Mental Illness in the Working World

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I have OCD and one of my obsessions is work. I feel the obsession and compulsion to always be working, pretty much every waking hour. This isn’t a terrible answer to the terrible interview question, “name some of your strengths and weaknesses.” No, this is a real thing. I need to be working or I feel guilty that I am not contributing to being a better person while alive. I try my best to work in creative endeavors (I consider this site one of them) so as to have some sort of balance in life. But regardless, if all is ok mentally1, I find myself up at three or four in the morning ready to do stuff.

My own work isn’t quite relevant here—let’s just leave it at I have multiple businesses and other ways I’m trying to make good money and contribute to the creative world. Lots going on, as it were.

But I have at least one mental illness2. And my experience in the working world is not currently only working for myself. I have partners and the equivalent of bosses, not unlike most people. That is all that matters here in terms of relaying my perspective.

I’ve already touched on some benefits to having OCD and a somewhat serious, somewhat cheeky explanation of why you should hire me in this here article.

The drawbacks of OCD specifically are a pretty short avenue to explore, for purposes of a more all-encompassing article. It really tracks along relationships with others which I’ve explained in previous articles in more depth. We’re hard to work with because we obsess over the smallest things (often ignoring the larger things.) Our brains are skewed, not wrong—just focused… weird.

We’re afraid to pull the trigger on decisions, because our minds are filled with every eventuality of making any decision. We get confused with perfectionists, but we differ in that we are obsessed and cannot stop compulsions related to these obsessions even though we know they are irrational, and we truly want to. Perfectionists, on the other hand, shirk the gauge of rationality and need things done their way. Which is sometimes the right way, sometimes not. I’m not here to look down on anyone, so I’ll leave that there—I’m the one who can’t control irrational thoughts and actions, in the end.

So let us move on to general mental disorders in the workplace.

Let’s face it, we are all performers at work. We are playing a part every day. We have a specific time to show up, we have an audience (co-workers, bosses, subordinates), and that audience expects things from us. These expectations, if things are working properly, are for the purpose of advancing the company we work for. But really taking away business specifics, we are performers.

This is not good for those with many mental disorders. We’ll leave out the ones that are sociopathic, as these tend to—unfortunately, let’s face it, work well in the business environment. We’ll focus on the ones that are more in the personal and internal realm—depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and of course OCD. Lumping them all together for the sake of characteristics they all share, and actions they all originate.

People with mental illness cannot perform on command very well. We live in spurts that can be down or up according to no rhythm that adheres to or tracks the business and especially the corporate world.

We’ll take a second to differentiate these two worlds. I consider the “business world” to be all-encompassing of any work, relationships, and events related to doing business of any kind. The “corporate world” is, for the sake of this article—and maybe a good definition overall—an isolated world of one business. So we have that? Good.

The corporate world has a rhythm of needs of its members. People have to be in a certain mindset at specific times for the machine to work well. While those with the “internal” mental illnesses described above tend to be great at faking it, well—that’s what you’re going to get most of the time. This is because our rhythms are erratic. When we are off-rhythm (having an episode,) there is little hope for our otherwise very able minds to be applied to work in any relevant form3.

We are also very quick to give up on projects, as we cannot sync with the aforesaid rhythm of the corporate world. We’re often well equipped to complete these projects—just in a very different manner. Oh, we are also often fatalists. And thus we seem like less-than-optimum employees.

An example that has been used before, and really can’t be touched on enough is those with mental illness and their relationship to sleep. This I can speak to personally as well, and will. I mentioned I have a drive to wake up at an insanely early hour so I can use my gift of a lot of energy to get a lot of work done in a day. More than most anyone else I know, and I don’t feel bad saying that—because the purpose is not to put anyone down.

But, hold on a second. The switch flips, outside of my control at times, and my brain goes into escape mode. The world which I, at one time, had so much control over—irrational and rational control—has quickly become so overwhelming all I can do is not face it. And I don’t. I will sleep for twelve, thirteen, fourteen hours. Oh, I’ll get up with my four-thirty in the morning alarm. I’ll check emails. Do nothing for a few minutes. Wave my arms, and back into my cocoon. I may repeat this every hour or so, pretending that somehow I’ll feel differently at five-thirty, six-thirty, seven-thirty, eight-thirty, nine-thirty, ten-thirty, and at some point around eleven-thirty it becomes impossible to sleep any more. So I then face the “fog of anxiety,” as I title it. Which—to the observer—is me doing a whole lot of nothing but fending off requests from others with made-up stories of how things are getting done.

Am I a liar? No, I am living in a corporate and/or business world in which I must conform to certain mores. I am not able to, but—I have to keep my various jobs and businesses. Please trust me on this—mental illness is not treated at all like physical illness. There is a stigma, there may always be a sigma. While people may care about mental illness outside of work, when it threatens money—no, it is not acceptable to be mentally ill for a day or week.

For extreme cases, some people cannot work at all, as their illnesses are complete disabilities. The ins and outs of how the government treats these disabilities are for another article (mostly because I really don’t feel like turning this one into an angry article,) but let’s just say mental health is way down on the list of disabilities we care about covering in American society4. Let’s just say it is so more work to get coverage for such a thing, that it becomes worth it to try to fake our way through work. That hurts those without mental illness—it is a bad situation all around. But, survival.

Moving on: the word is “lazy” and we’re used to it. Offended by it—of course—but it is going to keep coming up, so we get used to it.

Although I’ve developed a way I work around being seen as lazy. Because I can have spurts of high energy, I work excessively fast when I do—often recklessly—to get things done well before deadlines are even an issue. This is because I know an episode of my OCD-mixed-with-anxiety may very well come up at any time.

If you notice a pattern here, that brings us to the crux of an issue that isn’t talked about much. Relegating people with mental illness to the sidelines, forcing them to fake being in rhythm with corporate culture, and otherwise treating them as if they have the same mental make-up only hurts everyone involved. We’re not leaving the workforce—there is nowhere to go.

So I would just ask those in the working world to think of those with mental disorders not only outside of the working world. Outside of the business/corporate world, it is easy to care about these types of people. However, inside the business/corporate world, caring about people with mental disorders takes some energy, compassion, and creativity. Which I hope everyone is up for, because we’re kinda not going away.


1 Oh, and that is a big “if” I will be talking about more  [BACK]

2 This has been discussed before and will be discussed in future articles—mental illnesses often bleed into one another. For example, my OCD comes with a lot of anxiety and a touch of what used to be called manic depression (and is now called bipolar disorder, of which I think I have so little of relative to other sufferers, I would not list it on a sheet describing me.)  [BACK]

3 Other than the fake form, you’ll get a lot of that. You may not even know it. Survival.  [BACK]

4 Which is the only society I can speak for.  [BACK]