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Coping with Work Issues and Bipolar Disorder

January 21, 2007
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Low-stress work options

The world of high-stress employment is not for every person with a bipolar disorder, including many who initially choose it. You may find that life outside of the fast lane better suits your moods.

Shoshana did not expect to opt for a low-stress lifestyle:

“I lead a much quieter life now, but I’m not sure this would have been my choice. I loved intensity, and wanted to live life intensely-I went into law because it was a field where there was no mandatory retirement at age sixty-five.

“I’ve not returned to the practice of law, and it doesn’t look too likely at this point, since stress triggers off nasty mood swings.

“How ironic it all is.”

For some persons, part-time, temporary, or on-call work are the best option. Although these work styles may not offer the same level of financial security as full-time or permanent employment, they do provide more down time and flexibility. For others, a position that offers predictable hours, a steady workflow without too many “crunch periods,” and a relaxed atmosphere is sometimes worth taking a cut in pay.

You may be able to take the skills earned in your old high-stress job and apply them to something less hard to handle. For example, lawyers can become legal researchers or consultants, nurses can move from the ER into long-term care, and executives can drop down a rung on the corporate ladder to get out from under long hours and constant changes.

Sometimes an existing job can better meet your needs with a little restructuring. If you find that sleep deprivation caused by frequent travel is affecting your stability, see if you can pass the conference circuit responsibilities on to a co-worker and take on some in-office projects instead. It all depends on how flexible your employer, and you, are willing to be.

You don’t have to talk about your diagnosis when making these kinds of changes. Simply tell curious co-workers and friends that you’re simplifying your life, want more time for your family, or desire a more satisfying new career direction.

‘Out’ at work or not?

To tell or not to tell, that’s the big work issue for most bipolar adults. Some feel that their employers might see them as unworthy of responsibility or promotion, or worry about how their mental health could affect company operations. Although it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of mental illness, most bipolar adults have personal experiences with job discrimination, or know someone else who has. Your reticence is natural-and may be warranted. In a 1991 Harris poll about attitudes toward people
with disabilities, 59 percent of people surveyed said they feel comfortable with someone who is in a wheelchair, but only 19 percent had the same level of comfort with someone who has a mental illness.

If your symptoms are well-controlled, there’s probably no reason to tell, unless it is required by company policy. If you occasionally have breakthrough symptoms, you may want to consider confiding in one key person at work. That person need not be your direct supervisor-the personnel department might be a better choice. You can ask the personnel department to place a letter in your personnel file outlining your diagnosis and any accommodations you might need if your symptoms worsen.

Lillian, age nineteen, says:

“Don’t be embarrassed about it, but you don’t have to tell everyone about it. A friend of mine told everyone when she got the diagnosis. It’s not cool, it’s not a status symbol, but it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s who you are.”

If you do have a sympathetic boss, approach the topic with caution. You might try making a joking reference to the illness (on a particularly frantic day, “I think I’m having one of those manic mood swings my doctor warned me about”, for instance) to break the ice. Some people have simply left their medication in plain view one day-another conversation opener.

People who feel secure in their ability to manage on the job are often comfortable about addressing the issue forthrightly and openly. It would be wonderful if more people could do so. You can get more information about the legal rights of disabled
people on the job, including tips on approaching employers, from the Job Assistance Network (800-ADA-WORK) or the US Department of Justice Hotline (800-514-0301.)

Marcia, age twenty-six, says:

“When it comes to who you should and should not tell, honestly I am still unclear on what is best. All my immediate family and close friends know I am bipolar.

“Actually, I feel like my diagnosis has helped strengthen my relationship with my friends and family. Now that we have identified my symptoms, my family and friends know when it’s me and not the illness talking.

“Even though I have been working now at the same company for almost three years, I have not told any of my coworkers about my bipolar disorder. Whether or not that is the right decision, I am still unsure.”

Civil rights laws do protect you against workplace harassment based on your disability. As with other types of harassment cases, it’s important to let harassers know exactly how you feel about their actions, to keep detailed records of incidents, and to go through any formal grievance procedure your company or labor union has before filing a lawsuit.

Most large firms have a staff member who handles internal complaints of sexual or racial harassment. This is probably the right person to see first if you find that your illness has become the topic of rude remarks, practical jokes, or other cruel actions by fellow employees or supervisors. You should inform this person about your disability, and make it clear that you are bothered by the behavior. This will either bring down the weight of company policy on the offenders, or form the legal basis for a future discrimination claim.

If you’re not sure how to handle a workplace problem related to your bipolar symptoms, call your state’s Protection & Advocacy system for free advice. Some NAMI chapters can also refer you to legal counsel, and occasionally national advocacy groups get involved in prominent or groundbreaking cases.

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