It’s World Bipolar Day, and we’d like to take some time to spread awareness about this highly misunderstood condition. Bipolar disorder is not as rare as you might think, and someone who you know or work with may live with it. It’s important that we all understand how bipolar disorder impacts people.

Today, we’ll debunk several common myths about bipolar disorder, as well as give you some tips to manage bipolar disorder in the workplace if you live with it.

Understanding bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder was previously known as manic-depressive disorder. It is a mental health condition that affects people’s mood.

People with bipolar disorder experience two extremes of mood: depression and mania (or hypomania). While in a depressive episode, people with bipolar disorder can have symptoms that are very similar to those of major depressive disorder. They may feel a lack of energy, low or hopeless mood, and have thoughts of suicide.

When in a manic episode, the person with bipolar disorder may feel ecstatic or highly energized. They may have so much energy that they talk very fast (to the point of appearing disorganized), have racing thoughts, or have a decreased need for sleep.

There is no cure for bipolar disorder — it’s a lifetime condition. But there are many effective treatments that can help you manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder and limit the impact they have on your life. Many people with bipolar disorder have meaningful, fulfilling, and successful lives, both at home and at work.

Debunking bipolar disorder myths

Even with all of the advances we’ve made toward destigmatizing mental health, bipolar disorder continues to be a very misunderstood condition. There are many unfair myths that are prevalent about how bipolar disorder shows up at work, and it’s important to set the record straight.

Here are 5 myths about bipolar disorder that are all-too-common, and the actual truth behind each of them.

Myth 1: People with bipolar disorder are unreliable.

Sometimes, bipolar disorder is simplified in the media as a disorder that causes “extreme mood swings.” This incorrectly gives the impression that people with bipolar are unreliable — that they may fall into a “mood swing” at any moment and break commitments at work.

The truth is that, just like anybody else, there are people with bipolar disorder who are very reliable, and others who are not as reliable. Bipolar disorder itself does not cause people to be unreliable, and unreliability is not a symptom of this condition.

Especially if their symptoms are well-managed, people with bipolar disorder can be excellent and productive employees.

Myth 2: People with bipolar disorder are violent.

There is a continued stigma against mental illness, especially serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder and other serious and persistent mental health conditions are often portrayed in the media as being violent and scary.

The truth is that people with bipolar disorder, and any other mental health condition, are much more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else. They are also much more likely to be the victims of violent crime.

Myth 3: People with bipolar disorder can’t hold down a job.

It’s simply false to say that it’s impossible for people with bipolar disorder to hold down a job. The employment rate for people with bipolar disorder is around 60% — suggesting that over half of people who live with bipolar disorder are perfectly able to succeed in any job position.

It may be challenging for some people with bipolar disorder to work, especially if their symptoms are untreated and/or severe. This is the same for any person with any chronic health condition. Workplace accommodations can make it easier for people with bipolar disorder and other chronic conditions to succeed at work.

Myth 4: You are legally required to tell your employer that you have bipolar disorder.

Whether or not you disclose to your employer that you live with bipolar disorder is a decision that’s entirely up to you. Some people choose to, and others don’t. There are advantages and drawbacks to both choices, and it’s important to weigh them carefully.

It’s illegal to punish someone at work for disclosing bipolar disorder, so you have legal protections. Unfortunately, there is also still stigma against mental illness, and depending on your workplace you may face the repercussions of that after disclosing. This is a highly personal decision and only you know what’s best for you and your situation.

There is one exception — if you plan to file a legal claim for workplace accommodations, wrongful termination, or anything else under the American Disabilities Act, then you must have disclosed that you have bipolar disorder.

Myth 5: Bipolar disorder is a very rare condition that employers don’t need to think about.

We talk a lot about depression and anxiety, but not so much about other mental health conditions like bipolar disorder. This might lead employers and other managers to incorrectly assume that bipolar disorder isn’t something they need to pay attention to.

But bipolar disorder isn’t as rare as you might think. Almost 3% of Americans experienced bipolar disorder in the past year, and over 4% have it at some point in their lives.

That means that in a company of 100 people, there will statistically be 2 to 4 people who are living with bipolar disorder at any given time. It’s important to be aware of it and how to support people who are impacted.

Managing bipolar disorder in the workplace

If you live with bipolar disorder, you can absolutely have a successful career and be employed in jobs you enjoy and that give your life meaning.

Follow these tips to manage bipolar symptoms in the workplace.

    • Continue with treatment at all times unless directed to do otherwise by your healthcare provider. It can feel tempting to stop treatment during manic episodes because you’re more productive than ever. You may even get praised for your dedication at work — maybe you’re even working through the night without sleeping. But mania comes with a cost, and it’s very dangerous to stop medication (and other treatment) without medical supervision.

    • Ask for accommodations if you need them. You may be legally entitled to workplace accommodations for bipolar disorder under the American Disabilities Act. For example, you might get an adjusted work schedule. Talk to a legal professional to learn about your options, and don’t be afraid to ask for adjustments that will help you succeed at your job.

    • Find ways to be creative. Although, of course, people with bipolar disorder aren’t a monolith, research has found an important link between bipolar disorder and creativity. You may feel more fulfilled in jobs that allow for creativity. You don’t necessarily need to be an artist or a musician to find ways to be creative in your career.

    • Pay attention to subtle mood changes. There are ways to become mindful of signs that a depressive or manic episode is coming. When you can catch these mood changes before you are in the middle of an episode, you can take care of yourself in the ways that you need. For example, you could take a break from work before it becomes a mental health emergency. A therapist can help you strengthen this skill.

    • Get regular sleep. One of the key features of a manic episode is a decreased need for sleep. People experiencing mania can often go for days at a time without sleeping. On the other hand, depression may cause you to sleep more than usual. Try to keep your sleep schedule regular no matter what mood you are in. Disrupted sleep is linked to worse mental health.

If you need support to manage bipolar disorder at work, MINES & Associates has your back. We offer 24/7 free and confidential counseling as part of our EAP. We also offer managed behavioral care to help you manage treatment.

To Your Wellbeing,

The MINES Team