Does a Mental Health Disorder Make You Better At Your Job?
"...checking behaviours are a necessary part of being a good lifeguard, but not all people who exhibit checking behaviours are automatically good lifeguards. The key factor isn't the checking behaviours. It's the function, intensity, frequency and judicious use of the checking behaviours."
In recent years, much fuss has been made about companies who are beginning to understand the benefits of hiring neurodiverse individuals. In that same vein, numerous pop culture articles (and some publications from academic institutions) have posited lists of jobs that are well-suited for people with (insert disability here). For #OCD, many such articles exist, such as this one and this one. In many ways, the existence of such articles is a good thing. These articles tacitly acknowledge that neurodiverse people can and should be a part of the workforce (as they should!), and they have the potential to provide a flicker of hope for someone suffering from OCD who feels that their mental health may keep them from leading an independent, productive lifestyle. The discussions in question within this particular article, however, address the debate of mental health and employability from a different angle. It's a question I hear quite a bit, usually from well-meaning people who have heard about the latest Silicon Valley hiring initiative that suggests people on the Autism Spectrum make the best programmers: does a mental health disorder make you better at your job? I can only speak for myself, but my answer is a tried and tested no. Here's why:
When people ask if a mental health disorder improves job performance, what they're really asking is whether a particular trait associated with a mental health disorder can be an advantage in a workplace. The answer to that question is a conditional yes. For example, a common characteristic of OCD is checking behaviours when something 'doesn't feel quite right'. If we take that characteristic and apply it to, say, a lifeguard working on an ocean surf, then someone with a propensity for checking to make sure things look right, and who doesn't tire of repetitive actions, is likely a very good fit. But (and this is the key), the devil is in the details: checking behaviours are a necessary part of being a good lifeguard, but not all people who exhibit checking behaviours are automatically good lifeguards. The key factor isn't the checking behaviours. It's the function, intensity, frequency and judicious use of the checking behaviours. People with OCD often have a strained relationship with their checking behaviours because they are an involuntary by-product of highly distracting, often-crippling anxiety. People who watch over swimmers in the ocean use checking behaviours as a way of keeping focused in a highly stressful, potentially dangerous situation. In other words:
OCD @ HOME = UNWANTED CHECKING BEHAVIOURS TO RELIEVE ANXIETY
CHECKING BEHAVIOURS AT THE BEACH = INTENTIONAL USE OF REPETITIVE BEHAVIOUR TO ENSURE PUBLIC SAFETY
See the difference? A characteristic of OCD can be part of what makes someone successful in their job, but the extent and manner with which that characteristic presents in the context of OCD is not an advantage at work. If anything, it's the opposite.
So, the next time someone asks you whether OCD, Autism, ADHD or any other mental health condition gives them an advantage at work, consider what you're really asking. Are you wondering whether a particular trait that you've heard about is helpful in a particular job? Or, are you wondering whether beaches and cleaning companies should start posting job ads specifically for obsessive-compulsives? The first question is a legitimate inquiry that warrants ongoing conversation, especially in the context of mental health advocacy and mental health therapy. The second question is an oversimplification of whatever mental health disorder you're discussing, and it's flawed because it assumes that people with mental health disorders see their condition as a strength. Some do, and some don't. Try your best to know which is which, and don't be afraid to ask, just be cautious and deliberate with how you phrase your question.
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