ceo magazine mental health
Barbara Jaurequi, MS, LMFT, MAC

Why certain employees are “really difficult” to deal with isn’t always clear. Some are simply annoying or interpersonally inept. However, some difficult employees 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. Many of these disorders can cause the sufferers to demonstrate symptoms remarkably similar to the personal traits of someone who is simply obnoxious.

The following is a brief breakdown of common mental disorders with symptom profiles that can mimic the traits of an obnoxious employee.


ADHD can cause sufferers to be irritable, careless, hyper, forgetful, disorganized, extremely talkative, and distractible simultaneously. A “jerk” may do all of the above at one time or another but not all at once.

Mood Disorders

A common mood disorder such as Major Depression may cause 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 across all relationship sectors, including relationships with coworkers. They are highly defensive and have a very weak sense of self. Obnoxious employees don’t necessarily have unstable relationships in all realms of their lives.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

A person with NPD is different from an employee who is conceited and selfish. A narcissist knowingly exploits others for his own personal gain without remorse. They rarely (i.e., never) apologize for selfish behavior because they see it as necessary to get what they want. Narcissists are miserably unhappy away from the spotlight. They feel entitled to special treatment and are obsessed with their “wonderfulness”. A jerk doesn’t exploit others without some feelings of guilt or internal conflict. Jerks will often apologize for really bad behavior. They can be fair. They may grumble about certain parameters but they typically follow the rules.            

If you suspect mental illness in an employee, best practice suggests you should:

  1. 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 you are relaxed and approachable, suffering staffers are more likely to open up.
  2. If the employee acknowledges that there is a problem and is willing to seek treatment, 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.
  3. When your employee’s overall demeanor is one of defensiveness, before addressing your concerns directly with your employee, consult your Human Resources department head or take your concerns to an attorney who specializes in employee/employer related matters.

It’s always better to deal with suspected mental illness (or obnoxious behavior) directly than to expect things to change on their own. 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.

About the Author

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. Contact Ms. Jaurequi by email at or phone her office at 909-944-6611.



Jennifer Corob's picture
This is a great guide to differentiate between mental health issues and those who do not have mental health issues, and are simply being willfully disruptive. It is my hope that as many employers out there as possible are sensitive to their employees' health and needs and would be willing to work with an employee with mental problems in order to help them overcome those problems without them having to worry that they will lose their job.
Aimée Smith's picture
Yes, there are those with mental health issues, and also those who are "jerks," but shouldn't we be stopping to investigate why they are having non-mental health related behavioral problems and what can be done to address those problems? Behavior problems like the ones you mention are usually a call for help, and if they are not addressed, the problem will just continue.

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