared me, but it also made me realize I wanted to be good at the job and I needed to manage these OCD symptoms.

Since then, I’ve had CBT, which has generally helped my OCD. I’m doing a lot better — I’m now much more organized at work and feel better about myself because I know I am good at the job. I still get anxious when I get low on emails, but I force myself not to carry out the compulsions that my brain is screaming at me to do.

I’ve found that now I’ve gotten a bit better from my OCD, it’s gone more the other way — I now get anxious when I have emails in my inboxes. I tidied up most of my email, but wasn’t able to get started on the busy ones because every time I tried to do it an email would pop up in one of the other inboxes’ and I would feel a compulsion to answer those to keep them tidy rather than starting on the more important ones. I’m treating this the same as my other OCD symptoms and trying to fight the compulsions.

I think my job will always be affected to some extent by OCD, as it’s an important part of my life — but I am determined to not let it get in the way of me doing a good job.

Unsplash photo via seb_ra


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