How One Employee Doesn’t Let Mental Illness Stop Her

When she was 15 years old, Allison Britz awoke one morning convinced she had terminal brain cancer. She didn’t, actually. It turns out, however, that she did have sudden onset obsessive compulsive disorder.

More than 2% of the U.S. population (about one out of 40 people) will be diagnosed with OCD during their lives, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. OCD is characterized by repetitive, unwanted, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and irrational, excessive urges to do certain actions (compulsions), according to NAMI.

As with anyone who suffers from mental illness, it’s illegal for employers to discriminate against people with OCD. Nevertheless, those with OCD do suffer from the stigma and misunderstanding that often surround it in the workplace.

Britz knows all too well the challenges that go with creating a viable career while dealing with OCD. After being diagnosed in her teens, she spent years in therapy and often struggled in college and at work. Today she has a successful career at Deloitte, where she is lead marketing specialist. Britz is also the author of a bestselling memoir about her battle with OCD titled Obsessed, published in 2017.

I was honored to be able to interview Britz recently and, given that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, thought I’d share our conversation, which is excerpted below.

Allison Britz

What’s a typical day like for you in terms of managing your OCD?

I’ve had OCD now for 25 years. It’s a chronic illness, though at this point in my life it’s very well controlled. Obsessive thoughts are a very present part of my daily life–they sort of run across the bottom of my brain kind of like the newsfeed you see at the bottom of the screen on CNN, but at this point I have no major daily obstacles. I’m able to lead a happy, healthy and normal life.

Can you summarize the treatment journey you underwent for your OCD?

My OCD began when I was 15 years old, in high school. At that point, I was a Type A overachiever set on going to Harvard or Stanford. One night I had a terrible nightmare about having terminal brain cancer. The dream was so real and vivid that when I woke up, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a message or a sign that I actually did have cancer. I did everything I could to quell my anxiety about my supposed impeding death–I avoided sidewalk cracks and so forth, and within two months it snowballed to the point that this anxiety was completely controlling my life. My grades dropped and I lost a lot of weight. My parents took me to my family doctor, who referred me to an OCD specialist. I went through cognitive therapy, and part of that is “exposure response prevention,” in which you intentionally expose yourself to the things you’re scared of and don’t allow yourself to over-react. For example, I had a big issue with pencils–I was certain they caused cancer–so first I’d put a pencil by my foot, then I’d hold it in my hand, and so forth. At that time in my life, I wasn’t ready for medication–just like everything else, I thought it caused cancer–so I didn’t take it for the first five years after my diagnosis, even though medication combined with therapy is the preferred treatment. In the beginning, I just did therapy, and I’m still in therapy. I will be in therapy for the foreseeable future, almost as a maintenance thing.

What was college like for you?

I went to Wake Forest University, which is in the town I grew up in. It was the best school that I got into, but its close proximity to my comfort zone also turned out to be beneficial for me. It was really helpful when so much else was new. The transition to college can be bumpy for most people, but I really struggled at first with having a roommate. I grew up an only child, and now here I was trying to manage my OCD, do my pencil exercises and so forth, and it was hard because here was this new person sitting near me. So I struggled a bit during my freshman year. But I gradually came out of my shell, got involved with a sorority, made some good friends and eventually began to flourish. I began to feel that people appreciated me for who I was. College was where I learned to like myself and to accept the unique way my brain works.

What was it like starting out in the world of work in terms of launching your career while managing your OCD?

Like a lot of 22-year olds, I thought I knew everything at first. I went into my career with great confidence but quickly realized there was a lot about the corporate world I’d never encountered and didn’t know how to deal with. My first job was a sales role that required lots of travel. I’d never really traveled by myself, and it was extremely stressful–I broke down in tears at the airport. So after a year, I started missing my flights on purpose, kind of hoping they’d fire me–I thought I’d prefer that to getting on a plane again. I transitioned to a marketing role at a different company, where the issue of travel cropped up again when I was assigned to an event-planning role that involved lots of travel. I contacted HR, who suggested I get a note from a psychiatrist outlining why extensive travel was not a good idea for me. HR was really helpful–they worked with me to find a role where I could use my marketing skills and knowledge without having to travel frequently.

