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Is Your Coworker a Jerk...or Just Mentally Ill?

Mental health is more important than ever in the workplace.

Most Americans spend the bulk of their waking hours at work. Some say that Americans’ “best” hours are given to their employers. If workers like their jobs and/or workplace, they can accept that reality without a fight. Yet, when employees find themselves working with really difficult people, life at work can be extra trying or downright exasperating!          

Why certain people are “really difficult” isn’t always clear. It’s true that some people are simply annoying or interpersonally inept. However, some difficult coworkers may be legitimately mentally ill and in need of professional intervention.

Consider that, according to the National Association of Mental Health, incidences of mental illness in the workplace are not uncommon. The NAMH reports that an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. For example, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a mental illness that can be well managed when treated properly, occurs in 4% of American adults and mood disorders including Major Depression, Mania and Bi Polar Disorder occur in 9.5% of American adults, all of which can trigger undesirable behaviors in workers. Likewise, certain Personality Disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), can cause the sufferers to demonstrate symptoms remarkably similar to the personal traits of someone who is simply obnoxious.

Based on the statistics above, it’s not at all unlikely that at some point we may find ourselves working side by side with a person who is clinically mentally ill. Differentiating between clinical symptoms and personal traits can be tricky; only a licensed therapist or a medical doctor should be diagnosing mental illness. Recognizing the difference between people with legitimate Personality Disorders and people with chronic “Jerk-itis” is a bit tougher; you have to know what you’re looking for.

How can workers tell the difference between someone who needs mental help and a garden variety jerk?

ADHD

ADHD can cause sufferers to be irritable, careless, hyper, forgetful, disorganized, extremely talkative and distractible. A non-ADHD “jerk,” however, would not necessarily demonstrate all these symptoms simultaneously. She may talk your ear off when you need to get back to work. She may “forget” to do certain tasks because she’s lazy, rather than careless. She might keep her desk a mess because it doesn’t bother her to have it messy.

Mood Disorders

A mood-disordered individual with Major Depression, for example, may demonstrate excessive lethargy that is chronic and changes little from day to day. A non-Mood-Disordered jerk might just be a slacker and feign low-energy to get out of doing her fair share of work.  

Borderline Personality Disorder

People with BPD struggle to maintain stable relationships, including relationships with coworkers. They vacillate between idealizing their coworkers and demonizing them. Borderlines are highly defensive and tend to demonize those who criticize them. Ultimately, they see themselves through the eyes of others and have a very weak sense of self, which facilitates the development of unstable relationships across all relationship sectors. Obnoxious coworkers don’t necessarily have unstable relationships in all realms of their lives. They may take more credit for accomplishments than they deserve; they may brag about their successes. But, once again, those things just make for obnoxious coworkers. It’s important to note that BPD affects a very small portion of the population (approximately 6% per the Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV) so bear in mind that your extremely annoying coworker may not be mentally ill.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

A person with NPD is different from a coworker who is conceited and selfish. A clinically diagnosed narcissist knowingly exploits others for his own personal gain without remorse because he sees it as necessary to get what he wants. He is miserably unhappy when the spotlight is removed from him. He feels entitled to special treatment and is obsessed with his “wonderfulness.” A non-NPD jerk doesn’t exploit others without guilt or internal conflict. He would typically feel some remorse and shame for exploitive behavior and might even apologize. Narcissists rarely (i.e., never) apologize. A jerk can be fair. He may grumble about certain parameters, but he typically follows the rules. He may brag about himself but doesn’t go out of his way to elicit compliments from others, as would a narcissist. Furthermore, he is not devastated when excessive praise does not come his way. And NPD is fairly rare; only 6.2% of Americans are clinically diagnosed with the disorder as per the Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV.

It’s important to note that other medical problems can cause coworkers to behave in ways that are unusual and concerning or annoying and obnoxious. Brain tumors, head injuries, medication side-effects, hormonal imbalances, and stress can all trigger troublesome behaviors. So it’s important that employers and employees alike not jump to conclusions when suspecting a fellow worker is suffering from a mental illness. If, however, you suspect mental illness in a coworker, subordinate or supervisor, you need to determine if you can or want to handle the challenges presented when working with that person. Keep in mind the following:

  • A. If a coworker is the problem, it’s best to take suspicions to a supervisor rather than confronting the coworker directly.
  • B. If a subordinate is the cause of the workplace disturbance, deal with it directly but with sensitivity. Be observational in a non-confrontational way. For example, don’t say “You clearly have a personality disorder” say “I’ve noticed that your attitudes and behaviors change significantly from day to day and I’d like to talk to you about that privately.” Be relaxed when addressing the issue. If a supervisor is relaxed and approachable, suffering staffers are more likely to open up.

If the employee acknowledges that there is a problem, help him or her make a plan for recovery and/or symptom management. Talk about some job-related goals the employee can tackle once the disorder is under control. When a troubled employee has something to look forward to, he or she is more likely to follow through on getting necessary treatment.

  • C. If it’s a really difficult supervisor employees are working with, they may need to consider all their options, up to and including transferring, changing positions or leaving the company entirely.

One last thought workers may want to ponder: if one is currently sane but working in a crazy environment, it may only be a matter of time before he himself becomes mentally ill, or quite possibly, becomes a jerk! It’s better to face the problem head on than expect it to go away on its own because, without help, mental illness gets progressively worse over time. And of course, left unchecked, jerk-like behavior will continue to serve as an energy vacuum in your workplace.

Barbara Jaurequi, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Nationally Certified Master Addiction Counselor, speaks on a variety of personal and professional topics and is the author of A.C.E.S. – Adult-Child Entitlement Syndrome, available on Amazon and other online booksellers. A.C.E.S. teaches parents of adult-children how to compassionately launch their adult-children into the world of personal responsibility in a straight-forward step-by-step approach. 

Image via ollyy/Shutterstock.com

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