Recovery Blog Supporting Employees with Bipolar Disorder

Supporting Employees with Bipolar Disorder

Mental health issues continue to surge to the forefront as people struggle in their personal and professional lives. As issues with physical health, COVID, finances, the opioid epidemic, and childcare mount, the average person’s mental health status in Ohio is at risk.

When someone has bipolar disorder, their ability to perform a job and maintain employment often suffers as their changing symptoms make workplace stability an enormous challenge. Employers should implement accommodations and prevention strategies to protect their workers and their business against dangers like low productivity, accidents, substance abuse and suicide.

concept of a woman suffering from bipolar disorder

What Is Bipolar Disorder?

Rather than just one disorder, bipolar disorder represents an entire group of mental health conditions as outlined by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Bipolar and related disorders are marked by inconsistent moods, levels of energy and need for sleep. 

People with bipolar disorder tend to shift from one major mood episode to another, sometimes directly and sometimes with a period of calm in between.

During a depressive episode, the worker will report:

  • Low mood or irritability
  • Low energy and poor motivation
  • Low interest in pleasurable activities
  • Changes to diet, weight and sleep
  • Poor concentration and decision-making
  • Feeling sped up or slowed down physically
  • Excessive guilt and feelings of worthlessness
  • Thoughts of death, dying and suicide

During manic or hypomanic episodes, they will experience:

  • Increased energy and decreased need for sleep
  • Inflated self-esteem
  • Being more talkative
  • High distractibility
  • Increased interest in goal-directed behaviors at work, with friends or sexually
  • Higher involvement in risky behaviors

Bipolar I disorder consists of independent periods of depressive episodes and manic episodes, where bipolar II disorder involves depressive episodes and hypomanic episodes. Hypomanic episodes share similarities to manic, but they last a shorter amount of time — four days for hypomanic compared to one week or more for manic.

Cyclothymic disorder (cyclothymia) is a bipolar-related disorder marked by a person having intense mood symptoms for at least two years, but the symptoms never meet the full criteria for a depressive episode or a manic/hypomanic episode. People with cyclothymia may still maintain employment while frequently struggling to meet the expectations of their position.

Legal Considerations

As an employer working with various types of people in different capacities, having a firm grasp of the legal considerations around employment is essential. Making a blunder when navigating these complicated situations could create numerous issues for the business as well as unneeded distress for the employee.

All employers should become familiar with employment laws involving disability and discrimination, including: 

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows for equal opportunities for people with disabilities in the workplace.
  • The Rehabilitation Act creates funding for disability-related needs in the workplace.
  • Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) provides services for employment and training programs.

The laws protect workers in that they cannot be discriminated against or terminated because of their bipolar disorder. Employees’ confidentiality and health information are also protected.

Supporting Remote Workers with Bipolar Disorder

More employers shifting to remote work during the pandemic creates new questions about the best ways to support workers with bipolar disorder. While some with bipolar disorder will thrive in a work-from-home environment, others will yearn for the sense of structure, community and predictability associated with an in-person setting.

Potentially the best way to support a remote worker with a mental health condition is by checking in with them often. Are they feeling well, performing well and adapting to the changes? Sometimes, simply asking these questions is enough to make someone feel cared about and heard. 

Since bipolar disorder symptoms shift and change over time, regular discussions are necessary. Just because someone was doing well in January doesn’t mean April will go smoothly. Countless triggers like the weather, situational stressors, holidays and anniversaries could spark an emerging mood episode.

The type of communication an employer uses is crucial as well. Some workers may not feel comfortable using “official” workplace communications like email, Slack or Zoom for fear that the information could be used against them. Check to see how they feel comfortable communicating while maintaining professional boundaries.

Work-from-home situations allow many opportunities to support a worker with bipolar disorder by experimenting with accommodations that meet their needs better. Perhaps they will respond well to shorter or longer workdays, relaxed dress codes, looser deadlines and other alternatives to the normal way of doing business. These experiments may seem to carry risk, but they could end with great success.

As always, remote workers should be encouraged to seek out professional treatments for their condition. Teletherapy apps for addiction and mental health are both effective and flexible.

Accommodating Employees in the Office Environment 

As the workforce returns to the office setting, employers would be wise to ensure a smooth transition by establishing accommodations for employees with bipolar disorder. Some of the best changes include:

  • Offering flexibility: Just like those working from home, office workers will benefit from relaxed schedules and less rigidity. If someone can complete their work in three 12-hour workdays, let them. If someone needs to come in late and stay late, allow it. Forcing round pegs into square holes benefits no one, but by loosening restrictions, workers can flourish.
  • Prioritizing physical health: Take a moment to observe employees. Are they performing tedious tasks all day, are they hunched over a keyboard or are they completing dangerous assignments? Each job affects a person’s physical health, and there are always ways to schedule breaks, increase physically active times, and increase safety to make the job more rewarding while reducing risk and fatigue. 
  • Rewarding open communication: When an employee is comfortable enough to openly communicate, employers gain a better understanding of workers’ needs and wants. Some wants will be impossible to implement, but others may be simple and effective. Employers cannot fix a problem they don’t know about, so they have to make workers feel safe and validated.
  • Creating a socially and psychologically healthy space: Social and psychologically healthy spaces are just as important as physically healthy spaces, but they may get less attention. What kind of environment exists at the workplace? Is it friendly or hostile? Is it built on competition or cooperation? Are people involved in petty gossip or kindness and encouragement? Employers create, shape and model the workplace culture, so if the plan is not working, people should consider options to correct the situation.
  • Building and maintaining teamwork: Companies and organizations are all geared towards working together to accomplish a shared goal, but some offices are consumed with sabotage and ill will. Creating team goals and accomplishments is a great way to bring people together for a common aim. Team-building activities in and out of the office can improve relationships and add compassion between coworkers.
  • Learning to ride the waves: Bipolar is based on periods of uncertain symptoms. When an employee is experiencing symptoms, the employer will have to ride the waves of inconsistency until stability returns. By using clear communication, support and encouragement, the employee can access treatment and return to their full abilities sooner.

Be a Resource

Being an employer does not mean that you have to have all the answers, but having access to the best and most appropriate resources makes you an asset to your employees and your organization. Whether you need more information on bipolar disorder or employer resources, The Recovery Village offers support to help meet your goals. 

If an employee needs help managing their bipolar disorder and a co-occurring addiction but is unsure of their next step, The Recovery Village Columbus can help. Our team can help with every step from assessment to aftercare for those in need.

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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.