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OCD and Work: Dealing With Employers

Know Your Rights, But Know the Risks

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Updated August 22, 2010

If you have OCD, work -- seeking out, obtaining and maintaining gainful employment -- can be extremely challenging. While symptoms of OCD can get in the way of completing the required duties of a particular job, there is also the significant challenge of stigma, prejudice and discrimination that is associated with mental illness.

OCD and Work: Know Your Rights

It is illegal to discriminate against someone because of a medical condition, including OCD. For example, if you are otherwise qualified for the position, you cannot be denied employment simply because you have OCD. Although the law is quite clear on this, the actual experience of prospective and current employees with OCD can unfortunately be quite different.

However unfair, there is actually quite a bit of incentive for employers to terminate or pass on hiring someone who they know has a chronic illness -- mental or physical. On average, their health costs will be higher; they will be absent more days; and they may even have to go on long-term disability leave -- all of which impacts the bottom line.

Although it is illegal to terminate someone on the basis of a medical condition, there are many ways that employers can accomplish this indirectly. For example, the employer can give the employee progressively more undesirable tasks until to the employee decides to leave.

Even if someone believes that they have been denied or relieved of a given job on the basis of medical condition, it is often very difficult to prove.

That said, these types of situations reflect the worst-case scenario. It is important to remember that there are plenty of employers who are supportive and who happily make accommodations for employees with mental illness. Still, deciding whether to disclose your illness in the workplace may be difficult.

To Disclose or Not to Disclose

Choosing to disclose that you have OCD to a potential or current employer can be terrifying. People in this position often:

  • wonder if their potential or current employer will be supportive, reject them or even know or understand what OCD is
  • fear being passed over, fired or forced out through attrition
  • worry what people around the office will think
  • worry that they’ll regret their decision
  • fear being blacklisted within the industry they work
  • fear not being trusted with important tasks or responsibilities

It is important to know that if you are in this position, there is no right answer and that you need to weigh this decision for yourself. Here are some things to think about.

There is no obligation to disclose.
There is no legal obligation for you to disclose your diagnosis either before or after being hired for a job. However, telling a potential or current employer about your diagnosis is the only way you are able to preserve your right to any accommodations you may need to get or maintain employment. As well, accessing certain benefits may only be possible through disclosure of your health status.

How severe are your symptoms?
If your symptoms are particularly severe, it may be exceedingly difficult to hide them at work. For example, if you are spending hours washing your hands, questions will eventually be raised. In cases such as these, disclosing your illness to your employer may be a part of a constructive and proactive way of dealing with symptoms that you experience at work. On the other hand, if your symptoms are mild, manageable and/or invisible (as is the case with obsessions), then there may be no need to disclose. It can be helpful to do a cost-benefit analysis of how stressful it will be to hide your symptoms versus telling your employer what is going on.

Does your potential or current employer have a track record of being supportive?
Different employers are going to vary in how supportive they are of employees with a chronic illness such as OCD. While some will do only what they are legally required to do, others will go the extra mile in arranging accommodations such as reduced work-load or scheduling adjustments. It may be helpful to try and get a sense of what your employer’s track record is in this respect.

Does your potential or current employer have clear equity policies in place?
A proactive employer will often have clear policies in place regarding equity in the workplace and how accommodations are to be handled. In the best case scenario, adherence to these policies is treated as a priority within the organization; these polices are freely and publicly available; and there is an expectation that all employees will follow the policy. Be sure to check the documentation available within your organization to see the kind of protection you have (human resources is a good place to start).

How comfortable are you with having OCD?
You may simply not be comfortable disclosing that you have OCD, regardless of how supportive your employer might appear. Nagging fears of discrimination and stigma may make disclosure seem far too risky a proposition. On the other hand, you may be the type of person who is completely at ease with your illness. If you have generally shied away from telling others, especially people who you are close to, this is probably a good clue that you are not comfortable enough (at least right now) to disclose that you have OCD to your employer.

I’ve Decided That I Want to Disclose That I Have OCD – Now What?

If you decide that benefits outweigh the risks and you decide to disclose that you have OCD to a prospective or current employer, it will be up to you to make sure that your employer understands the nature and severity of your symptoms. This this doesn’t mean that you need to tell your boss everything -- just what she needs to know and what accommodations you might need. If your employer does not fully understand the challenges associated with OCD, or doesn’t even know what it is, it may also be helpful to educate your employer about your illness. It may even be possible to enlist your health care provider to advocate for you.

Finally, check and see if your employer has retained the services of an employee assistance program or EAP. This service may be able to assist in or facilitate disclosure of your OCD to your employer.

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