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Managing Bipolar Disorder and Work

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNP, ACRN, CPH on September 15, 2017Written by Erica Cirino on September 15, 2017

Overview

Bipolar disorder is a mental condition causing severe shifts in mood. People with bipolar disorder “cycle” from high moods (called mania and hypomania) to extremely low moods (depression). These mood shifts, which sometimes occur very quickly, can cause problems in a person’s personal and social lives.

Bipolar disorder can also make it very difficult for a person to find and keep a job and function at work. In one survey, with bipolar disorder said their condition has affected their work performance.

There are many challenges related to having bipolar disorder and keeping a job. However, experts say that work can actually be quite helpful to people with bipolar disorder. It can give them a sense of structure, reduce depression, and increase confidence. This helps to smooth out moods and reduce the number and intensity of their bipolar symptoms.

What are the best jobs for people with bipolar disorder?

There is no one-size-fits-all job for people with bipolar disorder. Instead, people with the condition should look for work that suits them as an individual. Here are some things to consider when deciding what kind of job is right for you:

What’s the work environment like?

Will this job support your lifestyle and help you grow as an individual, or will it be too challenging? For many people with bipolar disorder, a quiet and relaxed workspace can help them concentrate more easily.

What’s the schedule like?

Part-time work with an adaptable schedule can be helpful for people with bipolar disorder. It can also be helpful to work during the day, because sunshine can help keep your energy and mood steady. Overnight and night shifts, or jobs that require you to be on call at night, may not be a good idea for people with bipolar disorder because sleep is very important and maintaining a normal sleep/wake pattern may be beneficial.

What will your co-workers be like?

Seek a job where your co-workers have values in line with your own, and who will understand the importance of your overall health.

Is the job creative?

Many people with bipolar disorder do best when they have a job where they can be creative. It can be helpful to find a job where you can be creative at work or a job that gives you enough free time for creative projects.

Once you’ve answered these questions, you should dig a bit deeper to try to better understand yourself so you find a job you’d enjoy. Think about your:

  • interests
  • strengths and abilities
  • skills
  • personality traits
  • values
  • physical health
  • limits, triggers, and barriers

Once you narrow down your job choices, do some more in-depth career research. You can look at to learn more about each job’s characteristics, including:

  • working duties
  • required skills
  • required education or training
  • required license or certificate
  • usual work hours
  • work conditions (physical demands, environment, and stress level)
  • salary and benefits
  • opportunities to advance
  • employment outlook

If you can’t find a job that suits you, you may want to consider starting your own business. You can create your own job that allows for more creativity and flexibility than you may find if you work for someone else.

However, it’s important to have the business skills, discipline, and organization to run your own business. Structured work with a regular schedule is usually best for people with bipolar disorder.

How can work-related stress affect a person with bipolar disorder?

Work can be unpredictable, demanding, and difficult. All of this can cause stress. For a person with bipolar disorder, this stress can trigger mood swings.

To manage stress at work:

  • take breaks often and regularly, even if you’re not sure if you need one
  • use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation to reduce your stress
  • listen to relaxing music or a recording of nature sounds
  • take a walk around the block at lunch
  • talk to your support network if you need help
  • take time off of work for therapy and treatment when necessary

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can also help reduce your work stress. Exercise regularly, eat healthfully, get plenty of sleep, and be sure to stick to your treatment plan.

What legal rights does someone with bipolar disorder have at work?

Legally, you don’t have to tell your employer any of your health information, unless you could put others at risk.

While generally people are more open today about discussing mental illness, there is still a stigma. It’s not right, but people may treat you differently if they know you have a mental illness — and this may include the people you work with.

On the other hand, there are many people who are understanding of mental illness and the challenges it can cause at work. For this reason, in some cases it can actually be helpful for you to share your bipolar diagnosis with your boss and human resources department. If those who work with you are aware of your condition, they may be more likely to accommodate you in ways that will reduce your workplace stress and make your overall working experience more enjoyable.

If you decide to tell your employer about your health condition, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have resources to help you have that conversation.

Moving forward

Sometimes you’ll be able to find a great job by yourself, but if you’re having trouble, it can be very helpful for you to seek professional assistance.

Some free and low-cost sources of help include:

  • vocational rehabilitation
  • your school or alma mater
  • government or employment services

It’s not always easy to find and keep work if you have bipolar disorder, but with extra effort it’s possible to find a fulfilling job. Keep this in mind as you move forward with your job hunt.

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