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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.

This entry was posted in Coping, Depression, How Others See Bipolar, Impact of Bipolar, The Price of Publicly Being Bipolar, Understanding Mental Illness and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

72 Responses to Keeping a Job When You Have Bipolar Disorder

  1. Raquel says:

    i have bipolar I, and suffered a lot personally and professionaly, and my opinion is never tell anything to anyone that they don’t really need to know. I learned to put up a front, to control the behaviours so that people can’t tell what is going on, If things get bad i have to escuse myself. It’s difficult, i get really nervous around people, but can’t really Trust anyone. If you have a disease everything you do that doesn’t fit the expectations is labeled “crazy”, it’s just one more thing people can throw at you. On the other hand is hard not to be yourself, it’s like i need to create various layers to deal with various people, even the ones you love, especially those you hurt… This was my survival instintc strategie to avoid another hospitalization. I take my meds, always, and since they finally found the right one i never had any big problem, just some bad/worse days. Although it Neves goes away, that feeling that something is not quite normal… I worked in several places, always had problems with co-workers. Now i finally can work part time in a more protected environment (famíly company), i was unemployed for 4 years… But my effords to control these behaviours paid off, now i regained some dignity and trustworthiness you lose when you are labeled “crazy”. It’s really hard, but with some efford and luck you, who also share the effects of This illness, Will also find positive things in your Life, and be happy…. This disease Opened up my eyes to some very important things about my Life, it’s not all bad….

  2. sarah says:

    SHERI, I could have written the above comment. I am a RN and have had two employers treat me tremendously awful as well as ignoring my human rights. Although I filed complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that does not help the devastation of having all my “friends” and coworkers turn on me. I had been employed at one place for 12 years and thought they were a huge part of my life. The second place I was there for 4 years but it was such an accepting environment I told my manager (a RN) and my employers (6 Doctors!!! and I again was isolated and asked to resign. I can relate to your feelings about loss of confidence and second guessing yourself. I wish I had the answer. I have used up my savings and feel I can’t go back to nursing but am not qualified for anything else. One small thing that helped me a little was that there was one Doctor who valued my work at a previous job and not only told me but stood up to another Dr who disliked me. That helped validate that I have been a good nurse and the perception of other employers was not entirely true.
    You are not a failure, your employers and friends let you down. You are so right if we were physically sick we would get flowers and phone calls. I hope you find what you need.

  3. Jake says:

    I have bipolar II and GAD. I live with my grandma watching TV all day. I have quit every job I have ever had due to not being able to fill my hours of my contracts.

    I’m 26 years old and don’t know how to be an adult. Sive always been too messed up to learn how to manage my own life.

    Now I just count down the days.

  4. Mindy says:

    Jake, I know how you feel!! I am 25 and I cannot hold a job due to the fact that I have bipolar II, with and anxiety and panic attacks on top of it. The longest I’ve held a job has been this one I’m at right now, and April will make a year. My apartment lease is over at the end of March and I have to move back in with my family due to another health issue(I have to have shoulder surgery). So I will not be able to keep this job either. I’ve tried telling my employers and not telling them, either way it didn’t make a difference. They looked at it as I called off “too much”. I’d have dr notes for 95% of my call offs because I knew they’d want one since being sick was the reason I called off. Meds do not seem to help, they either make me literally pass out, gain weight, or turn me into a hyperactive person. There is no middle ground that I can find. I personally feel like a failure because my family doesn’t understand that I am trying so much harder than they see. All they see is that I’m 25, living with family and “mooching” because I don’t have a job :(

  5. James says:

    @ jake & mindy..

    I also have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety and feel exactly the same.

    Ive had several jobs since leaving school, all of which have been full time
    positions that i have decided to leave, either because i cant handle the constant stress/anxiety or have had grandiose ideas of how i could “better myself” (these never work and cause me even more stress), I honestly feel lost after 10+ years of trying to be a normal person.

    I have no idea whats next for me, im under a psych and am on
    medication which dosent really seem to be working (depakote). They keep adding anti-d’s which always make me manic. The only thing that actually calms me is diazepam and im only allowed 4 of those a month.
    (Thats 2 days worth for me, 10mg tablets).

