When Bi-Polar Disorder Affects the Workplace

When Carol was in her manic phase, she was one of my most energetic, creative and successful employees. Carol (not her real name) would work until midnight to meet impossible deadlines she often self-imposed. The next morning, she was at it again, all while filling any potential time voids with volunteer project work.

She was a top performer, until the inevitable day when her manic phase would turn sour or end. Whether immediately or months later, Carol followed extraordinary work with a prolonged depression battle.

Bipolar disorder, often known as manic-depressive disorder, is a particular challenge to manage in the workplace.

At least initially, manic phases are a manager’s dream. The workload, need to succeed and energy levels of an employee working with the artificial energy of mania can take a load off the rest of the team. It doesn’t last. Irritability and destructive behavior frequently follow. This employee might also engage in extreme pleasure-seeking or risk-taking behaviors, oblivious to any potential consequences.

While rapid cycling between mania and depression can occur – more commonly in women with bipolar disorder than with men – depression tends to dominate the life and work of sufferers over time, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. This isn’t the usual sadness that everyone experiences. It’s a depth of pain that interferes with the employee’s ability to work, interact and function.

As a manager, you can moderate the toll taken on an employee battling bipolar disorder – working to calm excessive highs and support the struggle out of depressive decline.

I learned over time that my challenge during Carol’s manic phases was to keep her from overextending. I tried slowing her down, getting her to go home and take care of herself physically. I wasn’t as successful as I wish I had been.

Even when I could get Carol to logically agree that she needed to sleep between days, she pushed until she had nothing left. That left her body and brain chemistry depleted when she most needed strength to fight off depression.

Intense work cycles – with high-stress, high-productivity phases followed by periods of recuperation – weren’t unusual during my corporate and congressional staff careers. For someone suffering from bipolar disorder, however, they can be dangerous.

During their lifetime, nearly 4 percent of American adults experience bipolar disorder, with 2.6 percent of adults struggling in any given year. More than 80 percent of these cases are characterized as severe, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). With a median onset age of 25, it’s possible that an employee will have a track record of success before bipolar disorder hits them, adding difficulty to the diagnosis. Even when diagnosed, only roughly 20 percent of those who suffer receive minimally adequate treatment, according to the NIMH.

Suicide is a very real concern for those struggling with untreated bipolar disorder. Longevity expectations are nearly a decade less than for the general population. The best way to prevent suicide is to recognize and treat the illness, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes in introducing its film Living with Bipolar Disorder.

As a leader/manager, you don’t have to diagnose your employee’s illness or even know the diagnosis or whether it is right to help. Following are several steps to consider:

  • Make it a point to discuss the importance of mental and physical health with your team.
  • Ensure than everyone knows about any Employee Assistance Programs.
  • Ask your human resources team to consider making voluntary, confidential interactive screening programs a part of your organization’s efforts to help employees self-identify when they need help. Bipolar disorder is often undiagnosed. 
  • Avoid creating sleep disruptions. Extra sleep, even 10 to 12 hours a day, is a common need for those struggling with bipolar disorder.
  • Recognize that those with bipolar disorder can lead productive, fulfilled lives when properly treated. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, treatment can include medications, therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy and supportive meditation, faith and prayer. Self-management strategies that focus on sleep, diet, exercise, substance abuse avoidance and a range of behaviors that are helpful to any employee can be crucial to those trying to cope with a mental illness.

Great lists exist of how you can help. Check out this one prepared by the Job Accommodation Network. The JAN list provides guidance tailored to whether your employee is struggling with stamina, concentration, stress management, organization, interpersonal effectiveness and/or attendance. In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act was amended to specifically cover bipolar disorder. Develop the same approach to accommodating employees challenged by a mental illness that you would for any physical disability.

Bipolar disorder is deeply troubling for an employee seeking to find a balanced center. Left untreated, this stability is unreachable. But maintaining consistent, high performance is possible when the disease is recognized and treated.

Bipolar disorder is also difficult for a manager to handle. A top-performing employee for months might turn into an irritable, self-absorbed handful for a stretch of time, work well for many more months and then lose the ability to fully function in the midst of a deep depression. It’s hard to recognize that these behaviors are all related to the same brain disease.

Fortunately, even when you don’t know the diagnosis, educating yourself about bipolar disorder and the techniques someone struggling uses to cope can help you become part of their support network rather than a contributor to their struggle.

How you react when all isn’t going well will play a critical role in determining your employee’s ability to succeed.


by Mike Bushman


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