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Bipolar Individuals in the Workplace: Contributions and Cautions

The View from Employees with Bipolar Disorder

One of the most frequently commented on blogs that I have written during my 15 years blogging are those on bipolar disorder and workplace performance. The comments run the gamut from high praise to criticism for my inability to explain bipolar correctly. I think it is a good time to revisit my latest blog on this issue and share some of the comments by my readers. I have not identified them by name to maintain the confidentiality with which I ask readers to comment.

The Challenges of Defining 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.

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.

Ethical Considerations Image

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 ethical requirement in most religions and cultures – The Golden Rule.

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.

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.

Workplace Productivity

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

Many believe that bipolar employees cannot perform at the same level as an employee without the disorder. This can 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 is because of bipolar disorder, autism, or other learning disabilities, it is 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.

The following are some of the responses I have received to this blog and others on bipolar disorder.

Reader Responses

I am bipolar, diagnosed with bipolar 2.  My hyper Mania has been a big asset to the company, and my fellow Coworkers are very supportive in my depression episode. So, I thank you for writing this blog and giving employers and the public a better understanding of the disease

Bipolar is a chemical imbalance of dopamine and serotonin. It is a mood disorder and there is a defining line between the disorder and someone's personality. Most people who have Bipolar disorder do not even know they have it and never get diagnosed. As well as most people who work with someone who has this disorder will never even know they work with someone who does. It is not always or usually visible. If you go looking for it, you can see everyone one can have it. All people can get upset and happy in the same day with varying emotions. You could never really narrow it down to one specific person without personal illegal information being shared. Do not single anyone out. Treat everyone with kindness and respect.

I work with someone who has told me they have bipolar illness. This person seems to mask their emotions. Also, this person is an empath to the extreme in that they point out all my emotions to me from my body language and they keep telling me they are very sensitive to others’ emotions. I find this very difficult to work with and I am wondering if you might have some suggestions to help me as I have to work very closely with this person in my job. This person also has frequent bouts of crying and blaming me for their inability to get things done. I really need help so that I know how to work more effectively with this person.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on April 12, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.