    I hate the sitiation im in, trying to pay a mortgage on my own and not knowing wether my job is safe due to my mental illness and the stigma surrounding it.
    coming home to a cold and empty house dosent help my moods either.

    Guess i just came here to rant, so sorry for that, i have another psych appointment in a couple of hours. :/

    Stay strong folks!

    I guess i just posted here because other people’s posts made me feel a little glimer of hope, try to stay strong everyone. :)

  6. Ci n says:

    Wow. I guess I never realized my disorder was my employment issue. I work for like 4 mo the than I get let go for some stupid reason . How do we stop the cycle I can’t do this . I need money to live

  7. martha says:

    I suffer from bipolar and ptsd. All the jobs I’ve had I unfortunately told every employer. I get to work on time but when I’m manic I’m alot to handle and then of course I become very antisocial. Very extreme. I thought I was obligated for some stupid reason to tell them. Thank goodness I’m at a job right now that appears to understand. My word of advice don’t tell it will make you more stressed out and hate yourself more for having a mental illness.

  8. Renita says:

    I STRONGLY believe it is NOT a good thing to tell people, especially your employer about your struggles with mental illness. The working world can be very competitive these days and stigma still abounds. Unfortunately the media often fuels this stigma by reporting that a person who commited some terrible crime did so because of a mental illness. This tends to instill fear. People, especially employers are uncomfortable about what they don’t understand and they don’t like to take risks. Even though there are laws around discrimation in the workplace, etc managers, etc will still find ways around them, ie by “downsizing”, excluding. I work for an enforcement agency and I have also worked in Human Resources. Believe me when I tell you, they will always find ways to skirt the law when it suits them. Poverty will always exist and so will the stigma around mental illness. The best we can hope for is to reduce it by our BEHAVIOUR.

  9. Patrice says:

    I never tell at a job interview but have found telling the boss when I have to and advising the whole workplace stops the rumours and provides me with support when I need it.
    It also helps not to create excuses as to why I was sick eg migraine diarrhoea.
    I got sick of changing jobs years ago so I stick around and take support I need.

  10. Kaykay says:

    @Jake …OMG u guys i have this exact problem… I am 24 and have had atleast 50jobs since the age of 17 quit most of them for no reason other then my stress levels going through the roof or my negative thoughts over powering me…

    Ive never had a job longer then 3months and actually am UNdiagnosed bipolar. I know i am bi polar but am too scared to see a doctor. I dont want to be drugged out on meds everyday. I do take Lithium Orotate which u can get online helps with my moods but still the effects arent the greatest…

    Ive just lost my partner who ive been verbally and physically abusive too in the past due to my bad temper and raging fits. I dont really have contact with my family either ( Physically abusive relationship that i want no part of ) ..

    Ive just quit another job, lost my family, am in a country where i am not eligible for ANY government funding and on top of that have this bi polar, rage mental disorder which i hate..

    I would rather be dead.

  11. Renita says:

    Hello KayKay

    If you really WANT help, it’s out there. I hope you don’t give up. Honestly what have you got to lose? I’ll be thinking about you tonight. Take care

  12. Meg says:

    to everyone that has posted, it breaks my heart to read the frustration you deal with on a daily, weekly, yearly basis. my boyfriend has bipolar disorder and i come to this website for support. it is hard to me to watch him suffer, and i know it is even more difficult for those of you have the disorder. i know sometimes words can be empty, so im not sure what to say, but i just felt compelled to write on here. although i feel like it many times, my best advice is dont give up….

  13. M says:

    I was hospitalised 5 years ago for a severe depressive episode. The details are not important.
    Since then, I’ve completed my bachelor’s degree and held down an important job for 3 years with no sick days.
    It is achievable. You have to believe in yourself and you have to want to help yourself. If you give yourself the excuse that you’re sick, then you will always find a way, a reason, to quit because you are able to justify it. Tell yourself that you are in control of yourself and that you are capable. You’re an important person and deserve the accolades of a respectable job as much as, if not more, than a healthy person.
    You will feel great feelings you have never felt before when you achieve goals that you never believed possible.
    And of course, we all have those bad periods, but you need to persevere. Studies show that a healthy person who is unemployed longer than 12 weeks can develop depression. Imagine what being unemployed can do to somebody who is already ill!

