Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) Affecting Workplace Functioning

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (abbreviated OCPD in the whole of this literature) refers to a personality disorder characterized by significant disruption and difficulty to one’s life.

OCPD Opens in new window is one of many personality disorders that are associated with significant impairment in occupational and academic functioning, and in both intra- and interpersonal functioning. In the workplace, OCPD may have a variety of negative effects, which we'll discuss within the course of this literature.

Specifically, OCPD is characterized by maladaptive patterns of rigidity, preoccupation with perfectionism and morality, overattention to detail, concerns about matters of control and order, emotional control and constriction, miserliness, interpersonal reticence, indecisiveness, an excessive devotion to work, and inability to delegate tasks.

While such difficulties affect workplace performance, milder forms of the characteristics associated with OCPD are often encouraged by organizations and may represent significant individual strengths.

Understand OCPD may lead to more effective strategies to maximize workplace performance for not only the affected individuals, but more broadly for organizations.

OCPD is not be confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) Opens in new window, and numerous recent papers focus on the distinction between the two disorders (Eisen et al., 2006).

For example, Black et al. (1993) concluded that the data do not support a specific relationship between OCPD and OCD, although there are similarities in their associated characteristics, particularly in the domains of perfectionism and the need for control.

More recently, Eisen et al. (2006) examined the convergence between OCPD criteria and OCD using data from the Longitudinal Personality Disorders Study. They found that hoarding, perfectionism and preoccupation with details (i.e. three of eight OCPD criteria) were significantly more frequent in subjects with OCD than in subjects without OCD.

Moreover, the relationship between OCD and these three OCPD criteria showed unique association relative to other anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder. Thus, although OCPD as a diagnostic classification may not be uniquely associated with OCD, certain features of OCPD are associated with OCD.

Millon (1996) differentiates eight characteristic patterns of individuals with OCPD:

  1. a tendency for affected individuals to be highly regulated in their expressiveness and appearance (e.g., they appear tense and constrained, and have a serious demeanor), which hides an inner insecurity, ambivalence about most things, fear of disapproval and intense feelings of anger;
  2. an interpersonal manner characterized by formality, social correctness, a high degree of outer respect for those in authority and a highly developed sense of morality;
  3. a highly regulated and rigid adherence to hierarchies, conventional rules and schedules;
  4. adherence to a self-image typified by an inflated sense of personal responsibility and self-discipline, dedication to perfection and productivity and a reticence to participate in recreational activities;
  5. defensiveness against the conscious experience of socially unacceptable intrusions (e.g. thoughts, images, impulses);
  6. discomfort with negative emotional responses such as defiance, rebelliousness, resentment and anger, and the activation of a wide range of defenses to control such emotions;
  7. a compartmentalized morphological organization which tolerates little interaction between drive, memory and cognition (e.g., rigid compartmentalization of one’s inner world to avoid the spilling over into consciousness of ambivalent images, feelings and attitudes); and
  8. an overly sensitive or an hedonic temperament that could be constitutionally based. Such patterns fall on a continuum ranging from normal and adaptive through to pathological and maladaptive, although contextual factors define what constitutes dysfunction (Pollak, 1987).

Etiology of OCPD

Living and working with an individual affected by OCPD can be perplexing, especially if one has no overview of the factors associated with the etiology of the condition.

Kyrios (1998) identified a range of etiological factors, including ethologically important instincts, biological dispositions and temperament; life experiences at strategic developmental stages; and dysfunctional schemas Opens in new window about oneself, others and the world.

In particular, early attachments were conceptualized as leading to the development of at least five significant and interrelated core cognitive domains that contain various polarities of beliefs and hold strong effective associations. These domains involve beliefs about:

  1. self-worth and defectiveness;
  2. the capacity to trust oneself and others;
  3. the sense of control over oneself and the external environment;
  4. the acquisition of specific roles that define one’s identity; and
  5. the specific role that adherence to ethical, religious or moral codes can play in the OCPD individual’s sense of self.

Basic trust in the world and others enables individuals to explore their environment, thereby facilitating the development of a sense of self-control and control over the external environment (Bowlby, 1973; Kyrios, 1998).

