What is the best way to handle having bipolar in the workplace and who do you tell?

What is the best way to handle having bipolar in the workplace and who do you tell? How do you tell your boss you have bipolar if you were not up front about it from the beginning but feel that they need to know about it?

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This seems to be a really hot topic in the last month. I have been seeing articles on many different mental health sites with information on this. I even wrote a post on another blog on my own experience with having bipolar disorder in the workplace and how a few employers responded when they found out. I think so many people struggle with this because of the stigmas attached, and while employers are made aware of the various disabilities within the workplace, I don’t think a lot of training has addressed mental illnesses as disabilities. Because of this, many employers may end up taking information and stigmas that they learn from misleading sources such as the media and rely on that when being confronted with the issue of mental illness in their workplace. This is why I believe mental health disabilities should be addressed and discussed with employers in addition to being informed of the correct facts of these illnesses and what the laws (such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family Medical Leave Act) provide in the workplace setting  for those diagnosed with a mental illness.

That said, and after hearing horror stories from others with bipolar disorder who have been fired, I am nervous all the time about my full-time job. How do I handle having bipolar while I’m at work?  The best I can! 🙂  Joking aside, there are definitely a few things that I do to try to keep myself at an even keel so I can maintain the duties of my job and not call any additional attention to myself. One thing I do is ensure that I take my hour lunch break and get out of the office. Even if I just walk around the block or run to the corner Walgreen’s or CVS for a soda instead of the store in the lobby, I make sure that I get some fresh air in the middle of the day. If I stay cooped up in the office all day long, I start to lose even more focus and productivity than I usually do. I also have what I like to call “Office Yoga” around noon. I read somewhere that doing yoga as close to noon as possible is best because of how the earth is aligned, so that is why I try to do it at noon. Office Yoga consists of a few downward dogs to stretch my legs and arms and to get some deep breaths in. I also do a few leg stretches and stretch my sides and arms. I spend a total of about 15 minutes doing those stretches and that helps calm my anxiety, nerves, and relieve stress. Now, I also have an office with a door that does not have any windows, so I can do this in my office without anyone seeing. If you work in a cubicle or other arrangement, it may be a bit difficult, but you can still do a few arm stretches at your desk and some deep breathing exercises. If you check on iTunes, there are tons of free podcasts that have relaxation music or even podcasts that are designed for meditation. Try downloading one of those and doing that at your desk. Another thing I do to survive the work day is  if I notice my moods going up and down or if I have a huge downfall, I am able to close my office door for a bit to regroup and get myself back together. That has saved me many times when I have had situations with medications that have left my moods less than desirable and at times sobbing so often I thought my office was going to become fish tank.

A few other small tips:

  • Limit your trips to the coffee machine!  I have my caffeine first thing in the morning and then stick to water and non-caffeinated beverages throughout the day. This helps keep the natural rise and fall from caffeine from adding to my rise and falls from the bipolar disorder.
  • When you start feeling overwhelmed, take a few minutes for some deep breaths. If you don’t have time to take a quick walk outside, take a brief walk around the floor you work on to step away from your desk and get a few deep breaths (and get the blood moving. I know sitting at a computer for about 7 hours a day tends to get my body feeling stiff!).
  • If you have a door, use it!  Close the door and take a few minutes to tune out and gather yourself, or if you are completely losing focus and the noises and distractions outside are making things worse, close it and try to focus.
  • If you are allowed to have a small radio, or can listen to your iPod with earphones, then put some soothing music on there so you can pop in when you get stressed. If you notice you are falling, have a few songs that usually pick you up on there as well.
  • If you have a gym nearby, try using it on your lunch hour to either walk or get a little bit of exercise. I have one near my office and either yoga or Pilates (depends on the day) are offered around lunchtime. Try one of those classes. It gets you out of the office, gets your exercise in (which we should be getting anyway) and hopefully will give you a fresh take on the afternoon.

Who do you tell?

