January 24, 2013
Employees with bipolar disorder: How do they affect your workplace?

Do you have an employee with bipolar disorder? Bipolar disorder, also called manic depression or manic-depressive disorder, affects 1 in 20 Americans. It is a brain-based condition leading to episodes of mania and depression. It causes changes in mood, energy, and activity levels. Although treatable with medication, it’s considered a lifelong condition.

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Bipolar employees may exhibit racing thoughts, poor judgment, impulsive behavior, irritability, and many more issues that affect their ability to function at work, which poses a serious disability accommodation problem for employers.

Employees with bipolar disorder

While 1 in 20 Americans are affected, unfortunately there are no accurate statistics regarding the prevalence of employees with bipolar disorder in workplace. The biggest reason is the stigma surrounding it. "Most people are afraid to admit that they have this condition – both in the workplace and in general society." Tom Wootton noted in a recent BLR webinar.

When dealing with employees with bipolar disorder, there is a large range of symptoms that may be attributed to the condition. Here are just a few of the symptoms during the manic stage (the list is not comprehensive):

  • Having increased energy
  • Feeling agitated, irritable, jumpy, edgy, or wired
  • Talking fast, jumping from idea to idea, having racing thoughts
  • Being easily distracted
  • Having an unrealistic belief about one’s abilities (i.e. thinking they have exceptional skills)
  • Exhibiting impulsivity and high risk behavior—including things like spending sprees or questionable business investments

During the depressive stage, an employee with bipolar disorder may have difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions. He or she may feel sad, pessimistic, exhausted, or even suicidal.

With such a wide spectrum of symptoms, employers often face a tough call in determining whether the employee is an asset or a liability for the company. For example, the person could be both a high performer – with lots of energy, creativity, and ideas – but also cause problems with coworkers or engage in risky behavior.

"The issues of depression and mania work differently throughout the organization. One accommodation may be allowing them to be productive during their productive times and accepting the fact that when they’re depressed maybe they’re not as productive—but over the course of a year they may actually be more productive than everyone else." Wootton gave as an example.

"That inconsistency is the real frustration that we have to deal with. Some of the bipolar people can be your greatest stars and the biggest problems all at the same time. Those are the ones that you really have to make a very tough decision about."

There are ways that companies can assist employees with bipolar disorder to be productive, valuable contributors. The first step is for HR professionals to understand the complexities of bipolar disorder and understand the types of accommodations that might allow the employee to be productive. For more information on recognizing and accommodating employees with bipolar disorder, order the webinar recording of "Bipolar Employees: HR’s Legal and Practical Accommodation Roadmap." To register for a future webinar, visit http://catalog.blr.com/audio.

Tom Wootton is the author of "The Bipolar Advantage," "The Depression Advantage" and "Bipolar In Order." (www.bipolaradvantage.com) He has developed a series of workshops dealing with depression and bipolar disorder, and is considered a leading consumer advocate and speaker; he has been giving talks to consumer groups, mental health leaders, and doctors.

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