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Bipolar Disorder at Work: Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

What if your bipolar disorder is making work harder?

“I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years ago.  I've never told any of my employers or shown them any signs that I'm aware of and I’ve always gotten great performance reviews.  Lately, though, the stress at my current tech job is so high, it's brought on a pretty hard "bipolar episode" that's been difficult to bounce back from.  I was considering telling my supervisor about my disorder, because apparently telling her that I have too much work and pressure isn't sinking in.”

What advice would you give this person?   Here’s what I would imagine some people would say:

The employment lawyer:  “Sure; I’ve got your back.  The recent amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act clearly covers bipolar disorder, even if your medication is controlling your symptoms.  Mental illness is covered under the ADA and under HIPAA. Go to HR, tell them the issue, and that you don't trust that your boss will handle the news well and that you think it could be gossip fodder. It will be up to them to find the best way to approach your boss, make sure that the pressure is taken off you, and make sure that the information about your medical problems are not made public.

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If you get fired or laid off for ANY reason in the next two years, you march straight to my office. And document EVERYTHING in the meantime. You never know when you will need it.”

The fellow bipolar sufferer:  NO WAY!  Want to know why?  Because:

“I told mine and ever since then he has been keeping a record of anytime I miss work or am late or any little thing.”

“People outside of this disease just don't get it."

“One of my coworkers told upper management about her mental issue and some how it was leaked back to the staff and people would whisper behind her back when things hadn't been going good for her on any given day.

“Months ago during an after hours phone conversation, I acknowledged my condition.  It was the first time I had ever told anyone I had worked with.  I felt like I had made a huge step and I just knew the outcome would be beneficial for me. After my disclosure, my colleague would make comments like, “Did you forget to take your medicine?” or “Isn’t it time to see the shrink?”

The idealist:  “Definitely.  It’s a perfect world and you should be able to say to your boss, “I’m bipolar and have not been able to sleep in several days and that’s why I was a little bit late this morning.”  It’s honest, respectable, and true.  While you’re at it, why don’t you share some literature about bipolar with your boss?  It’s a chance to do your part to erase some of the stigma around mental illness.  If you’re doing a good job, that’s all that matters.”

The realist:   If you’re having trouble doing your job or desperately need an accommodation, you need to tell somebody something before you do serious damage to your career.  However, be very careful about disclosing your diagnosis.  What’s covered under the A.D.A.A., and what’s actually enforceable, can be two different things.  Your best bet?  Go to your HR department first. 

Make sure you are prepared (emotionally and otherwise) for the legwork involved in providing appropriate documentation and discussing personal issues with your HR rep.  Explain that you need his or her assistance because continued stress is placing your health at risk and you don't feel you should have to violate your privacy to get the situation straightened out.  Make sure you document your discussion with him or her, and that you are both clear about what the next steps will be.  Then follow up.

As far as how much you tell your boss, that’s up to you.  People are not as sensitive to mental illnesses as we would hope, so you may want to be less than open about it.  You could tell your boss you’re dealing with some medical issues, leaving out the specifics of your illness.  Your HR department, and your therapist, should be able to offer you some good advice about specifically what to say.   

If you’re thinking about full disclosure, you might also ask yourself:

  • How long have you been at your company?  The longer you’ve been with your organization – and your manager – the less likely it is that s/he will overreact to your need for assistance.
  • What kind of performance evaluations have you received?  A proven track record at work is the biggest weapon in the fight against stigma.  Never disclose your illness during a hiring interview.
  • What's your relationship like with your boss?  Do you trust him/her?  Has s/he shown compassion to other employees? 
  • What’s your corporate culture?  Do the senior managers demonstrate an “our employees are our most valuable asset” mindset or a “whatever it takes to get it done” philosophy?
  • What is your goal?  Is it to get personal support from your boss and coworkers (leaving you vulnerable to their reactions) or to take a courageous stand for all sufferers of bipolar (giving you personal satisfaction no matter the response)? 

The best preparation for tomorrow is to give your best today.  When it comes to dealing with bipolar disorder in the workplace, though, what’s best can change on a dime.  Prepare for those changes by knowing your rights, having an ongoing support system, and balancing a healthy dose of optimism with a clear view of reality.   

 

 

 

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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