Bipolar Disorder Exacts Twice Depression’s Toll in Workplace

Growing up inside the beltway, Posy never dreamed she’d be anything but a Washington insider. A graduate of the impressive George Washington University, Posy did what any other modern young person did; she took a job that would require her to spend a large portion of her time courting relationships via social media. As a public relations specialist, she was responsible for client visibility, popularity and reputation—and for being downwind of any potential “issues” so that she could head them off at the pass. Her job was to be so smooth, so sparkling, so on top of her game that the nation would believe the politicians she represented were diamond-encrusted. Then she’d have to wake up again and do one better. And she would.

Posy rarely ate, hardly slept, and knew precisely how to make people adore her and anyone else. She was clever, talented, never pretentious, always early, and at least 10 ideas ahead of you. Not even her pens leaked. When disaster seemed sure to strike, she saw it as an opportunity. She was the perfect shoulder to cry on and a bulldog in the ring. She lived for the job.

After two major promotions, and a few secret meetings with a larger, more up-and-coming company, Posy and her peplum suits seemed unstoppable. But even a PR princess has her pea. Posy’s came in the form of a growing sense of unease. At first, she simply worried she’d eaten something bad, or that she might have an allergy to her new office conditions. But unease grew into anxiety, and Posy was soon completely off her game. She had a hard time waking in the mornings. Targets no longer found her sparkling, but rather dim, and Posy no longer felt charged simply to be rubbing elbows. She began to miss appointments. She didn’t want to see anyone. Her previously preternatural ability to catch wind of “issues” before they blew up had all but disappeared. The office had gone nuclear and all Posy could do was hide under her desk.

No one seemed to understand how things could have gotten so out of control, least of all Posy.

Bipolar Disorder and Job Performance

Nearly nine out of 10 people with bipolar disorder believe their illness affects their job performance, according to a survey conducted by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). And according to a study done by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), bipolar disorder exacts more from employers in lost productivity than major depressive illness, which is more than six times more prevalent. At an average of 65.5 lost workdays per year, bipolar disorder workers are missing serious time. The cost to employers for this lost time is $14.1 billion per year. Bipolar disorder is an expensive disease for companies, and for those who suffer from it. Interestingly, according to the NIMH’s research, those lost workdays occur more frequently during the depressive phases a person with bipolar disorder experiences, rather than during manic or mixed states.

The Question of Disclosure

The issue of whether to tell supervisors about a mental illness such as bipolar disorder can be a tricky wicket indeed. While offering an explanation of changes in productivity, mood and other confusing phenomenon to knowledgeable, understanding employers may help to buffer the highs and lows, too much information in the hands of insensitive others may be a risk too big to take. As with any other personal health concern, the question of whether to confide must be answered on a case-by-case basis.

If your supervisor is both empathetic and professional, there may be real benefits in disclosing. A manager who understands bipolar disorder and has your back can help alleviate your stress during times when you must be away from work, or may need more flexible hours. If however, your supervisor appears uncomfortable with issues such as mental illness or appears to buy into even the slightest stigma, telling may backfire. Fearing for your position or your job may only serve to exacerbate the symptoms of your disorder.

Consider beforehand how much discretion you require, and how you will feel/what you will do if knowledge of your disorder gets out to more people than you intended. Having bipolar disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, and having it does not make you less capable. It is well documented that many highly talented, successful, creative, and intelligent people have bipolar disorder.

Preventing Workplace Trouble Before It Strikes

Efforts to prevent bipolar-induced dilemmas in the workplace work much like those in ordinary life. They involve self-awareness, planning and a dedicated strategy for what to do when issues arise, because they inevitably will.

Tips for Stopping Trouble Before It Starts

  • In advance, create a list of every symptom you have experienced for each of your mood states—hypomanic, manic, depressed, or mixed (whichever states you experience). Be specific and exhaustive.
  • Make another list of things you have done at work due to each of these mood states. For example, under hypomania you might write that you sleep very little and manage to produce at extremely high volume. You feel great and love your job. But when depressed, the opposite is true. And in addition, you experience frequent headaches, stomach upset and poor concentration.
  • Make a third list of what you look like when you feel “normal.” How do you behave at work? What is your productivity like? etc.
  • Now, devise a plan. The next time you find yourself experiencing any of the symptoms of the mood states on your lists, pay attention. REALIZE that you are simply experiencing a symptom and that it will pass. Take a look at your workload and your upcoming tasks and consider how the work may feel while experiencing these symptoms. You’re simply practicing awareness. The idea here is only to prepare for possibilities, not to plan for failure.
  • Have a plan for becoming emotionally overwhelmed. Choose a quiet spot, have a friend to call, write yourself a calming letter—these are just some ways to cope when feelings become too much.
  • Most importantly, ensure that you are taking your medication as directed and seeing your doctor or therapist. Don’t allow your workload, feelings of euphoria or lows of depression to interfere with your wellness regimen. Stability of mood and productivity is best achieved when all treatment efforts are consistently maintained.

Posy chose a job that was creative and thrilling, but in the end, it worked best for her to make a lateral move to a position that offered more stability and less pressure. Millions of people have successful working lives despite mental illness, and in fact, many of the world’s technological innovations and literary and artistic works would not have come into existence but for people who suffered quietly (or only slightly quietly) with bipolar disorder. There are ways to make work workable; bipolar disorder doesn’t have to mean disability.

There is still hope.

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