Exploration in a safe environment also enables the individual to learn to deal effectively with increasing degrees of difficulty, complexity and uncertainty in the world (Bowlby, 1988).

For instance, research suggests that secure attached children are more likely to explore their environment, facilitating the development of cognitive and social skills (Cassidy et al., 1996; Versechueren & Marcoen, 1999).

However, in the case of individuals with OCPD, basic emotional needs are not satisfied by their early experiences, thereby hampering the internalization of a sense of security and reliance on the self and the external world (Bowlby, 1973, 1988).

Such internal conflicts have a longstanding influence on individuals with OCPD. Within the workplace, conflicted individuals tend to underperform, and can also exert a negative influence on colleagues and the broader organization. Such individuals are rarely identified by standard assessment procedures, due to limitations associated with specific measures.

Furthermore, many of the characteristics associated with OCPD are considered desirable by some organizations (e.g. perfectionism, overly high moral concerns, overattention to detail). Often, it is only after employment has begun that problems begin to emerge due to the effects of the OCPD.


At a general level, many of the traits associated with OCPD are socially accepted and adaptive. For example, an individual with OCPD traits may present as a motivated and diligent worker, and be valued within the workplace.

Research has suggested that OCPD traits, such as a dedication to work, perfectionism, adherence to rules, and avoidance of conflict, may be perceived as a boon to organizations. Furnham and Petrides (2006) used a vignette methodology to examine the influence of gender, ability, motivation and experience on perceived suitability of candidates for promotion.

They found that work motivation was the most important of these variables for selection. Furnham (2002) investigated individuals’ ratings of desired characteristics in a range of co-workers. Findings suggested that individuals most desired in organizations present as dedicated to their work, do not show obvious flaws, and are highly motivated.

As we have earlier noted, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) refers to a personality disorder characterized by significant disruption and difficulty to one’s life. In the workplace, OCPD may have a variety of negative effects. For the sufferer, it may present in a variety of forms, most notably perfectionism when conducting tasks, which in turn can be associated with workaholism or, conversely, procrastination and avoidance of tasks because of the high personal cost associated with attempts to maintain perceived perfection.

At an intrapersonal level, the general effects of OCPD transfer to the workplace; thus the individual may be at risk of depression and anger, and have a variety of personal issues such as feelings of defectiveness or a greater need for control.

Such effects also manifest within interpersonal contact, for example relationships with work colleagues, behaviors within meetings and the ability to delegate tasks. Finally, other difficulties may be present, such as a lack of organization or over-organization, and possibly hoarding of items. Research relevant to these issues is detailed in the following headings.

  1. Engagement in work tasks

The phenomenology of OCPD, involving perfectionism, rigidity, interpersonal control and orderliness, is similar to the characterization of individuals who are workaholics Opens in new window.

Porter (1996) suggested that workaholism is akin to an addiction, characterized by an excess of work hours to the exclusion of other roles; identity issues leading to the salience of work to bolster self-esteem; rigidity in thinking and perfectionism, high need for control and difficulty delegating to others.

Mudrack (2004) suggested that workaholism may function differently for these two patterns: in the case of high superego, individuals may use work to assuage feelings of guilt, whereas those with high obstinacy may be preoccupied with precision and order at work. Thus individuals who demonstrate difficulties with self-issues (worth/defectiveness, morality) and control can manifest in overcommitment to work activities.

Such workaholic tendencies have been associated with negative outcomes (e.g., burnout and stress), an important work management issue particularly for workplaces with high staff turnover or high staff training costs.

Porter (2001) noted a division between positive and negative workaholism, where the former is due to enjoyment and fulfillment in work activity, and the latter due to the need to work in a compulsive, perfectionistic fashion.

The latter category is relevant to OCPD, in its similarity to phenomenological descriptions of OCPD traits (Kyrios, 1998; APA, 2000).

It has been suggested that this perfectionistic workaholism is associated with sensitivity to criticism and a tendency to judge oneself elevated standards that ensure failure (Robinson, 1998). Such failures result in anger towards others that is used to justify low cooperation and communication with them.

  1. Workplace relationships

An important characteristic of personality disorders Opens in new window is their destructive effects on social relationships.

