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Work and Bipolar Disorder

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2023

Any job can create challenges that cause stress, just like every person comes to work with their own physical and mental needs. But job stress can be especially challenging for people with bipolar disorder.

The behaviors common to episodes of mania and depression can make it difficult to meet expectations at work. Mania can make a person irritable, impulsive, argumentative, and easily distracted. Depression may render them unable to get out of bed, much less get to work. Concentration and decision-making are often difficult during both high and low mood swings. For these reasons, it is important to find partnership with your employer.1

More costly than average

Workers with bipolar disorder can be expensive for employers. They tend to miss more work days than other employees. In fact, studies show that they miss between 18.9 and 65.5 days of work per year.2,3

People living with bipolar disorder also have relatively high healthcare expenses. Inpatient and outpatient care, as well as prescription medicines, can be costly. All of these expenses can impact a company’s insurance costs.2,3

Stigma and discrimination

Stigma and discrimination can make it harder for people with bipolar disorder to feel valued and appreciated at work. They also may lead to bullying and other harmful behaviors from coworkers and supervisors. Dealing with stigma and discrimination is stressful, and it can make it harder to keep stable moods.3

Disclosing your bipolar diagnosis to your supervisor and human resources department can be difficult. But knowing your diagnosis may help those around you support your mental health.4

Plus, you are entitled to reasonable accommodations at work under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Companies with 15 or more employees must follow ADA rules. Some examples of accommodations that can help people manage their bipolar symptoms include:4

  • Flexible start times and work schedules, or remote work
  • Moving your desk to an area with fewer distractions or noise
  • Training in time management
  • Written directions and task lists
  • Break time in a quiet place to rest
  • Using a job coach

What is considered a reasonable accommodation varies from job to job and company to company. For example, a flexible start time may not be possible if you have to open a shop at 9 AM every morning or work a job with set shifts.

If you need extended time off to get well, you may be protected by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for their own or a family member’s illness. This act applies to companies that have 50 or more employees.4

Looking for work

There’s a chicken-and-egg aspect to working with bipolar disorder. The demands of a job can cause stress, which may trigger mania or depression. But people need to work to have employer-sponsored health insurance and to pay their bills. This means that people with bipolar disorder may be looking for jobs more often than they would like.3

Here are a few tips for finding an employer that will support your mental health:3

  • Check review sites like GlassDoor.com to get an idea of whether the company culture makes employee physical and mental health a priority. This should include discouraging stigma.
  • Check the company website to look for evidence that managers and employees are trained on mental health issues.
  • Talk to current and past employees to find out whether the company or department prioritizes work-life balance.
  • Ask about well-being policies such as the quantity of time off, healthcare plan options, and policies for leaves of absence. Some companies ask workers to use their allotted time off to attend doctor or therapy appointments, and others do not.
  • Find out whether the job can be flexible around hours and remote work. Ask whether longer or more frequent breaks are allowed.

Finally, make sure you have a good understanding of what you need to practice self-care. This will help you weed out jobs that do not suit your needs. With consistent self-care and sticking to a treatment regimen, many people with bipolar disorder have successful careers.

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