    You can do it! :)

  14. Nandi says:

    I’m fine, but I’m bipolar. I’m was on five medications, and I used to take medication two times a day. This constantly puts me in touch with the illness I have. I’m never quite allowed to be free of that for a day. But when I came to Korea i defaulted my medication for five months, It’s not easy for me everyday I’m on fire and paranoid.

  15. Dee Roberts says:

    “M”….Congratulations ! But shame on you ! Every person and their illness is different. You just came off a someone who has never experienced a mental disease…You know the “normal” people who say shit like “Chin up” “Smile and bear it” “Pull up your boot straps”….What you just did was reinforce the failure and shame these people already feel !!!!! Oh look at me I am a success and so can you be , if you just… TRY !!!!

    Maybe THEY cannot !!!!
    Maybe their meds, or additional illness make it unbearable for them….
    I have been diagnosed with Borderline, Bi-Polar, ADHD, Clinical Depression, SAD and anxiety…
    I have at 47, finally found the perfect cocktail…but I still can’t work !
    Anxiety is my biggest demon and is so bad I have a prescription dog…I am a workaholic, and am very good with people when I expect to interact…but I can’t be around people at large or the noise the outside World puts out.
    Do you think an employer would allow me to keep my dog or a friend by my side while I work ? Because that is the only way I can even run into the store for more then a few minutes…
    I don’t think so…
    I went to the store just the other day for milk and pancake mix…I had my dog and her Rx with me….I got hassled first by a cashier for having her there, then after I got her OK to be there, I got hassled by the manager about having her in the cart …..SERIOUSLY ????
    Her job is to calm me, that comes from petting her, she’s a 7lb Maltese…I can’t pet her if she is on the floor….!!!
    Please tell me how my little CLEAN Maltese who 90% of the time doesn’t even touch the floor, then cleans her feet after, is not acceptable, when a dirty diapered, snotty, sick, dirty faced, child is allowed… ????
    People with canes, crutches, wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, etc, are not questioned or hassled, so why am I ???? She is all of these things to me, and as necessary !!!!
    Seriously when I am at the store behind the old lady with the oxygen tank buying a carton of cigarettes , I want her hassled and questioned , someone could trip over that tank or blow the place up , because if she is smoking she obviously doesn’t need the tank, she can leave it in the car as, with all of the RX dogs… !!!!
    This is a 10 mins stop at the store, how well do you think I could manage a job ?

  16. Renita says:

    Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is erroneously known as having the “poorest postal code in Canada’, yet I have heard of a number of ‘success’ stories come out of that place. A lot of these residents suffer from some form of mental illness. A lot of them have been beaten down by life. Every day they exist on this planet they are survivors, that in itself is a success story. Some have even learned to thrive. Your life, in part, is what you make of it.

    To Dee who says no one would hire her… ever considered SELF employment? Learn to capitalize on your strengths, we all have them. You don’t necessarily need a college degree… What are you passionate about? If having a job is important to you be creative about it. Find a way to work from home if that’s easier for you. If not having a job suits you then stop comparing yourself to others who do have one…
    We ALL (those with & without a mental illness) struggle in life. That’s just the way it…

  17. Jess says:

    So you know, it is appropriate to tell your employer that you have bipolar disorder because it can impair you at work, especially if you work under a license (like an RN). You are lawfully allowed to inform your employer without recourse or stigma. If you feel like you are being stigmatized you can indefinitely take the agency to court. I’m confused hat you offer this advice because a lot of people should know in case something happens where you can’t come to work or have to take leave.

