How to Deal with Employees who Suffer from Bipolar Disorder

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Some of you may employee or know someone who suffers from Bipolar Disorder, often known as Manic Depression. Upon hearing those words, “Bipolar disorder”, many people recoil in fear, doubt, and uncertainty. While people who suffer from Bipolar disorder have needs different from other employees, it doesn’t mean they aren’t employable.

As you can see from the graphic, courtesy of the National Institute of Mental Health, there is a brief definition of Bipolar disorder. Those who suffer Bipolar disorder tend to demonstrate some or all of these symptoms to varying degrees (also from NIMH):

When suffering from the Manic Phase

  • Increased energy, activity, and restlessness
  • Excessively “high,” overly good, euphoric mood
  • Extreme irritability
  • Racing thoughts and talking very fast, jumping from one idea to another
  • Distractibility, can’t concentrate well
  • Unrealistic beliefs in one’s abilities and powers
  • Poor judgment
  • A lasting period of behavior that is different from usual
  • Provocative, intrusive, or aggressive behavior
  • Denial that anything is wrong

When suffering from the Depressive Phase

  • Lasting sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Decreased energy, a feeling of fatigue or of being “slowed down”
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts

While these lists look like reasons not to hire someone or continue their employment, it doesn’t mean that an employee or job seeker can’t perform their duties. In fact, there are several people with lesser degrees of Bipolar disorder (Bipolar II), who through medication (e.g. Lithium, Depakote, etc.) and psychotherapy, lead successful careers as lawyers, doctors, etc. Understanding that Bipolar is a treatable, biological condition allows employers the ability to accommodate those who suffer from the disorder, but have a capacity for work.

Managing a Bipolar disorder sufferer requires the same skills as managing any differently-able employee. Reasonable accommodations should be made, as well as reasonable expectations. However, a good manager can go one step further by understanding the nature of the disease, and offering compassion and understanding, as well as outwardly demonstrating support for the employee. In Western culture, mental illness is still somewhat taboo, while physical maladies are not. By demonstrating patience, a willingness to listen, and just play respect will set the proper example for other employees. When difficulties arise, examine them fairly, but through a lens of understanding. Does the employee’s behavior warrant discipline or dismissal, or merely a restatement of expectations? Understanding what is appropriate is a learning process, and may require the support of an HR Business Partner to explain employment standards, particularly the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

People who suffer from Bipolar disorder can present challenges to employers, like any differently-abled person. However, with patience and understanding, as well as clear expectations, the Bipolar sufferer can perform at or near the same level as other employees. This isn’t a matter of “enlightenment” or some other noble act, but rather an acceptance of the dignity of all people, and their desire to work and be active and contributing members of society.

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