Learning How to Maintain Employment with Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is a severe mental health disorder affecting an estimated 2.8% of the U.S. population. This disorder results in strong emotional ups and downs, highs and lows of energy, and self-righteousness that can make it extremely difficult to follow instructions or take orders. That can mean difficulty keeping or maintaining jobs, getting into fights at work, refusing directives for no reason other than that they’re directives, difficulty managing energy levels, difficulty finishing projects, and neglecting to ask for help.
If you want to keep a job with bipolar disorder, you’ll need coping mechanisms, mitigation measures, and a change of mindset. That can be extremely difficult, especially when you go between mania and depression, but it is possible. Most importantly, getting a diagnosis is the most important first step, so you’re already well on your way there.
Choose a Job that Works for You
You’ll never find a perfect job that ticks all of the boxes. However, you can take steps to look for work that complements you and your needs. For most people with bipolar disorder, that means choosing work with a regular schedule, no disruptive shifts, and the ability to maintain a steady sleep schedule. Limiting commute can also be helpful. You’ll also want to assess factors like where you work best. E.g., if you need a quiet space to work in, you shouldn’t choose a loud workplace. On the other hand, if you can’t trust yourself to focus at home, you’ll want to make sure you’re in an office.
However, there are dozens of things you might want to consider about a workplace:
- Is flex-work an option so you can contribute more during manic periods and less during down periods?
- Are bosses understanding that you have a disorder? Does your workplace offer assistance with treatment or therapy?
- Do you get along with colleagues?
- Does the work allow you to have a creative outlet? If not, do you have one outside of work?
- Is the job low stress? E.g., you’ll probably have an easier time in an organization with good organizational structure and planning than in one that constantly has overhead, last minute deadlines, and pressure.
Eventually, most people with bipolar disorder benefit from jobs that offer structure, a creative outlet, and predictability. Having people to be accountable to can be good – providing you can manage interpersonal relationships and avoid or mitigate feelings of rebelliousness.
Integrate Stress Management
Managing stress can help you to mitigate or minimize the symptoms of bipolar disorder. That means both integrating long-term lifestyle changes and integrating emergency measures you can take when you start to experience mood swings.
For example, seeing a therapist and taking part in ongoing treatment or counseling can be an important part of your lifestyle management. You’ll also want to integrate basic measures like eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising daily or almost daily, and avoiding drugs and alcohol or minimizing them in your recreational life.
Other stress management measures can help. E.g., many people will recommend yoga or Mindfulness, or a similar measure. However, building the baselines of healthy diet, good sleep schedule, exercise, and a clean or organized environment are essential for that to have lasting impact.
Here, it’s also important not to go overboard. If you start doing too much every day, you’ll have a burnout. The following include reasonable and good guidelines:
- Sleep 10 hours per day (many bipolar people need 10-12 hours of sleep a day)
- Walk 30-60 minutes per day. You don’t need intensive exercise to benefit from exercise
- Eat 2-3 healthy meals per day – use meal-prep to ensure you have them ready at hand if you don’t like cooking
- Limit alcohol to weekends and only with friends or family and minimize intake
- Spend 15 minutes every morning and every evening organizing your space or doing a cleaning task
- Make time out for friends, social things, and fun
Accommodate Your Disorder
Living with a bipolar disorder may mean making space for yourself. It may also mean making changes that most people wouldn’t ever have to. That can be difficult at first, especially if you feel stigma in not being able to do things. However, you can almost always make small changes with a large impact. Some of them might include:
- If medication makes you feel jittery, talk to your doctor about taking it on a different schedule so you’re less jittery at work
- If something is overwhelming, figure out how to do away with it. E.g., get a dishwasher, throw away all your socks and buy a set that all go together so you spend less time folding laundry, etc.
- Reduce distractions in your workspace, bring in a white noise machine, and use bright or full spectrum lighting
- Ask for flex work so you can stay home if you have a manic or depressive episode
- Stay on top of symptoms and act quickly if you feel an episode coming on. If people point symptoms out to you, listen to them. Understanding how you specifically react in an episode can prevent you from having one at work.
Eventually, you have a mental health disorder. It’s normal that you’d need some accommodation to do your job. Often, that will also mean understanding if you need delegation or a lack of it, which kinds of workplaces you can work in, and what works for you. That will vary from person to person, because bipolar disorder does not define what works for you.
The most important steps you can take to learn how to keep a job is to learn regulation, long-term symptom mitigation, and staying in control. That means taking medication, going to therapy and getting help, learning symptoms and reacting quickly when they start to appear, learning coping mechanisms and using them, and building a healthy and structured life that offers the support you need to function. That’s a lot, but it will improve most other areas of your life as well – especially once you learn the habits to make things like meals and exercise easy rather than things you have to remind yourself to do.
Good luck with your job and with symptom management.
If you or you loved one need help with mental health treatment, drug rehab, or alcohol rehab Compassion Recovery Center is here to help. Contact us to ask about our mental health programs and how we can support your specific requirements as you move into treatment.