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Keeping a Job When You Have Bipolar Disorder

Many people with bipolar disorder hold down jobs, just like everyone else. We get up, swear in traffic, survive on coffee and rant about our bosses behind their backs.

But people with bipolar disorder or another mental illness have special challenges when it comes to work. We’re sick more often, we need time off for medical appointments and stress affects us more than your average person. Here are a few tips on handling work and bipolar disorder.

1. Don’t tell.

This first piece of advice is contentious, I know, but I recommend not telling anyone at work that you have bipolar disorder – not even your boss – without a very good reason. That piece of information is terribly “juicy” and telling one person means the information will eventually crawl its way around the office until everyone knows. And whether one person knows or everyone does, you will likely find out what stigma, discrimination and prejudice are all about. People will start to look at you differently and interpret your actions differently. People will stop recommending you for projects and you might even get passed over for a promotion. And that’s all assuming that more overt, illegal acts of discrimination and hate don’t happen. Is this a worst case scenario? Maybe. But it’s a real one that many people have faced and I recommend not risking it unless you really have to.

(If you do need to tell your boss, look into filing for a protection as a person with a disability. This can protect your from overt acts of discrimination.)

2. Work hard.

Perhaps it goes without saying but you should work hard at work. You should strive to work harder than others. Be on time. Turn in projects by the deadline. Create stellar work. Why? Because you are going to need more time off than others for appointments and for sick leave and you need your boss to remember you for your hard work and not your absenteeism.

3. Don’t stress.

Try not to let work stress you out. When you’re stressed you raise levels of hormones in your body and when you do this for prolonged spans of times you feel sicker and your immune system becomes comprised. Then you have two problems – you have the flu and you have bipolar disorder. Learn to meditate, practice yoga, do relaxation exercises or just go for a run.

4. Take the time you need.

Yup, you want your boss to think of you as a good employee but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the sick time you need and that you’ve earned. When you’re sick just admit it and stay home. It’s okay. It’ll be much better for you in the long run than trying to “power through” and making yourself worse for weeks or even months to come.

5. Be discrete.

When you need to take time off, understand that you don’t need to say why you’re sick, only that you are. It’s perfectly okay to need to take time for a psychiatrist’s appointment in many workplaces but you don’t need to tell people that’s what you’re doing. When you need to take time off because you’re too depressed, you don’t need to tell anyone that’s why you’re staying home – you just need to say that you’re sick. The details are your business.

Working with Bipolar

Holding down a job with bipolar disorder is entirely possible. You can achieve and succeed at work and bipolar doesn’t have to stop you but it may be more difficult than for others and it may take more of a toll on you. But following these tips can make it just a little bit easier.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at the Bipolar Burble, her blog.

Author: Natasha Tracy

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124 thoughts on “Keeping a Job When You Have Bipolar Disorder”

  1. Firstly I’m really glad you posted this article because its such an important issue.
    Secondly I am going to contend most of it.
    For number 1, “Don’t tell” – there are some workplace cultures where you might want to adhere to this; but working in this kind of environment all the time is stressful, which contradicts another of your points. For me, the ideal workplace has a different kind of culture to it, but I suppose these golden workplaces are hard to find. If I can’t be myself at work, I don’t go there, because it’s too stressful.
    Number 2.Work hard. I always work hard but I don’t feel that I have to somehow compensate for my disability. The bipolar tendency has also produced a number of good qualities in me.
    Number 3. Don’t stress. This is excellent advice, but if you are obeying number 1 and 2 it is a bit hard to obey number 3. Also psychology can help with stress reduction.
    Number 4. Excellent advice that I wish I had followed many times in the past.
    Number 5. Be discrete. I’m with you on this one even though I usually opt for disclosure. Actually it’s very important if you are going to disclose, to be discreet.
    The idea is that you can control the way people perceive you by admitting the bipolar on your own terms, in your own way. That way it becomes a small and insignificant part of who you are, rather than something that’s scary and juicy to your coworkers.

    Anyway that’s my take on it and I realise this won’t work for everyone in every industry.

  2. Thank you for this article, it is a very important topic.

    To tell or not to tell is a huge dilemma. I think it can be better to talk about it, depending on the employer/work environment and the extent of the bipolar symptoms. Some (not all) workplaces have policies in place to support those with mental health issues and some (not all) employers are understanding. If they’re aware of the issues, they can support you better. Also keeping it a secret is hard work and very stressful, which makes it worse.

    On the other hand there can be a lot of stigma which can be harmful.

    I think there is no definite approach on whether to tell or not to tell. I depends on the individual circumstances. Sometimes it can be better to talk about it. The only way we can reduce the stigma is having more people talking about it. If you can and feel comfortable about it, I say go for it.

  3. Great article, I cannot agree more with the first point of don’t tell. I’ve made the mistake of being honest in a previous job and it cost me dearly. Now the only people who know about my illness are my immediate family and even some of them have changed in their attitudes, their treatment of me and generally walk on eggshells around me. A favourite comment I received was “eh, so like, will you be like, one of those people that goes on random killing sprees. Charming

  4. I told my boss I had bipolar and was a bit “different” after the first 2 weeks I was moved into his team. He rolled with it and didn’t treat me differently at all.

    However, when I had a bipolar episode from stress from working 80 hours a week for an interminable stretch of time, I got really negative and bitchy and had a harder time than usual relating to others and although the assignment got done, I had alienated everyone I worked with.

