If you are one of the millions of adults living and working with bipolar disorder, you know how challenging it can be.
The mood episodes common with bipolar disorder can be embarrassing and disruptive at work.
Don’t give up! There are several steps you can take that will help you be successful at work and in your personal life.
Bipolar Disorder and Job Performance
Work is stressful, challenging and unpredictable. It’s not surprising that it can take a toll on you. Trying to manage the manic highs and depressive lows, along with the challenges of work can leave you feeling exhausted. This often has the unfortunate effect of making the bipolar disorder symptoms worse.
The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DSBA) conducted a survey in which they found that on average nine out of every 10 polled admitted that their struggles managing their illness had affected their performance at work. The survey also found that over half felt like their bipolar disorder was responsible for them being passed over for a promotion. Many also felt that it was forcing them to change jobs or switch careers more often than their colleagues.
If bipolar disorder is left untreated it can affect your ability to perform at work, and impact your relationships. There is hope for people with a bipolar disorder. Your health care providers can help you develop an effective treatment plan if you are willing to work closely with them, and take advantage of the help offered by your support network. With time, treatment and plenty of support you can learn how to balance challenges at work and manage your bipolar disorder symptoms.
To Tell or Not Tell
No matter what you decide it will be controversial. It is entirely your decision and everyone’s situation at work is different. A stigma still surrounds mental illness, and for some people this is enough to make them decide to keep their condition to themselves. There also aren’t any legal requirements stating that you must disclose information about your bipolar disorder to your manager or boss. Your medical information is personal and private, and many people find it difficult to share.
Deciding not to tell does have its disadvantages, and it might actually be contributing to your workplace stress. Informing your supervisor about your medical condition is better than letting your boss be surprised when you suddenly need to take time off for appointments or to manage your symptoms. Sometimes simply removing the stress of hiding your illness from your supervisor can help you be a productive and valued employee.1
Bipolar Disorder and Work Schedules
Jobs that are project oriented are common career choices for people with bipolar disorder. The short periods of intense work often seem like a good fit for the ups and downs associated with the illness, but this might not be necessarily true. Structured work with a regular schedule is often a better choice if you have bipolar disorder.
Shift work can disrupt your sleep schedule. This can also happen when you have to work long or irregular hours. These frequent interruptions to your schedule can make it difficult to manage your symptoms. When this happens you are usually less productive at work.
Keeping a regular schedule, at work and in your personal life, is always advisable when you have bipolar disorder. With structure comes predictability, and this minimizes any stimuli that could trigger a bipolar disorder symptom. The stability of a set schedule can also improve productivity and organization.
There might be times when even a structured schedule is too much to handle, but this doesn’t mean that you have to quit your job. Some companies might offer you more flexible hours or even the ability to work from home. You might want to also consider a part time schedule if you are finding it too difficult to work full time and manage your bipolar disorder symptoms.
Tips on Managing Bipolar Disorder at Work
If you have bipolar disorder you can still be successful at work. There are things you can do to help manage your symptoms. The first step is to be able to recognize your symptoms, this will make them easier to manage. Try to find opportunities at work to learn new things, and see challenges as experiences. When you make it through the tough times at work without your bipolar disorder symptoms appearing stop and congratulate yourself.
Here are a few other tips on managing bipolar disorder on the job.
- Take breaks often and regularly even if you don’t think you need one.
- Use relaxation techniques like deep and steady breathing.
- Listen to soothing music
- Walk around the block at lunch.
- Talk to your support network.
- Take time off for therapy and counseling.
Make healthy lifestyle changes
Exercising regularly, eating nutritious meals and getting plenty of sleep at night are all important parts of a healthy lifestyle. Making these changes will help you manage your bipolar disorder at work and in your personal life.
Even if you feel the most productive during a manic high, not taking your medication is never advisable. Irritability is common and this can affect your relationships with co-workers. When mania is left untreated it can also lead to depression.