Many personality disorders, by definition, are primarily concerned with social disruption, for example the extreme reaction of those with borderline personality disorder in response to perceived threats to attachment relationships.

As noted previously, individuals with OCPD are characterized as having:

  • higher need for control over themselves and the environment;
  • perceptions of socially prescribed perfectionism;
  • lack of trust and belief in others; rigidity in roles; and
  • inflexible adherence to morality.

All such beliefs interfere with relationships in general, and certainly translate to the work environment. Indeed, perfectionism and OCPD may have their greatest disruptive effects on the social fabric of the workplace.

For example, Porter (1996) suggests that workaholic tendencies can be especially problematic if the individual is in a position of power.

The individual may set impossible standards for their workers, which gives the impression to the individual’s superiors hat they are striving for excellence, while leading to failure for their subordinates, who are then blamed for the failure. This tendency follows the individual’s need for control, and may lead to frustration in co-workers.

Porter also notes that if the individual does not trust others, then, through mutual interactions, the individual becomes seen as less trustworthy themselves. In most business organizations, this would have obvious impact on the ability of the group of workers to work cohesively towards shared goals.

Porter (2001) found that workaholic individuals questioned the value of other individuals as people, not just as co-workers. Such an attitude would further exacerbate organizational mistrust and conflict.

  1. General organization

The individual experiencing OCPD may be relatively unable to plan and organize activities effectively. Individuals with extreme OCPD traits attempt to assert complete control over their lives or environment.

Such attempts are doomed to failure, leading some individuals to become overwhelmed and less organized in their endeavors. Individuals with OCPD also focus on particular areas of their lives, leading to general neglect of others.

They may overly focus on areas of workload in which they feel a degree of control or to which they particularly relate (e.g. tasks requiring attention to detail, solo tasks) to the detriment of tasks requiring creativity, flexibility and group interaction.

In the workplace, this may lead to difficulty in effectively organizing time, tasks or the physical workplace, leading ultimately to a lack of effectiveness, which could combine with other difficulties such as an inability to delegate. Finally, OCPD is associated with hoarding behaviors or the failure to discard items (Kyrios et al., 2002).

In the workplace, the individual may demonstrate acquisition of, and failure to discard, items and knowledge, in order to fulfill a high need for control. Again, this would hamper the effective fulfillment of job requirements.

Furthermore, hoarding of work documents will ultimately be associated with high degrees of clutter and disorganization, typically reaching a point where workspaces (including virtual workspaces on computers) are compromised in terms of their designated purpose.


An important issue for the workplace is the management of problems associated with personality disorders such as OCPD.

Consistent with work-stress management literature (e.g. Kendall et al. 2000), interventions can be classified as:

  • primary (i.e. strategies that aim to prevent the occurrence of problem);
  • secondary (i.e. activities designed to change the individual’s reaction to stressors); and
  • tertiary (i.e. approaches used to treat the problem).

In addition, such interventions can occur at both the individual level (e.g. through group or individual interventions) and a the structural level (e.g. through improving workplace leadership and management). These level of intervention are briefly described below.

  1. Individual level

It is likely that most of the interventions at the individual level will occur at the secondary or tertiary stage (i.e. addressing problems and reactions to them) once difficulties start to manifest.

However, primary prevention strategies can be incorporated as part of a screening strategy before employment, and a part of intervention in the form of a relapse prevention strategy (i.e. preventing future problems).

The latter is particularly important when dealing with personality disorders such as OCPD, where individuals are likely to present only in acute crisis (Kyrios, 1998), usually with difficulties that may mask the personality disorder (e.g. adjustment disorder, major depression, anxiety disorders, relationship difficulties).

In addition to management of the individual’s response to stressors and the resultant symptoms, the interventions need to address the dysfunctional cognitive and behavioral processes. While a full discussion of psychotherapy interventions for OCPD is beyond the scope of this literature (see Kyrios, 1998 for a more comprehensive discussion), a brief outline is summarized here.

