More employees becoming obsessed with their work

OCDs increase stress and threaten productivity

Being dedicated to doing your job well is an admirable trait, but a growing number of employees may be taking things to an extreme, says Reid Wilson, PhD, a Chapel Hill, NC-based specialist in the treatment of panic and anxiety disorders. Wilson is in private practice and is a clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Wilson says that a growing number of his patients are exhibiting compulsive behavior in the workplace, such as repeatedly checking and rechecking their work. This type of "checking" behavior falls under the broad category of obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCDs).

Wilson practices in the Research Triangle area of the state, which is seeing no letup in the trend to downsize. "These employees have less security," he notes. "And as stress increases, there is an increased tendency for people who are so pre-determined to become obsessive compulsive." This process, he notes, is totally involuntary. "In the past, we tended to see this behavior mainly at home, although somewhat at work. Now, it is predominantly a work-related problem."

Just ‘checking’

"In a generalized anxiety disorder, the person worries all the time. They create a compulsion that relieves them of their anxiety," Wilson explains. "But a checker worries, then fixes things by checking or having other people check for him."

Checkers, says Wilson, may at first appear to be ideal employees. They are often punctual and diligent about their work. "What you might notice first is that their diligence sometimes spills over into compulsiveness," he notes. "They may come in early, skip lunch, stay later; they may seem dedicated, but they’re just checking. Also, you might see someone constantly needing reassurance — like asking you to look over letters to see if anything is misspelled." Another checking behavior might involve reopening envelopes to make sure there are no mistakes inside. (For more examples of compulsive work checking, see the box, above.)

While these behaviors don’t necessarily cause trouble in the workplace, they can, says Wilson. These employees can sometimes become a nuisance, or their productivity may actually slow down, and they will begin to miss deadlines. (Are you a workplace checker? See the self-test, p 129.)

"For the individual, this absolutely increases anxiety — in fact, it falls under the umbrella of anxiety disorders," Wilson explains. "Not only are they feeling a great deal of distress, but they become resentful of normal workers who can still get through the day while they are barely holding it together."

Suffering in silence

Unfortunately, adds Wilson, many employees choose to suffer in silence rather than to seek help. "The shame is even greater than it is with depression because depression has recently had more public exposure. Leading public figures have come out and said they are depressed, but OCD still lags behind."

In addition, says Wilson, for years the medical profession thought only 0.2% of the population suffered from OCDs. "Then, the National Institute of Mental health published its "Catchment" study,1,2 and found that 5 to 6 million people have OCDs, and about 2 million people are checkers."

One of the greatest challenges for health promotion professionals is that these employees will rarely come to personnel with their problems. "If you are a supervisor, and the employee’s behavior impinges on their work performance, you need to have a conversation with them," Wilson advises. "If you think it is stress or anxiety related, you may suggest they talk to someone in human resources."

A human resources professional, says Wilson, should ask the employee questions like these: "Are you feeling anxious on the job? Do you find times when you have to check over a task even though you’ve checked once and thought you had done it properly?"

"Unfortunately, we don’t have a good deal of mental health professionals trained in treating this disorder," says Wilson. To find such a specialist, he says, human resource and health promotion professionals can check with their local mental health center.

[Editor’s Note: For more information on OCDs, contact: R. Reid Wilson, PhD, 3011 Jones Ferry Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. Telephone: (919) 942-0700.]


1. Regier DA, Narrow WE, Rae DS. The epidemiology of anxiety disorders: The Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) experience. J Psychiatr Res 1990; 24[suppl 2]:3-14.

2. Regier DA, Farmer ME, Rae DS, et. al. Comorbidity of mental disorders with alcohol and other drug abuse. JAMA 1990; 264:2,511-2,518.