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Challenges for Bipolar Employees and their Employers in the Workplace

The Golden Rule Provides Ethical Guidance on Dealing with Bipolar Employees

Imagine that you have bipolar personality disorder and it creates special challenges for you in the workplace. Well, according to the National Institute of Mental Health bipolar disorder affects approximately 5.7 million adult Americans, or about 2.6% of the U.S. population age 18 and old every year. The median age of onset for bipolar disorder is 25 years, although the illness can start in early childhood or as late as the 40s and 50s. An equal number of men and women develop bipolar illness and it is found in all ages, races, ethnic groups and social classes. More than two-thirds of people with bipolar disorder have at least one close relative with the illness or with unipolar major depression, indicating that the disease has a heritable component. According to the World Health Organization, bipolar disorder is the sixth leading cause of disability in the world.

My purpose in writing this blog is to inform the public, especially managers in the workplace, about the challenges of dealing with bipolar personalities and to dispel some of the myths about the disorder. I begin with the basic ethical principle that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated (The Golden Rule). Imagine that you had the disorder and suffered from some of the symptoms discussed below. Put yourself in the place of the bipolar employee and your employer. How would you deal with the numerous situations that can occur in the workplace that create special challenges for you because of bipolar personality?

Bipolar disorder can be difficult to gauge in the workplace, but managers must be accommodating. An article by "Forbes" about bipolar in the workplace explains employees with the disorder usually approach their disorder at work in one of three ways: telling everyone, supervisors included; telling no one; or telling a couple of coworkers they trust. Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, states that employers must not discriminate based on a disability or mental disorder and must be reasonably accommodating to employees. Many who suffer from bipolar can function in the workplace and many are hirable.

The conventional wisdom is that somehow bipolar employees can’t perform at the same level as an employee without the disorder. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bipolar people do have their ups and downs with mood swings. Bipolar employees may be stifled by the disorder and fail to be productive in life and the workplace. While there may be bouts where this is true, it is just as likely that a bipolar person (especially if the proper medications are taken) can achieve high levels of performance – levels they could not achieve if they had a “normal” personality. With proper medication, the highs and lows of bipolar disorder are kept in check. Without such medication there is no doubt that the bipolar employee’s performance will be negatively affected because the mood swings make it difficult to focus on the task at hand consistently.

The roller-coaster ride of bipolar can be debilitating. Bipolar affective disorder involves phases of mania and depression. Mania is expressed by periods of extreme productivity, grandiosity, hyperactivity and irritability lasting for at least a week. Hypomania is a less severe form of this disorder also involved in manic depression. Major depression must last for periods of at least 4 weeks and is characterized by inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness and fatigue.

Memory and creativity are related to mania. Clinical studies have shown that those in a manic state will rhyme, find synonyms and use alliteration more than controls. This mental fluidity could contribute to an increase in creativity. Moreover mania creates increases in productivity and energy. Those in a manic state are more emotionally sensitive and show less inhibition about attitudes, which could create greater expression. Studies performed at Harvard looked into the amount of original thinking in solving creative tasks. Bipolar individuals, whose disorder was not severe, tended to show greater degrees of creativity.

The traditional advice for employers of bipolar employees includes to be flexible with your scheduling of work to reduce the pressure of deadlines that can set off the bipolar mood swings; allow longer or more frequent breaks; allow the employee to work from home especially when bipolar symptoms are so severe that it could negatively affect workplace performance; allow time off for counseling; provide a supportive environment including to sensitize other employees about bipolar characteristics so they will be better equipped to work productively with the bipolar employee; and don’t make the employee feel that he or she is a lesser worker because of the bipolar disorder.

As for the bipolar employee, an excellent tool is to make daily “to-do lists” and check items off as they are completed. Bipolar employees should use calendars to mark meetings and deadlines because organizing one’s daily activities helps to deal with the stress that comes from bipolar especially when the employee feels under the gun to produce or when things go wrong and the employee has to “right the ship.”

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.

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.

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.

There is an old stereotype that artists are moody individuals prone to fits of depression and madness. Is this little more than an old wives tale? Many artists and writers speak of periods of increased mental fluidity and lifted mood.  Poets such as Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, novelists such as Mary Shelley and Leo Tolstoy and artists such as Michelangelo and Vincent Van Gogh have all be reported to show signs mental instability. The fact is many great achievers suffer from bouts of depression and accelerated periods of productivity. That is why they can accomplish as much as – or even more than – employees without bipolar symptoms.

Preeti Shenoy who wrote Life is What You Make it provides an excellent perspective on how bipolar disorder manifests itself in mood swings. She said that: 

“Creativity is closely associated with bipolar disorder. This condition is unique. Many famous historical figures and artists have had this. Yet they have led a full life and contributed so much to the society and world at large. See, you have a gift. People with bipolar disorder are very very sensitive. Much more than ordinary people. They are able to experience emotions in a very deep and intense way. It gives them a very different perspective of the world. It is not that they lose touch with reality. But the feelings of extreme intensity are manifested in creative things. They pour their emotions into either writing or whatever field they have chosen.”

I hope this blog has helped to explain bipolar disorder in a way that enhances the workplace experience for both the affected employee and the employer. There is no good reason to expect a lesser level of performance from an employee with bipolar disorder as long as checks and balances are put into play in the workplace and regulating behavior by the bipolar employee.


Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 14, 2014. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.ethicssage.com.