Bipolar in the Workplace

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From personal experience, the work environment creates the biggest challenge for anyone trying to manage their Bipolar. With the highs of mania and lows of depression, it’s no small step. The stress and unpredictable challenges in the workplace can take a big toll on your mood and stability if not managed carefully.  Left untreated, this disorder can greatly affect relationships and job performance.

In a survey conducted by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) almost nine out of every 10 people with bipolar disorder said the illness had affected their job performance. More than half surveyed said they thought they had to changed jobs or careers more often than others. And many felt they were either given less responsibility or passed up for promotions.

On my end, I’ve been with my job going on 9 years, so since I was sixteen. I went untreated and pretty much unaware of my disorder until I was 19. Three years I worked for this company during my mood swings, drug addiction, and chaotic impulsive life and was still able to get promoted and build up a very reputable standing with my coworkers and supervisors. While I understand how some people have more severe cases, at least with me I was able to still put on the persona of “I got this” and had determination to succeed. Looking back, towards the end of the first three years I do see how mania affected my job performance and organizational skills to reach the status I was at. Over the next four years after being treated with medication I could tell a huge difference in my consistency. I was more focused, my goals were clear, and my working relationships were strong. It wasn’t until my depression had returned that I could notice a big fall in my job performance. I was forgetful and unorganized, I wasn’t reaching my goals and my stress levels were through the roof. I had a hard time concentrating and honestly didn’t know why I was there. This cycle is something I still battle with at work. Whether I’m on or off medication, I go from my normal proactive confident state, to my depressed and distracted state (back and forth) and it weighs heavily on the environment I’m in and the people I’m surrounded by. I’ve been moved around constantly, I’ve worked with a variety of teams and different personalities, and my biggest struggle was always trying to manage my mood without it being affected by my surroundings. Each time I was thrown into a bad situation I would go in positive and determined to concur but after so long my depression would take over and my performance would decrease. I’ve been written up before and have had to take time off of work because of my illness. For me I’ve found that being resilient is the best quality I can have. I’ve accepted my ups and downs and that I’m not perfect, but as long as when I’m down I’m still trying to move forward I’m able to remain focused on my job and what’s best for me.

The biggest issue anyone with a mental disorder has in the workplace is the “to tell, or not to tell” question. The stigma surrounding this illness makes it especially difficult and intimidating to even think about. You really don’t need to tell anyone at work that you have bipolar disorder. But in certain circumstances, it can be helpful to have a conversation with your supervisor. Examples would be having to explain to your boss why you need time off work for lots of appointments. Being open about it may be better than having your boss guess about or be surprised by your absences. – At one point I was having therapy sessions 1-2 times a week with monthly psychiatric visits.

So we face a basic decision: To tell the boss about the condition or remain silent. David J. Miklowitz, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado-Boulder explained people with bipolar disorder usually adopt one of four disclosure tactics:

  • Tell everyone at work about the condition, including the boss and coworkers.
  • Tell one or more trusted co-workers who don’t hold positions of authority.
  • Don’t tell anyone, but admit to having bipolar disorder on work-sponsored health insurance claims, opening the possibility that the employer may find out.
  • Don’t tell anyone at work, and don’t use employer-provided health insurance to cover the costs of treatment for the condition.

I’ve gone through all of these tactics except for the last one. After first getting my diagnoses I was terrified to tell anyone. I kept quiet to everyone except for my husband at the time, 2 close friends, and my mom. At work I just focused on how to manage it and took notice on how things would affect me.  Like my work schedule because it changes all the time, when I would take my breaks, and how different tasks or problems would affect my stress levels and mood. The first thing I did was list it as a disability with my employer. I already had health insurance through them so I knew it wouldn’t affect my rates or coverage, and I was comfortable with it being in the company’s database. That way if anything were to happen I could say I made them aware. After a while I finally came to terms with telling my boss. Luckily for me I had been working there for so long and had great working and personal relationships with many of my supervisors that I felt comfortable telling them without judgment. I would never tell anyone I thought wouldn’t be able to handle it or would use this information against me and my success. The few people I told were supportive and understood. I think after explaining it to them they started to understand why I worked the way I did. Going from 100% to 70% and back to 100% over and over. I’ve told some coworkers at my same level of authority but not many. And to my knowledge it hasn’t been gossiped about or used against me.

If you do decide you want to tell your boss or coworkers about you illness you must be very careful in how you go about doing it. Disclosing your condition can be risky, but if you believe your boss has your best interests at heart, talking openly about your condition is a shot worth taking.