Manage side effects
Your bipolar disorder medications can have side effects, the most common being drowsiness. Talk to your physician about changing the dosing time if you are often sleepy at work. Learn about other ways to eliminate or cope with side effects so you can stay productive.
Don’t ignore any symptoms
You can still have a manic or depressive episode even if you are following all of the steps outlined by your health care provider. If you feel an episode coming on it is important to act quickly. Take any steps needed to reduce stress. Once the episode has passed make sure you take enough time to fully recover. Returning to work part time is often advisable since it is important to pace yourself.
Staying focused can help you manage bipolar disorder symptoms and there are a few things that can help.
- Limit distractions in your workspace.
- Increase lighting.
- Use a white noise machine.
When you know where everything is there is one less reason for you to become stressed.
- Make a daily “to-do” list and check off each item as it is completed.
- Use a timer to remind you about specific tasks.
- Have written descriptions for a task whenever possible.
- Divide large projects into smaller, more manageable ones.
- Use an electronic organizer.
By building team skills you learn to accept that occasional conflict with others is a natural part of working together. What matters is how you handle these conflicts. Deal with any problems as soon as they appear. Remember that constructive criticism should not be taken personally. Be open to co-workers’ ideas, even when they don’t agree with yours.
Have a connection with people and a purpose
It is important to remember that your bipolar disorder doesn’t define you, and work shouldn’t be your entire life. You can make connections with people when you spend time with friends and family. Volunteering for a local charity can give you a purpose. Having a purpose and connecting with others can make it easier for you to control your symptoms.
The Law and Bipolar Disorder at Work
If you think that you are being discriminated against at work because of your bipolar disorder, there is help. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people from discrimination due to physical or mental conditions. Though it does not list the ones that it considers disabilities.
According to the ADA, “a disability is defined as impairment that significantly limits one or more major life activity.”,
If there is a past record of the limitations or it is already regarded as an impairment it can also be defined as a disability. Due to the complexity of this law it is always best to get advice from a professional or visit the U.S. Department of Justice ADA website.
Bipolar Disorder and Time Off
There might be times when your bipolar disorder causes you to miss work. You do have options other than using up your vacation and sick days. The Human Resources (HR) department will be able to help.
Some employer sponsored insurance policies cover a percentage of your salary when you are off of work due to a disability. In some instances you might also be eligible to receive Social Security Disability Insurance benefits,
It is important to know that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off a year, without the risk of losing their job. The U.S. Department of Labor website can provide you with additional information.
Knowing When to Make Changes in Your Job
If you have tried everything and still having trouble managing your bipolar symptoms, it might be time to start thinking about changing your job. Before you suddenly walk out the door, there are a few things to consider. Impulsive behavior is a common symptom of bipolar condition, and you don’t want this to be the only reason you decided to quit working. Here are a few other things to think about before making any career changes.
- Think about what you need from your job. Do you need to lighten the work load, have frequent scheduled breaks during the day or fewer hours.
- Before quitting it is important to think about your financial situation, and if you can afford to be out of work.
- Check to see if a potential employer offers disability insurance.
- If you are returning to work after a bipolar disorder episode it is important to take it slow. Don’t rush into any decisions you might regret later.
Studies have shown that people with bipolar disorder do change jobs more often than their colleagues, and in some cases it is necessary in order for them to manage their symptoms. This doesn’t always mean that it is the right decision for you. Sometimes knowing what you need from your job allows you to make the necessary changes so you can stay where you’re at.2
Dealing with Bipolar Disorder Stigma at Work
Even with the protection offered by the Americans with Disabilities Act you might find that some people are still treating you unfairly. There is still a stigma associated with mental illness, and this includes bipolar disorder. You might be told that it is “all in your head” or referred to as “crazy”. Even though this behavior generally stems from ignorance, it can still be hurtful and make your job miserable.
Sometimes educating co-workers and bosses about the disorder can prevent or resolve these problems, but this is not always the case. Remember that your rights are protected, and this includes against discrimination.
With the right treatment plan, plenty of support and by implementing some of these tips you can be successful at work and control your bipolar disorder.