Hoarding at Work Can Signal Deeper Issues

By Kathy Gurchiek Aug 29, 2011
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matt-paxton_sized.jpgNewspapers and boxes nearly piled to the ceiling. Kitchen counters overflowing with dirty dishes, soured milk and rotten food. Floors that are barely navigable, maybe even a dead cat amid the squalor.

Those are typical scenes depicted in newspaper and magazine accounts and on an A&E reality TV show, “Hoarders,” that expose the extreme side of homes that have gone beyond messy. But it’s also a problem that can rear its head in the workplace, leading to health and safety concerns and financial and productivity issues. In advanced stages, it can pose absenteeism issues.

An employer might be spending money on supplies that are being stored instead of used. Stacks of newspapers might pose a fire hazard; dirty dishes and food wrappers could attract bugs and vermin.

The A&E show’s website, which lists resources for treatment, notes that hoarding “is a serious pathological condition,” and scholarly articles on the subject have appeared in Clinical Psychological Review and the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Being a pack rat is a problem that’s been around forever; just look at early man’s hunter/gatherer mentality, said Matt Paxton, whose Richmond, Va.-based company Clutter Cleaner is featured on “Hoarders.”

“It’s the American way: More is better,” he said, noting that hoarding “really picked up after the [Great] Depression.”

Information Hoarders

At work, hoarders tend to hold on to paper or supplies, according to Paxton. Those who hoard paper—printouts, receipts, files, newspapers and magazines—are information hoarders.

“Their anxiety is they’ll lose something that’s important to their success, and they’re so busy they don’t have the time to stop and organize it.”

They’re not alone.

More than one-third of 5,299 U.S. workers and 2,662 nongovernment U.S. hiring managers surveyed have paper files from more than a year ago, 13 percent have files five years or older and 6 percent have files dating back to more than 10 years,according to CareerBuilder.

The online survey, conducted in May and June 2011, also found:

  • 38 percent said half to 100 percent of their desk is covered with work and other materials; 16 percent said 75 percent or more of their desk is covered.
  • 33 percent of workers said they tend to be hoarders.

Paper hoarding is a problem even the professional clutter remover confesses to having.

“I’ve got paper from an office I closed seven years ago,” said Paxton, a fact he hasn’t divulged to the organizer he hires annually to sort out his office.

A tsunami of paper can hurt an employee’s chances of promotion, CareerBuilder found.

While it can indicate a busy workload as companies function with leaner staffs, “it can also imply a lack of organization,” said Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s vice president of HR, in a news release.

Paxton agreed.

“Perception is reality. If the rest of the office thinks we’re messy, then we’re messy,” he said. “We’re perceived as lazy in thought [but] we just happen to be unorganized; that’s not a skill set I have. You absolutely could lose a job because you’re unorganized.”

In fact, 90 percent of 1,000 Americans think clutter at home or work has hurt their lives, according to the OfficeMax Workspace Organizational Survey conducted online and via e-mail in December 2010 and January 2011.

Seventy-seven percent said their productivity was affected, 65 percent said it affected their state of mind, 53 percent said it affected their motivation and 38 percent said it affected their professional image.

Co-workers are judgmental, too, according to the OfficeMax survey. While 33 percent believe the co-worker with the cluttered desk to be too overworked to clean it, 40 percent said they assume that the person with the cluttered workspace must be lacking in other aspects of their job.

However, “hoarders are not always old cat ladies,” Paxton hastens to say, adding that most “are brilliant.”

“Often they’re very well-educated people” such as professors, teachers, nurses, executives and entrepreneurs, he said. “It’s that really high-end hoarder in the office I worry about,” such as the CEO, “because you have lots of lost productivity.”

Boxes of Pencils = Feeling Needed

Then there are workers who hoard office supplies.

“It’s not that they’re greedy and wanting to steal. … They want to be important” and feel needed, said Paxton, co-author of The Secret Lives of Hoarders: True Stories of Tackling Extreme Clutter (Perigee Trade, 2011).

“They try to put value [on something] that’s as simple as a box of pencils or staples or a bunch of notepads.” Dig deeper, he said, and “it’s about control; hoarders have often lost control of the rest of their life.”

Typically the hoarder can pull the needed article out of the towering pile much like a magician producing a bouquet from his sleeve.

“They have an Excel spreadsheet in their head where they know everything they have,” he said one client explained to him. “Their hoard is their most important thing in their life. … If they don’t know what’s in their hoard, they don’t know anything about their own life.”

Sometimes grossed-out colleagues will clean up the hoarder’s area when he or she is not around, but that’s the worst thing to do, according to Paxton, who says the hoarder needs to be included in the process. Otherwise, that Excel sheet gets out of whack because the person doesn’t know what has been disposed of or how.

If something has to go, the hoarder’s preference is to donate the item.

“If no one wants it, then they want it shredded because it’s very important, it’s confidential,” Paxton said. “They need to know they’re important, therefore their items are important. So if it can’t be shredded, then it must be thrown away. There’s a priority of the way things are disposed of,” he said. “It’s not that they’re sloppy people, it’s they can’t do it the right way so they don’t do it at all.”

Slobs vs. Hoarders

A messy desk does not necessarily mean that the employee is a hoarder.

“You can be just a slob,” Paxton said. “The difference between collecting and hoarding is when the collection becomes more important than your livelihood, your job, your friends, your family, your spouse.”

There are stages to hoarding ranging from one to five in seriousness, according to Paxton. A five-point scale also is used by the Missouri-based Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD).

In stage one the person has lots of books, all of their compact discs and college texts, “just regular things that you and I would keep,” Paxton said. Stage five is a house spilling over with stuff, dead animals, feces, no water and no electrical power.

“Most office hoarders are a [stage] one in the office. They might be anywhere on the scale at home,” he said.

“You rarely see a stage four or five at the workplace because they’ve lost the skills in the workplace. They get corrected or they leave,” he said.

Hoarding rarely is about laziness, he observed.

“A lot of stage ones, twos and threes can be incredible producers at work,” he said.

And you can forget about seeing your co-worker’s messy cubicle featured in the A&E’s program 2011 fall line-up.

“It’s too boring,” Paxton said. “They want to see the stage five [home].”


There’s always an emotional trigger for the hoarding, according to Paxton.

“It may not be anything big. They might have just lost something important one day and that’s why they hold on to it,” he said. Usually, though, “something bad has happened and they’re making up for some kind of loss in their life.”

On the home front, the ICD offers a list of triggers for “situational disorganization” that occurs when a person is living amid clutter for a short period of time. Those triggers might include a recent death of a loved one or a recent divorce.

Paxton suggested that the employer start with a warning to the employee to clean up the work area.

“If it’s someone who just has too much paper on their desk, that’s a stage one. And you just say, ‘hey what’s up?’ ” If that doesn’t suffice, “you need to pull them in. If it’s that bad at the office, chances are it’s 10 times worse at home.”

And it’s a problem that observant employers and co-workers might be able to identify in its early stages.

“If you see someone who lost a spouse and she sits next to you at work and she goes shopping every day to compensate for the grief,” he said, “you need to let someone in her family know you’re worried about her.”

While he has no data to back up his hunch, Paxton suspects that there are associated absentee and health care issues for chronic hoarders unable to clean up their desk and in stages three, four or five at home.

“Every hoarder I work with is unable to get to work, often because they’re unorganized” and can’t get out the door. “It absolutely is a mental disorder,” he said, predicting that insurance-paid treatment and education about hoarding eventually will become a part of an employer’s fitness and wellness education offerings.

“It’s not a choice. No one wants to be this way.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

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