  18. Erin says:

    All of you twenty somethings that cannot hold a job I AM THERE with you I am twenty five and so far jack of all trades master of none. I am really beginning to feel like I will never find anywhere to fit in. My father was hospitilized last week with complications from diabetes and this brings up alot of issues, as I was constantly worried about his health before that. It doesn’t help that I do not have anyone to turn to for support at this time. I have been irritable and distant since he first went in and even though he is okay and out of the hospital I am still dealing with some emotions that come out as anger. I was written up at work this week because of my snappiness, my anger…argumentative, even bullying (she said that wasn’t the right word yet failed to come up with an appropriate one) I am a genuinely nice caring person 99% of the time but with all this on my mind I have not been able to fake the nice. I am the furthest thing from a bully. They said that coworkers were scared I would possibly harm them physically if i were to be angered…which I find hilarious at first, but really it’s quite sad. That is not who I am and because I am so nice so much of the time it is not okay with the rest of the world when I just need some time to wrestle with my emotions and my mind. For the first time I’ve slipped into a depression and it is not the end of the world. I am okay with these awful feelings because I know they need to be felt and delt with. But nobody else is okay with it. And that’s the worst part. I did tell my boss I was diagnosed bipolar and unmedicated (i’ve taken up yoga, meditation to combat these and they make all the difference, until now) and I am really truly regretting my honesty. I want to be an open book I love who I am but it really seems that no one else is able to see a me worth loving at this point. I am never gonna find a job where I can fit in. And that is very very sad. I have a great work ethic. I love to work hard. But nobody will ever see that they only see all my symptoms whether I tell them about being bipolar or not. Just got off the phone with the insurance company and it will cost me $70 each visit to see a therapist. just to talk. not even prescribe. that is just about the worst news I coulda got just now. I thought that would be saving grace. But when you’re 25 and cant keep a job and pay rent utilities and phone and insurance and flipping support yourself 100% you really can’t afford $70 every freaking time. I’m gonna stop now. I’m mentally exhausted.

  19. Renita says:

    I’ve been in debt most of my adult life due in part to undiagnosed bipolar disorder (officially diagnosed and medicated in 2011). In the past I was able to go to the bank of mom, but not anymore. I went to a non profit credit counselor today and came back emotionally exhausted. I have a full time job (only 3 years away from being able to retire with a full pension) but there is absolutely no way as a single person I’ll be able to live on a pension with the debt I’m carrying. So the only other option is to take on a part time job. When I come home from work now I’m so exhausted that I just fall into bed. I can’t imagine finding the energy to take on another job. I’m so depressed

  20. Sarah says:

    I believe I have been bipolar my whole life based on my behaviors, boredom in jobs (though I did keep one job for 5 years).
    However, at 30 I moved countries and around 7 months later when I was pregnant I got a stomach infection and have not been the same since. What was mild and easy to manage turned into extreme depression with head fog alternating with anxiety and irritability.
    Almost 3 years on and I am finally getting a little better, I have a lot of somatic pain and some which I belive is not somatic but am having difficulty getting a diagnosis for and have finally got a job. For me I have to work, it is the difference between be being in debilitating depression constantly mixed with irritability or instead being mildly manic (hypo) the majority of the time with a little depression occasionally. The second of the two is much better for me.
    As for medication all of the bipolar medication has such horrific side effects that I am petrified to take them. I tried lamictal for two months and stated getting odd rashes so was taken off it, psych wanted me to take depakote but the warning of fatal liver problems scared the hell out of me and so does the thought of kidney issues from lithium. Rather try and get through the moods without meds!!! Health anxiety+bipolar+homesickness+somatic symptoms+other pain = hell. For me keeping myself busy is the only choice.

  21. Renita says:

    Working full time at one job is hard enough but the thought of having to take on a second job to pay down a mountain of debt and save something for retirement is overwhelming to me. There is also a strong possibility this year that I could be laid off after 33 years of working full time for the same employer (I don’t have a university education and this job is all I’ve ever known since I was 18 years old…). I feel so run down already from so much worrying (I also have Generalized Anxiety Disorder) that it’s starting to affect my immune system (I’ve had two colds in the last 3 months). Taking on an extra job is also going to severely impact my sleep which is not good for someone with a mood disorder…

