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Workplace Advice on Dealing with Bipolar Employees

Treat Others the Way You Wish They Would Treat You

A few years ago, I wrote about Bipolar Personality Disorder. Using the word “Personality” was a mistake on my part. The purpose of this blog is to correct the record and revisit some of the workplace considerations when dealing with workers diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines bipolar disorder in two categories: bipolar I and bipolar II. People with bipolar I experience one or more manic/mixed episodes followed by a major depressive episode while those with bipolar II have one or more depressive episodes followed by a hypomanic episode. Bipolar I is more severe than bipolar II.

Reviewing the information in my previous blog, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder affects approximately 5.7 million adult Americans, or about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population  age 18 and older every year. This may not seem like a lot but we are talking about a significant number of Americans and since these statistics relate to 18-years-old and older, the implications for workplace performance now and in the future are significant.

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance points out that The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was amended in 2008 to include bipolar  disorder as a covered condition. The original 1988 law was designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in hiring, job assignments, promotions, firing, pay, layoffs, benefits and other employment-related activities. It states that if a disability causes impairment that “substantially limits” a person’s ability to handle “major life activities,” whether on or off the job, the employer must follow ADA rules in treating the disabled person.

Reasonable accommodations that employers must provide under the ADA may involve job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, or adjusting examinations or policies. It may mean a change or adjustment to a job or work environment that permits an applicant or employee to participate in the application process, to perform the essential functions of a job or to obtain the benefits of employment that those without disabilities have.

As I discussed in my previous blog, the way we should treat those with bipolar disorder in the workplace goes beyond the accommodations, which is a legal requirement, to meeting ethical standards. The best way to explain this is through the tried and true ethical requirement in most religions and cultures – The Golden Rule. Ethics-in-workplace-benefits

Simply put, managers should treat workers with bipolar disorder in the same way they would wish to be treated if they had the manic-depressive illness. The most important ethical values are kindness, compassion, and empathy. Workers with bipolar need to be treated with understanding: understand the symptoms and behaviors that might result when such a worker experiences an episode.

As I pointed out in my previous blog, someone with bipolar disorder may temporarily experience “limits” to handling life activities. A deep bout of depression or insomnia may create a need for time off or for flexible hours. An individual may need time off for doctor appointments. In the daily work environment, the individual may need a quieter work area to decrease stress and enhance concentration or more frequent breaks to take a walk or do a relaxation exercise.

It’s important to note that while these actions may help the bipolar worker to be more productive and a valued member of the workplace, they’re really not all that different than the workplace adjustments that other workers with different challenges might receive, i.e., a worker who gets migraine headaches who can benefit from a break room or a quiet space while dealing with the issue.

I mention in my previous blog that the conventional wisdom is that somehow bipolar employees can’t perform at the same level as an employee without the disorder. This can,  of course, happen but with proper precautions and medication, the bipolar worker can achieve high levels of performance.

There is an old stereotype that artists are moody individuals prone to fits of manic behavior and depression. Is this little more than an old wife 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.

More recently, A-list stars such as Mariah Carey, Carrie Fisher (princess Leia in the Star Wars movie), Demi Lovato, and Catherine Zeta-Jones went public with their experiences with bipolar disorder and how it has affected their lives and careers.

Sensitivity to others in the workplace who might be different than the “average” employee is a problem that is becoming increasingly important. Whether it’s because of bipolar disorder, autism or other learning disabilities, it’s important for managers to understand how best to deal with workers as individuals with individual needs and not treat everyone the same. An ethical workplace encourages a welcoming environment for those of different religions, nationalities, race, sex, sexual orientations and so on but also those with different diagnosed mental disorders.

All employees can contribute to a productive workplace environment if managers work closely with human resource people to create a diverse culture that is supportive, not judgmental.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 24, 2019. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.