Psychotharapeutic interventions at the individual level aim to reduce negative mood states (e.g. lowered mood, irritability, anxiety, hostility) through a range of cognitive and relaxation strategies, and therefore:

  • develop a more adaptive response to stressors;
  • increase emotional awareness and expressivity through monitoring strategies and by utilizing the therapeutic relationship to address affective and interpersonal difficulties;
  • reduce avoidant tendencies and increase flexibility and tolerance of novelty through graded exposure techniques;
  • improve interpersonal and emotional regulation skills;
  • increase individual’s involvement in activities not related to work, particularly those viewed as “unproductive” or a “waste of time” (e.g. recreational, social, relaxation activities); and
  • using cognitive restructuring technique to address specific maladaptive cognitions (assumptions) that serve to maintain the maladaptive behaviors.

While undertaking these strategies, particular focus should be given to maladaptive schematic processes that could impact on the treatment process. For example, difficulties with trust and emotional expressiveness could interfere with the quality of relationships and must be handled gently.

Similarly, elevated need for control may make the client react more strongly to technique that interfere with attacks on perceived control, for example relaxation strategies and the commencement of behavioral techniques such as exposure.

Finally, such interventions can be integrated with the considered placement of affected individuals, so that they are given the opportunity to broaden their comfort zone from a secure base.

  1. Structural level

Effective management of problems associated with OCPD should also include intervention at a structural or organizational level. It is now well recognized that work stress and associated mental health outcomes are a result of the interaction between environmental and individual factors, for example aspects of the work environment or job and the personal and individual differences in reactions to, and coping with, stress at work (Siegrist, 1998).

In accordance with the preventive stress management framework proposed by Quick et al. (1997), interventions at the structural level involve primary prevention strategies, which can include modification of work demands and stressors; secondary strategies aiming to change how individuals and organizations respond to the demands of work and organizational life; and tertiary strategies that would treat the distress that individuals and organizations may encounter.

At the primary intervention level, the organizational climate may require modifications to address the explicit and implicit messages that employees are given in terms of work hours (the value placed on quantity versus quality), job involvement Opens in new window and reward distribution.

It is common for organizations to develop a culture where long hours and sacrifice are seen as essential for success and development (Porter, 1996). In such organizations, individuals working long hours may be more recognized, perceived as more dedicated and more frequently rewarded.

This will not only impact on the OCPD individual by encouraging maladaptive workaholic patterns, but may also impact on other employees who spend fewer hours at work, but complete the job efficiently.

According to Porter (1996), the effect of such patterns can impact on the ongoing interactions in the workplace both immediately and in the longer term (e.g. in terms of stress and burnout, decline in performance, absenteeism or higher turnover rates).

Such patterns need to be recognized and changed at the organization or leadership level. It is the leaders and managers of the organization who are instrumental in promoting more adaptive and balanced working patterns. This can be done through modeling and encouraging efficiency and teamwork over quantity of individual working time.

Secondary interventions can be used in parallel to improve both the individual’s and the organization’s response to stresses and ongoing changes in the workplace.

There are various roles and responsibilities for organizations and their leaders with respect to individuals with OCPD or OCPD traits, such as:

  • the need to make available group or individual stress management and skill training programmes,
  • providing social and leisure opportunities to promote balanced working conditions; and
  • promoting social support and team building. In particular, informal support systems may be more effective in shaping behavior and avoiding distress.

For instance, setting up mentoring schemes is one way by which an organization can encourage and reward interdependence and social support. As Quick et al. (1997) noted, organizations may sometimes emphasize independence to the extent that individuals are reluctant to seek support.

To address this, leaders and managers need to reward appropriate assistance-seeking and supportive relationships at work.

Such support would not only buffer against increasing work demands, but in the case of OCPD may provide valuable experience and opportunity for improving interpersonal functioning.

In addition, initiating and supporting regular social events or activities outside of work may serve to strengthen social interaction and at the same time promote a balanced approach to work and leisure activities.

Strategies such as team building can be used to promote improvement of performance through cooperative, supportive relationships within a work group. Often, existing reward structures within organizations support individual performance.

Redirecting the reward system to include rewards based on team performance may encourage development of a more cooperative approach towards teamwork. If problems do arise, organizations can take on the responsibility for ensuring referral to, or, depending on organizational size and contextual issues such as health insurance policies, the delivery of mental health services for distressed employees.

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