Author: Dario Malerba
Living with a personality disorder can be fine in one context, but very uncomfortable in another. Working a job creates a routine: It puts you in the same kinds of situations repeatedly. If these situations are not ones that you are able to deal with easily however, it can cause a lot of distress (Sansone and Sansone 2010).
People with personality disorders are generally more likely to be unemployed, experience more work impairments, are more stressed, more likely to be fired or demoted, and more likely to experience conflicts at work (Sansone and Sansone 2010). The problem is not their personality disorder however, the problem is the contexts that their job forces them to be in.
Living with a personality disorder (PD) means that you have consistent tendencies to behave in unexpected ways when faced with certain situations (American Psychiatric Association 2013). Someone with a narcissistic PD for example may react angrily if they don’t receive the promotion they were aiming for. Someone with avoidant PD might spiral into anxiety and uncertainty if they need to meet new people (Oltmanns and Balsis 2011). In neither of these contexts however, these same people are likely to behave like any other employee.
What does this mean? People living with personality disorders are very sensitive to context, but if we make sure they are not confronted with such triggering situations, they function just like any other person. In a healthy and fitting environment then, their mental disorder will remain latent, allowing the person to feel comfortable (Oltmanns and Balsis 2011).
Different jobs can be more or less fitting for different personalities. This is not any different for people living with PDs. In your job, you will face certain situations which you will be more or less able to tackle. Often you have no real control over what you will or won’t face.
For people with PDs this can be challenging. PDs often affect interpersonal skills which can be essential at work. Below you will find some specific ways in which personality disorders interfere with people’s jobs:
Often personality disorders make it difficult for people to complete their schooling. One study found that nearly all types of PDs negatively affect people’s level of education, exceptions being narcissistic PD, and cluster C types (meaning obsessive-compulsive, avoidant and dependent PD) (Hengartner et. al. 2014).
Having lower levels of education makes finding a secure job more difficult and is likely to lead to lower wages in general (Heckman et. al. 2014). Add to this the prejudices that exist about PDs, and the interpersonal trouble that may result from living with such disorders, getting a stable job becomes more and more difficult.
2. Unemployment, Dismissal, and Demotion
A research study on the prevalence of unemployment found that while about 29 percent of surveyed individuals were unemployed, this number skyrocketed to 38 percent for people with PDs – a near 10 percent difference (Tyrer 2014).
The likelihood of being unemployed, dismissed or otherwise demoted varies for different PDs: All cluster A PDs have the highest risk. From cluster B, only borderline PD has these characteristics. People with avoidant PD are more likely to be unemployed, fired or demoted, while people with dependent PD are only more likely to be fired or demoted
3. Conflicts in the Workplace
The social aspect of PDs is the most prominent: People with PDs are overall more likely to fall out with colleagues. Here, the only exceptions are people with avoidant PD and schizoid PD (Hengartner et. al. 2014). One man with antisocial PD working with the police was relieved of his desk duties after alienating all of his colleagues (Oltmanns and Balsis 2011). Another man fought with his colleagues as he felt his co-workers interfered too much with his own work. Because of this, he was considered unemployable (Tyrer 2014).
It is important to remember that such issues at the workplace are triggered by working environments unsuitable for people living with PDs. A bad environment leads to worse mental health, and worse mental health leads to a bad environment. Different people with different PDs struggle with different, sometimes unexpected things. People with obsessive-compulsive PD are often reliable workers, although they can run into interpersonal issues. People with narcissistic PD also often strive to be successful in all they do (Hengartner et. al. 2014). The key point to keep in mind is thus that a healthy working environment that is catered to these individuals – and in which they have the agency to decide what they are or aren’t comfortable with – can help them both with their professional life and their personal issues (Tyrer 2014).
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5). American Psychiatric Pub.
Heckman, J. J., J. E. Humphries, G. Veramendi and S. S. Urzua (2014). “Education, health and wages (No. w19971).” National Bureau of Economic Research.
Hengartner, M. P., M. Müller, S. Rodgers, W. Rössler, and V. Ajdacic-Gross (2014). “Occupational functioning and work impairment in association with personality disorder trait-scores.” Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology 49(2): 327-335.
Oltmanns, T. F. and S. Balsis (2011). “Personality disorders in later life: Questions about the measurement, course, and impact of disorders.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 7: 321-349.
Sansone, R. A. and L. A. Sansone (2010). “Personality dysfunction and employment dysfunction: Double, double, toil and trouble.” Psychiatry (Edgmont) 7(3): 12.
Tyrer, P (2014). “Personality disorders in the workplace.” Occupational Medicine 64: 566-568.