    Here’s where not being treated differently for having bipolar comes into play. Judge for yourself whether this is good or bad FOR YOU. After I burnt so many bridges with people with unprofessional behavior, the results from the post-mortem were grave. Every single person I had worked with except for one wanted me fired, and my manager and his manager were trying to figure out what to do. So I took some leave due me and let them figure out what to do with me while I recovered (yes, my job was protected under the FMLA).

    Well, I had been a highly valuable employee up to that point, so they decided to put me on a PIP. I emphasized that I didn’t need a PIP, that I was better after my leave and that my psychiatrist and I had worked out a plan to address any episodes before they got as big. Their answer was, We don’t know whether you’re having a bipolar episode or just fucking up, so we’re putting you on a PIP to find out. They made it clear that the reason they put me on a PIP instead of firing me was because they thought I could be a productive, professional employee, but they wanted to be sure.

    How could I blame them for that? My anti-discrimination attorney that I retained thinks it was discrimination, but I have a different take on it than he does–my management chain is uncertain and they want evidence to back up my assertion that I can still do my job. Of course, that adds a layer of stress to my work, which is never good, but at least they didn’t fire me outright as most were recommending. That would have been more stressful than what I am currently going through, given that I would have to try to get back on SSDI for a while and manage a discrimination suit and contend with the collateral damage to my career for suing an employer.

    This is conjecture, but maybe disclosing actually helped, since there was uncertainty as to whether I was an asshole or just bipolar, which saved me from being fired outright.

    In short, disclosing that I have bipolar didn’t seem to help when I had an episode, but it didn’t hurt either, because I potentially have grounds to sue if something goes wrong and I fail the PIP. So I would dispute the blanket advice of not disclosing, unless you work with a bunch of serious assholes who punch babies and strangle kittens or are simply a bunch of snarks, in which case why aren’t you looking for a better job?

    My $0.02.

    Best, Kris

  5. @Kris. Thanks for sharing this. The general consensus seems to lean towards nondisclosure as the bad outweighs the good, but it is helpful to hear of experiences like yours. I guess it is a matter of putting out your feelers, but this doesn’t help unless you know your diagnosis in the first place, and you’re not having difficulties as a result of bipolar symptoms. Still, I hesitate to see it as a good thing overall.

    @Sarah, I think you brought up some good points:

    #1 – that some industries are more understanding than others is true. Truer still is some people are simply more open minded than others – and usually it’s because they know someone who suffers from some form of mental illness. I recall one of the commenters sharing her experiences with stigma in the mental health field. In fact, she said it was the worst stigma she had ever experienced. Something is definitely wrong with this picture. It is like being a bus driver asleep at the wheel. Or a cop who is trigger happy in the line of duty. But I sort of get it. I worked with developmentally disabled kids for a time and what you read and what you have to deal with is different. My manager’s advice was to distance emotionally – otherwise, it will affect you and you will burn out quickly. You can really apply this to any service field, I guess.

    Man, where is this magical golden place you mentioned? And can I take my dog to work? Just kidding…

    #2 – Thanks for pointing out that the bipolar tendency has some good qualities. Very true, and when not ill, I can definitely remember them, but it is nice that someone throws it out there as a reminder.

    #3 – Urgh! This has gotten to me at some point in my life. I’ve done yoga 4 days a week, biked and walked to work, meditated some (but never really got good at it – it’s not easy!). It does alleviate the stress, but bipolar can still drop you on your rear, so it is hard to hear this in the context of my current life.

    #4 – this one I am still learning to do. My parents are WWII survivors who lost family members on both sides so it is hard to use an illness as an excuse to take it easy. I tend to gloss it over and try and power thru.

    #5 – sadly, sometimes this is not possible. Being discreet is not an option when really symptomatic. It is hard to be in this place.

    Thanks for the good perspective.

  6. I agree Judy, the mental health industry can be one of the worst for stigma. It does depend on if the workplace culture is a ‘them and us’ situation. It may be disadventageous to view your mentall ill patient as a person, if the policies of your workplace frequently abuse the human rights of the inpatients.

  7. I AM BIPOLAR, Depressed, PTSD and anxiety.
    My father passed away in August of 2012, I fell into ” the black hole”, missed a lot of work, hit a deer, car in shop needing a new engine, no money, got evicted, no where to stay, then got fired! After coming clean to my employer on the advice of my psychiatrist! My employer, THE UNITED WAY OF GREATER KC!!!!!
    I finally got the courage to tell them what was going on in my life and they fired me!
    Now, if you are familiar with this non profit organization, I would be the campaign poster child! They never offered me any type of help. I am still in shock, needless to say, I am so sick that I spend most of my time in bed, numb, feeling worthless, alone and living in a transitional homeless shelter. Really?, or is this just a dream?
    Any comments?
    Sola, Milagro

  8. Hmmm…sounds more like a prison. I wonder why these people don’t just get out of the industry? Obviously they’re of no help, and their frustration builds to the point of becoming monsters.

    A pity, really – as they have become the nonhumans they project in their patients. Obviously, you’ve had bad experiences in such a place?

  9. @milagro. I wish I knew what to say about your situation, but hearing such things leaves me speechless. The people that work there are such hypocrites…
    I would never donate money to them and I hope no one does either.


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