Life with a Boss or Coworker with Bipolar Disorder

If you work side by side with someone who has or appears to have bipolar disorder, the characteristic emotional highs and lows will have a special meaning for you. At some point, you may have to deal with a difficult situation that could affect your job or career.

Bipolar disorder does not affect everyone's ability to work in the same way. Some people will have more problems with some tasks than others. Some people may need accommodations at work and others won't. It depends on the type of bipolar disorder, the efficacy of their medication, and the nature of the job.

Treatment Is Working

If someone you work with or for is receiving successful treatment for bipolar disorder, you may never know it. Indeed, there is no reason for you to know. Having gotten control of her mood swings, she may be a better boss or coworker because of her struggle with the disorder. Ideally, if she has an energetic personality, she has a job that is high on creativity and variety and low on repetition.

There may be some tasks she has trouble completing, but in any work situation there are people who do certain things better than others. And of course, she occasionally might need a long lunch hour for a doctor's appointment. Like many people in a work setting, someone with bipolar disorder might need time off to see to personal business or concerns surrounding her health.

If the illness is under control, issues you might have with this boss or coworker are likely to be unrelated to bipolar disorder.

Treatment Is Partially Effective

A good work environment is tolerant of an employee's disability, including bipolar disorder. But as anyone who has ever held a variety of jobs knows, not all work environments are good.

Lack of sympathy for someone affected by bipolar disorder symptoms in the workplace would not be unusual. If some people think a coworker is not doing her job and making their job harder, they will resent the perceived burden and eventually complain. The boss may be even less sympathetic to a worker whose manic episodes make her inefficient and difficult to work with and whose depressive episodes cause her to miss work entirely.

Fact

Employers are not allowed to ask job candidates if they have disabilities. If an employer requires a medical examination, it must be given to all applicants. Should a potential employee be shown to have a disability, it must be demonstrated how the disability will prevent him or her from performing the job in order to disqualify the candidate.

Even if glimpses of bipolar disorder do not cause a person to be fired, she might quit in a moment of manic arrogance or impatience. Similarly, depression can make someone abruptly quit or just not show up for work, in an attempt to escape from everyone and everything. A boss with bipolar disorder whose treatment is only partially effective might at times want to work everyone way beyond normal limits. He might set unrealistic goals. Or if medication can't control his depression, the boss might be unavailable when his workers need him.

Not Receiving Treatment

Even if she owns the business enterprise, a boss with untreated bipolar disorder is likely to be out of a job before long. Depression can make the person dangerously unavailable and ineffective, and mania can cause her to make misguided or inappropriate business decisions if she cannot concentrate on the job.

If the boss owns the company or is related to the owner, the firm may suffer a high turnover in staff. Many people will find it difficult to work for this person for long. While any business is vulnerable to failure, there is an especially good chance a business owner with untreated bipolar disorder will go out of business.

Accommodating a Worker with Bipolar Disorder

Whether you supervise or work beside someone with bipolar disorder, there are some things you can do to help them and, perhaps, yourself. The Job Accommodation Network (www.jan.wvu.edu/media/Bipolar.html) provides some guidelines for accommodating workers with mental disabilities.

If you have the authority, you can provide ways to help someone keep going throughout the work day by offering work breaks when needed, flexible scheduling, self-pacing, work-from-home options, extra time to master new skills, and time off for doctors' or therapist visits.

It may help some people to decrease unnecessary distractions and work in an out-of-the-way place where they can do their job with few disturbances. Assignments may become less stressful when broken down into smaller tasks with multiple, defined goals.

Providing positive feedback helps all workers, not just those with disabilities. The same is true for providing clear, written instructions regarding goals and, if necessary, suggestions for completing them. Making sure your expectations are clearly stated and understood can help decrease stress in employees who are particularly sensitive to it.

Encouraging frank, open communication can also head off work-related crises before they occur.

As a coworker, you can help by sharing hints for completing tasks such as maintaining daily to-do lists and using computers, day planners, or calendars to track deadlines and goals; conferring with each other on progress; providing praise when deserved; and making suggestions when appropriate. And you can listen. You can tactfully direct someone to counseling if you have done your research and found a good source of outside help or are aware of an assistance program provided by your employer.

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