At this point, were you open with your coworkers about your OCD?

No, at that time I wasn’t open about it in the workplace, but I was very grateful for the way HR had handled it–they were incredibly sensitive and helpful and I was able to work from home, which was very beneficial in terms of stress management. This positive experience with HR made it easier to share my OCD with my colleagues by 2017, when I published Obsessed.

What led you to write the book?

After college, I found myself sort of “word vomiting,” really. I had this open Word document and stuff would just come out of me. Eventually it got long enough that my husband said “Why don’t you publish this?” I found a book on self-publishing on Amazon, wrote the first outline and then Simon & Schuster bought it and published it. The book just came out of me–it wasn’t intentional.

Can you describe the support you get from your manager?

My current manager is a “well-being warrior”–she’s a role model for me. During our weekly meetings she always has a new wellness tip for us, whether it’s work-conference yoga or having a walking meeting–she’s very much “This is what I’m doing for my well-being, here’s how you can incorporate it into your own life if you want.” She’s very much an advocate for “unplugging”–once a quarter she schedules a day for herself where she doesn’t check email, just stays out of touch. I take one for myself every six weeks, and it’s the most liberating thing–I might go on a hike or spend the day watching Mad Men. I’d describe myself as a Type A personality, but taking those days and maintaining work/life balance has been so beneficial for me and I credit the support we get for this from my manager and from HR. They bang us over the head with wellness here and it’s trickled down because my boss lives that life and that makes me feel I’m allowed to as well.

Based on your own experience, what’s some important advice you’d offer to others who may be struggling with OCD while working?

I’d say two things: One is the importance of personal mental health days–taking them and, the next day after you’re back, scheduling the next one promptly so you don’t fall out of the habit of taking them. And two, the importance of talking to someone. Even if your life is going swimmingly, there’s always something that could use some attention. At the beginning of my career, I resisted therapy because it reminded me of my early days learning to cope with OCD. It made me feel like I was still broken. But, since I’ve started regular therapy again, it’s been nothing short of life-changing. My therapist and I talk about my OCD, my marriage, my son, my family–it’s made me a healthier, happier person.

What are the most important things for HR to know about people with OCD?

OCD–like any mental illness, really–manifests itself differently in different people. Me and another person could have OCD, but the way we express it could be very different. So, you can’t necessarily know what it’s like for them. In addition, there’s nothing more important to the health and success of an employee with mental health issues than their manager. The company as a whole could be great, but if I don’t feel like the person I report to understands OCD or mental illness in general, then it doesn’t matter what the company says. I’ve worked for seven different bosses in my career, and their personal views directly influenced my happiness on the job.

What are some common misperceptions people have about OCD?

When most people think of OCD, they tend to associate it with germaphobia or “highly organized” just because of the way it’s depicted in popular medial. I think that while a lot of people may experience OCD in that way, I don’t think most people actually do. I’m neither neat or tidy. Yet I do have severe OCD, just not in the way most people imagine it. Another thing people often say is “Oh, I’m also a little OCD.” That’s not accurate–it’s like saying “I’m slightly diabetic” or “I’m slightly bipolar.”

Has OCD ever been helpful in strange way?

In terms of productivity or being detail-oriented, no, but it has made me more empathetic and understanding as a human being. I remember what it was like to hit rock bottom. I know what it feels like to be embarrassed or ashamed of what you are. I think it’s made me a better person, a friendlier coworker, and more open to other people’s struggles.

What should co-workers know when it comes to working alongside someone with OCD–or someone they suspect of having OCD?

Just as with mental illness as a whole, it’s not going to show itself physically. If you’re working with someone with depression, you don’t necessarily know what’s going on with them–it’s on the inside. They may be smiling and well-put together, but you can’t necessarily see the storm roiling underneath. So the quote “Always be a little kinder than necessary” is really appropriate. And be vulnerable about your own issues, and by doing that you can reach this deeper level of understanding. It might not be about mental illness, but there’s always something else and that can help bridge the relationship. Also, ask questions. I appreciate people’s willingness to ask me questions, it gives me the opportunity to arm that person with understanding.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.