Is your co-worker just obnoxious?

Barbara Jaurequiin Training & Education

Most adults spend the bulk of their waking hours at work. Some say that their "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 difficult people, life at work can be 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 co-workers may be legitimately mentally ill and in need of professional intervention.

According to the National Association of Mental Health in the USA, incidences of mental illness in the workplace are not uncommon. They report that 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 managed when treated properly, occurs in four percent of adults, whilst mood disorders, including Major Depression, Mania and Bi Polar Disorder, occur in roughly ten percent of adults, all of which can trigger undesirable behaviour 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 might 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.

Recognising the difference between people with legitimate personality disorders and people with chronic "loathsome-itis" is a bit tougher; you have to know what you're looking for.

Here is a list of disorders people might encounter at work, their likelihood, and some tips to tell if your co-worker needs mental help or is simply being objectionable.


ADHD can cause sufferers to be irritable, careless, hyper, forgetful, disorganised, extremely talkative and distractible. A non-ADHD "jerk", however, would not necessarily demonstrate all these symptoms simultaneously. He might just talk your ear off when you need to get back to work. Or he might "forget" to do certain tasks because he's lazy, rather than careless. He might keep his desk a mess because it doesn't bother him 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 employee might just be a slacker and feign low-energy to get out of doing his fair share of work.

Borderline Personality Disorder

People with BPD struggle to maintain stable relationships, including relationships with coworkers. They vacillate between idealising their co-workers and demonising them.

Borderlines are highly defensive and tend to demonise those who criticise 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 co-workers don't necessarily have unstable relationships in all realms of their lives. They might take more credit for accomplishments than they deserve; they might brag about their successes. But, once again, those things just make for obnoxious co-workers.

It's important to note that BPD affects a very small portion of the population (approximately six percent), so bear in mind that it is unlikely your extremely annoying coworker is 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 person doesn't exploit others without guilt or internal conflict. He would typically feel some remorse and shame for exploitive behaviour and might even apologise. Narcissists rarely (i.e. never) apologise. An obnoxious person 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 six percent are clinically diagnosed with the disorder.

Don't jump to conclusions

It's important to note that other medical problems can cause co-workers to behave in ways that are unusual and concerning or annoying and obnoxious. Brain tumours, head injuries, medication side-effects, hormonal imbalances and stress can all trigger troublesome behaviour. So it's important that employers and employees alike do 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:

If a co-worker is the problem, it's best to take suspicions to a supervisor rather than confronting the co-worker directly.

If a subordinate is the cause of the workplace disturbance, deal with it directly, but with sensitivity. Be observational in a nonconfrontational way. For example, don't say; "You clearly have a personality disorder" say; "I've noticed that your attitudes and behaviours 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 staff 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.

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 obnoxious! 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, will continue to serve as an energy vacuum in your workplace.

This article, written by Barbara Jaurequi, was first published in Golfdom, the USA's leading online resource for turfcare professionals, and is reproduced by permission.

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