Bipolar disorder and the world of work: how can you continue to thrive?

Published Aug 12, 2023 • By Candice Salomé

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), bipolar disorder is one of the 10 most disabling illnesses. It often begins in adolescence or young adulthood, and requires lifelong treatment. In the United States, more than 7 million people suffer from bipolar disorder.

Given the symptoms of the illness - extreme mood swings ranging from depression to mania (euphoria) - it can be difficult to find and keep a job.

So what difficulties do patients with bipolar disorder face? How can you thrive at work when you are bipolar?

We explain it all in our article!

Bipolar disorder and the world of work: how can you continue to thrive?

What is bipolar disorder? 

Bipolar disorder is a chronic psychiatric condition characterized by recurrent mood disorders. In people with bipolar disorder, mood generally evolves in two alternating phases: manic or hypomanic episodes (exaltation of mood, agitation, etc.) and depressive episodes, with intervals of remission between the two phases.

Cheerfulness becomes exaggerated euphoria, while sadness becomes deep depression. Behavioral problems that accompany these phases have a profound impact on the life of the person affected, and can even seriously damage family and professional relationships.

Bipolar disorder can be a serious illness, requiring lifelong care and treatment.

Why is it difficult to combine bipolar disorder and professional life? 

In a survey carried out by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, almost 9 out of 10 people affected by bipolar disorder said that their performance at work had been affected by the illness. More than half of those questioned said they thought they had to change jobs or careers more often than people without the condition. A large proportion of respondents also said that they were entitled to less responsibility or fewer promotions than their colleagues.

It is not always easy for patients with bipolar disorder to find a place in the world of work, and especially to keep their job. Depending on the type of bipolar disorder, and because of the length of the cycles associated with the condition, maintaining stability and consistency can be complicated.

During their manic phase, an employee with a bipolar disorder may become agitated, more talkative than usual, and say things that may disconcert those around them at work. It's also a time when the employee may do a lot of work, be more creative and so on.

On the other hand, in their depressive phase, an employee may seem withdrawn or not open to discussion. Sometimes they are no longer able to get up and go to work, or even to let the company know when they are absent. Repeated absences can be misinterpreted by the employer as lack of seriousness and motivation. This can ultimately lead to dismissal.

People with bipolar disorder may also have problems concentrating, memorizing, relating to other people, etc.

However, when patients follow their treatment correctly, the illness can be stabilized, making professional integration a real possibility. People affected by bipolar disorder can even reveal themselves at work, achieving their full potential.

How can you still thrive in a professional environment even if you are affected by bipolar disorder? 

Avoid stressful situations

People with bipolar disorder need to avoid stressful situations. They need to learn to work calmly, which is not always easy.

Nevertheless, work-related stress is often a weakening factor that can encourage relapses of the illness.

So it's important to learn how to spot the warning signs as early as possible so as to slow the pace.

Here are a few tips for managing stress at work:

  • Take frequent, regular breaks,
  • Use relaxation techniques such as meditation,
  • Listen to relaxing music,
  • Take a walk around the block at lunchtime.

It may sometimes be necessary to adjust your work situation. In some cases, reclassification may be the best option.

The attending psychiatrist may need to collaborate with the occupational physician in the interests of the patient and in agreement with the latter.

Choose a job with fixed but flexible hours 

Sleep is an important factor in managing the disease. Poor sleep is often the harbinger of a new attack.

It is therefore important to avoid jobs with night shifts or changing working hours. "Classic" working hours will allow you to get a good night's sleep.

What's more, flexible working hours allow you to choose less stressful working hours. For example, starting very early in the morning before colleagues arrive, or working from home for part of the week, is a good compromise for people affected by bipolar disorder.

Be organized in your work 

By being organized and rigorous, you can eliminate a lot of the stress that may come with the job.

Here are a few tips:

  • Make lists of the tasks you have to do on a daily basis and tick off items as they are completed,
  • Break down your important projects into smaller tasks and concentrate on one task at a time,
  • Use your electronic diary to remind yourself of tasks to be completed and their deadlines.

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