Well, that is always tricky because if you are anything like me, you are worried about bosses finding out, or supervisors, and then being treated differently or possibly being fired. Who do you trust and how do you know you can trust them?  This is a very difficult decision and unfortunately, there really isn’t a simple answer to this. A lot of your decision really depends on your gut feeling and how much you feel you can trust that person AND trust that their reaction is going to be positive. I am very fortunate that at my office, one of the girls I work on a lot of cases with has her office next to mine and we talked a lot. We became friends and I found out she was going to school to get her masters in Psychology. Knowing that, I figured she knew a little bit about it and would open minded, so I confided in her that I have bipolar disorder and her response, like many others, was “Really? I never would have known!”  I figured since we were working on so many cases together and worked so closely, she might wonder about certain habits (like closing my door often, etc.), or if I asked for help or if she notices a significant change in my mood, or a shift because of a medication change, then she would be aware and hopefully be a bit more understanding. She was absolutely understanding, and in fact, she began to ask me a lot of questions. She was learning a lot from me to help her with school and learn more about things she might encounter if she decides to go into a practice. I have been able to share my accomplishments on this website with her and she has helped me with a lot of research. I don’t expect her to carry my workload by any means though and  I do take on things of hers if she needs help too. We work together, but she also understands that certain days I am not hiding in my office and trying to be rude and ignore her with the door closed, but I have the door closed to help me work better. She will send me an email asking  if I am ok and if I need anything, so she definitely understands what I am experiencing.  I have been very lucky to have found someone I work with that is as understanding and awesome as her!!!!!  Not all people will respond quite like she did, but if you decide to let any co-workers know, I would suggest getting to know them a little bit before divulging that you have bipolar disorder. You don’t want to confide in them only to find out that they are not as open minded as you hoped. It’s a shame that we have to keep something like this inside, but sometimes, especially in Corporate America, I feel like it’s a game of Survival of the Fittest.

What about telling your boss after you have been employed there and didn’t tell them at first?

If you feel that they must know (maybe your performance is lacking, or you need some time off that would require the Family Medical Leave Act to come into play for example), there really isn’t a good or bad way to tell them. I would request a meeting with him or her and simply explain that you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. If you are under doctors care, I would let them know that as well as if you are taking any medications and if those are being monitored by a doctor. It always helps to assure people that the appropriate medical personnel are monitoring you so they don’t think that you are looking to them for help in that respect. Discuss the reason you are telling them. For example, if it is because you performance is slipping because you are on a new medication that makes you tired, tell them that your doctor has changed your medications slightly and the side effects have been really having an effect on your work and you thought they should be aware of the reason and this is only a temporary side effect that your doctor said should go away in X amount of time. If you have been staying a little later to compensate for it, let them know that too. If you show that you are trying to keep up and inform them that until now, having bipolar has not affected any of your work responsibilities so you felt no need to tell them previously, I would hope that you would get a positive response. The main concern of employers is usually liability (along with profitability). They may be fearful that you could create some sort of liability for them. By assuring them that you have been capable of doing your job, and doing it well, up until this recent medication change, they may feel more comfortable with the situation. However, there are still others that may not be because of stigmas, etc. It is always a risk, so in the event you decide to tell your employer, you must be prepared for both good and bad outcomes. You never know how they will respond. You could check with people around the office to see if this situation has ever presented itself before and if so, how the employer handled it. If another person has told your employer that they have bipolar, and they are still employed there, then chances are it would be a positive outcome. If they tell you the person was fired, then I don’t think it would be wise to tell your employer then, until you have another job lined up as a back-up plan.

I wish I had better advice that could provide a completely positive outcome, but I don’t. It’s hard to predict other people’s reactions to mental illness, especially those in the workplace. The stigmas float around and haunt us, which is why we all need to do our part to fight against stigmas and fight for more education of mental illnesses so that we don’t have to be afraid like this when we go to work every morning. People in wheelchairs don’t have to be afraid at work when it comes to asking for accommodations. People with mental illnesses should not be any different. It all starts with eliminating the stigmas and educating the employers.

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