Work, bipolar and me: Alice's story
Bipolar Affective Disorder is a mental illness, characterised by mood swings from manic highs to depressive lows. In this blog for World Bipolar Disorder day, Alice discusses the pros and cons of disclosing her condition in the workplace.
I began experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder from an early age. Following years of misdiagnosis, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1 disorder in May 2017. At points in my life, I’ve been very unwell – I’ve had bipolar episodes and rapid cycling. However, with support, I’m managing my condition well and can work full-time as a qualified teacher.
I love my job, but I’ve found that Bipolar Affective Disorder is complex to talk about when it comes to the workplace and employment; even the description of your condition is complicated. Some people say that someone has Bipolar. Some people say that someone is Bipolar. Some people still use the term “Manic Depressive”. Others choose not to disclose this condition in the workplace at all.
I am fortunate to live and work in a country that recognises Bipolar Affective Disorder as a lifelong mental health disability/condition. Living with this condition entitles me to protective rights under law-binding legislation, such as the Equality Act, 2010. For example, I cannot be terminated from my job for disclosing my condition, and I can ask for reasonable adjustments to be made in the workplace if I require them. It also would be against the law for an employer to refused me an interview based on my disability if I choose to disclose it in an application. I can also write this very article and attach my full name to it, despite working as a secondary school English teacher.
But choosing to disclose this diagnosis may come with very real risks. Not many employers may know or understand that bipolar is a lifelong condition (1-2% of the population will experience a lifelong prevalence of bipolar). Whilst the fear of an employer not complying with the Equality Act 2010 is a genuine concern, I wanted to write this article about some of the day-to-day worries that I’ve felt as someone with bipolar in the working world.
Stigma can exist in micro-forms in the workplace. For example, I must be aware that sharing or disclosing my diagnosis to staff (or students and parents in my case) may come with added risk to my professionalism. Revealing a diagnosis that is riddled with preconceived ideas can trigger uncomfortable conversations and whispers about your suitability for your role. As a teacher, people pass judgement on whether a person has the capacity to teach children or be trusted around children. These harmful misconceptions affect how people see me in my career on a day-to-day basis.
Relationships with colleagues become complicated, and barriers are murky; what if you disclose too much information at a work-do to a friend? What if someone overhears you using dark humour as a coping mechanism? What are the implications if you disclose past examples of suicidal tendencies to HR?
I cannot count the times I have been anxious at work due to lingering glances, comments under people’s breath when you walk into a room after extended sick leave, avoiding small talk. These concerns include the fear of opening up and disclosing information to colleagues that may be helpful and result in supportive adjustments being made, or even sometimes creating meaningful connections and friendships with colleagues.
All these small things may appear to be simple workplace gossip, but the unspoken assumptions of others can contribute to the stigma and that the condition is to be judged, treated cautiously or worse – feared.
There are other things I have to take into account too. Medication changes, unpredictable fluctuations in mood and a sudden onset of symptoms are all things I might have to manage, which can prove difficult and exhausting. Furthermore, it can be frustrating when an employer does not comply with the agreed reasonable adjustments – which, unfortunately, has happened to me on more than one occasion. As a teacher, it’s also not easy for me to schedule meetings with the mental health professionals who support me. If I’m unwell, I might also have to take time off from work and paid sick leave, resulting in absence meetings and formal warnings. Many employers either do not understand the complexities of an illness that feels ever-changing or have planned protocols in place for someone like me, who has fluctuating needs.
According to Bipolar UK*, 90% of people with bipolar disclosed their condition to their employer, but 24% of those said that they regretted it. In my experience, this regret commonly stems from stigmatisation and an unwelcoming environment.
From my experience, this has been combatted by supportive and understanding colleagues and staff, a sense of belonging to a community (rather than feeling removed, ostracised or different from it) and removing the fear of judgement from the person with the diagnosis. Small differences, such as inviting someone over for a coffee in the staffroom or smiling in the corridor after extended sick leave, make a world of difference.
Luckily, I have worked in very understanding and caring environments. In my current job, I have positive relationships with colleagues, and I have openly discussed my disorder with people who have not held judgements against me - Alice
This includes both depressive and manic episodes, which can be intimidating to discuss and increase the fear of judgement. I have been able to work with reasonable adjustments; for example, I have been able to attend AMHT appointments and blood tests for my medication reviews where appropriate and needed.
I have also made friendships within the workplace which have been supportive, kind and have motivated me to come into work and be the best teacher I can be every day. But most importantly, I have been able to continue to work full-time in a job that I love and with my students, who I value, support and respect. I can go to work every day knowing that I will be able to do a job that I love in a workplace that values me.
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder, also known as bipolar affective disorder, is a mood disorder. It used to be called manic depression. Bipolar disorder can cause your mood to swing from an extreme high to an extreme low.
Find out more What is bipolar disorder?
Discrimination and mental health.
The Equality Act 2010 protects disabled people and their carers from unfair treatment. This includes many people with a mental illness. You may have the right to get your employer to make changes to your job due to your disability.
Find out more Discrimination and mental health.
Reasonable adjustments at work
Many people with a mental illness have a legal right to ask an employer for changes to be made to their jobs and workplaces. These changes ensure that, as long as you have the rights skills for it, there are no barriers to you being able to apply for or carry out a job.
Find out more Reasonable adjustments at work
Our Advice and Information service
The Rethink Mental Illness advice and information service offers practical help on a wide range of topics such as The Mental Health Act, community care, welfare benefits, and carers rights. We also offer general information on living with mental illness, medication and care.
Find out more Our Advice and Information service