  22. Amber says:

    I am 24 years old and have a daughter who is two years old. I was diagnosed as a teenager and have suffered heavily. after my baci died i went downhill for about a year or 2. I was heavy into drugs, i stayed in bed all day just sniffing coke and knitting. I also did a lot of cutting and cheated on my boyfriend multiple times and i dont even know why i did it. half the time i didnt even like the guy but i wanted that high feeling of getting off and the rush knowing you could get caught and have consequences and actually hoped to get hit or slapped. I was in a pretty dark place. Than my new boyfriend wanted to see me happy and before we were even dating he took really good care of me. The first thing he did was take me off all my medication including my birth control. He only feed me fresh fruits and vegetables and used as little processed food as possible in the meals he made me eat (well i was 90lbs). I myself started to feel better and was able to put myself in a more manic mode. i started doing yoga and meditation. On my harder times I had my man and my families support and i even had timers and I made myself do the tasks or I’d take away my own computer time or my own knitting time to go on a walk instead. It was also really important for me to learn how to retrain my thoughts in my hard times. everytime i started feeling down about myself, I’d pull out my happy book. It was a scrapbook of my family and my accomplishments. I also had my boyfriend help me and i started to stop the bad thoughts and instead replace them with more positive thoughts. an example would be if i was feeling like i couldnt make it to the end of the day and i knew i had to complete this task, I would be thinking that there’s no way I have time to do it or ill just mess it up or it doesnt matter no one will care. I’d try and catch myself as i started to think these thoughts and would push myself to think Hey i did this the other day and i was just as unmotivated as today. i can do this! Id literally use my thoughts to “Pump” myself up. I started working after i was done breastfeeding my first and only daughter, Ariana. I now work at an elementary school and I can say I dont do any of these things. I told the person at my interview that i deal with bipolar and i was done with letting it rule my life. i told her when im in my manic stage, i will probably be doing extra work because id be so hyper, Than i told her i do get sad and unmotivated and Id probably do extra work to keep myself moving. she appericated my honesty and was curious in what some of the symptoms are and how i treated it. she was impressed by how I was honest and to the point. she also liked how i was knowledgeable about my disorder and how i dealt with it. I also dont work hard at work. i take my time and make sure im doing everything right. I never rush or overwork for attention. instead i thrive on staying consistent. I only do what i can do during my dark times. for example at work i do the dishes after lunch and the students leave the dishes are done and i cant start putting out trays right away or else the food is cold so one day during my dark time, I stood there and not moving makes matters worst because moving again is really harder than just keep going so i went and helped the janitor wipe down the tables. so after that everyday i wipe down the tables. well sometimes they want me doing extra cleaning just once a month and just wipe down my dishwashing station (the walls, behind things, the sponge holder, ect.) I save these things for when im feeling really good days. working hard all the time is much more stressful because theres no way during bad times ur going to able to keep up with it. now people are noticing a change. now u have to tell them and how are they going to feel finding out later? And you shouldnt take time off just because your depressed. The best thing to do when you are depressed is getting up and moving around and being around people. it literally will lift your spirits no matter how hard it is to get out of the house. so this is what I personally did to manage my bipolar and i recommend others who are struggling just to give it a shot! There’s no harm in trying! And its safer and cheaper than all these bullshit drugs and therapists. they all just want money and we all know we cant afford it.

    Start by throwing out all medications used for your disorder. THey are bullshit and belong in the trash. There’s no need to put yourself at such a risk. Throw out any foods with any food coloring, high fructose corn syrup, any artifical sugars, basically anything that isnt natural but is a chemical or anything processed.

    Eat REAL food! look for non-gmo, organic fruits and vegetables. get your milk from a farmer not a store and make sure you know if any antibotics or hormones are added. if they are throw it out. eat meat with 0 hormones 0 antibotics 0 nitirates. range free eggs, dabble with different herbs. start picking up essential oils and make your own bath oils and massage oils and oils for aroma. these can help with common ailments and help with your mood at the same time!

    REGULATE YOUR PH!!! Search how to and actually do it and than buy a tester and find water that’s at a level 7 ph to keep your ph regular
    drink only non-fluoridated water!!! a must

    Do some type of exercise for atleast an hour a day (I do yoga)

    Meditate daily! This is an important way to help alter your mind to being more relaxed and stable

    Any questions? do some real research!

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