Here are two links I’ve found with great guidelines and questions to think about if you’re planning on telling your employer:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-equation/201001/bipolar-disorder-work-dont-ask-dont-tell

http://www.bipolarcentral.com/articles/articles-407-1-Tell-Your-Employer-You-Have-Bipolar-Disorder.html

The advantage of disclosing diagnoses of bipolar disorder is that an employee can ask for reasonable accommodations in the office such as a change in work hours or environment. However the stigma of mental illness is real and many people are treated differently by employers and coworkers because of their illness. Leading to the disadvantages of being open about your illness, like being passed over for a promotion or demoted. Many employers don’t understand that bipolar disorder doesn’t necessarily inhibit a person’s career. And under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) it’s illegal to discriminate against a person with a disability as long as the person can perform the essential functions of the job.

And please, please, PLEASE, if you’re interviewing for a job DO NOT disclose any medical information. I’ve read some articles that express doing this in interviews so your future boss is aware of the condition. But that’s the best way to get turned down or passed over for a job because of the stigma that’s attached with it. It is not required to tell your employer about your condition before you’re hired, and it is illegal for a boss or supervisor to ask you personal information about your mental health.

Here are some tips for managing bipolar at work:

The biggest one, you’re schedule- Most people with bipolar disorder find themselves seeking project-oriented careers, where the work is intense for short periods. Even though this seems to fit the ups and downs of the illness, it’s often better to seek more structured work with a regular schedule. Long or irregular work hours can wreak havoc with your stability and job performance. Unpredictable or frequent disruptions to your sleep schedule can have a destabilizing effect on your moods. I know I would never be able to work an overnight job, or an early riser job just based on my sleep schedule alone.

Sometimes full time work can feel too challenging. In that case, working part time, from home or asking your supervisor about flexible hours or a self- paced workload can be an option.

Stress management- Try these following tips at home as well J

  • Take regular breaks- before you think you really need them.
  • Try a relaxation exercise, such as deep breathing
  • Take a walk around the block
  • Listen to relaxing music
  • Call a friend
  • Take time off for counseling

Make other healthy lifestyle changes- Besides managing your stress well, it’s important to exercise daily, get enough sleep, and eat nutritious meals balanced throughout the day.

Take your medication as prescribed- If you tend to forget your medications, it can help to set a time or reminder on your phone or computer, or by getting a weekly or daily pill container. When I was up to four medications 5 times daily, I use to have a weekly container and reminders set in my phone with times on when to take them.

Keep side effects at bay- Does your medication make you sleepy or jittery at work? You’re doctor may be able to change your dosing time or amount to help reduce drowsiness or other side effects at work. And make sure to note if you should take your medication with or without food to reduce nausea or upset stomach.

Don’t ignore symptoms- Even when you’re doing everything right, you may still have an episode of depression or mania. If you feel an episode of depression or mania coming on, act quickly and take extra steps to control your stress. It’s important after an episode to take the time you need to recover. If you’ve taken time off of work, pace yourself as you return.

Maintain concentration- See if it’s possible to try any of these ideas:

  • Reduce distraction in your work area.
  • Use white noise or environmental sound machines.
  • Increase natural lighting or work with full-spectrum lighting.

Stay organized- (my favorite one and the one that I’ve seen the most positive outcome with) Not just bipolar people, but many people use tips like these to stay more organized:

  • Make daily to-do checklists and check off items as they’re completed.
  • Use electronic organizers.
  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks. If possible, focus on one project at a time.
  • Ask about having written job task instructions.
  • Use a watch with an hourly alarm to remind you about specific tasks.

Develop team skills- It helps to accept that both you and others have limitations and that conflict is a natural part of working with others. It’s how you manage these conflicts that can make a difference. Rather than letting them build up, deal with the problems as they happen. At the same time, stay open to other people’s ideas and try not to take constructive criticism personally.

Make connections with people and purpose- It helps to remind yourself that you’re not defined by your illness and you’re work is not your whole life. Focus on your life outside of work too. Spending time with family and friends, planning get togethers, and having hobbies all may help you find a purpose.

Also have a support system lined up for both good and bad times. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (www.dbsalliance.org) can help you find a local support group.

It’s also important to access your skills, qualities, and life experiences when you’re looking to start a new job or perhaps need to make changes at you’re present job. Asking yourself questions to help get a clear understanding of what the best work environment is for you. Examples would be:

  • Can you work better alone than with a large group?
  • Do you need clear direction from others, rather than being self-directed?
  • Do you need more breaks?
  • What time of day are you most productive?
  • Do you need a different kind of job than you have currently or have had in the past?

Take your time to make big job changes. Talk to your family, health care providers and your therapist before you make the decision. They will help you find the right option.

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