By Shana Palmieri, June 12, 2018

Have you ever noticed an employee or coworker who seems to have severe mood swings? I’m not talking about normal good day/bad day fluctuations, but episodes where the person is so hyperactive you can’t slow him down, or so depressed that she won’t even bother to show up for work? There’s a chance that this person might have one of the Bipolar Disorders.

Bipolar Disorder(s) are estimated to impact 2.8% of the adult population in the United States in any given year. The affected individual typically starts to experience symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in their early to mid-twenties, the typical age at which young adults are transitioning from education into the workforce.

What is Bipolar?

Bipolar Disorders are brain disorders that cause significant changes in an individual’s mood, energy level, and ability to function, that are not typical for the individual.  It is normal for people to have fluctuations in mood and energy levels in response to life events and stressors.  For example, most individuals will feel sad at the death of a loved one, after a break-up, or during a stressful period at work. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is normal for individuals to experience feelings of elation, joy, and happiness in response to events like falling in love, getting a promotion, or the excitement before a much-anticipated vacation.

The difference with individuals who have bipolar disorder is that the changes in mood and energy levels:

  • Are the result of chemical brain changes;
  • Occur during distinct periods of time, which are referred to as a “cycles” or “episodes”; and
  • Are much more intense and severe in nature than mood and energy changes in unaffected people.

So, while manic or depressive episodes can be triggered by stressors in the individual’s life, the mood and energy changes are significantly impacted in bipolar disorder by brain changes that individuals without bipolar disorder do not experience.

There are three types of bipolar disorder and many additional subtypes for each disorder. The type of bipolar disorder that an individual is diagnosed with will determine the level of impairment on the individual’s ability to function, and the impact the person’s behavior might have in the workplace.

Sometimes it can be a bit difficult to conceptualize the difference between bipolar disorder and normal mood/energy changes, since we all have fluctuations in our mood and energy levels – one of the reasons why bipolar disorder can at times be complicated to diagnose.  However, when an individual has bipolar disorder, her fluctuations in mood and energy level are extreme and she often lacks the ability, without intensive treatment (often including medication), to bring her energy level and mood back to a “normal” level.

A few examples of the types of symptoms individuals diagnosed with a bipolar disorder may experience include:  

  • Sudden changes in mood (elevated, expansive or irritable mood)
    • This change in mood typically lasts at a minimum, 4 to 7 days
  • Excessive energy beyond reason (the individual may sleep as little at 1-2 hours a night, and will continue to have excessive amounts of energy the remainder of the 24-hour period)
  • Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity (the individual suddenly believes they are famous)
  • Changes in sleep patterns (during a manic episode sleeping as little at 1-2 hours a night)
  • Rapid speech, increased talkativeness
  • Disorganized thinking
  • Increased goal-directed activity (the individual may be highly productive for a period of time)
  • Increased risky and impulsive behavior (hypersexual behavior, unusual spending sprees, gambling)
  • Psychotic symptoms (an impaired sense of reality)
  • High levels of irritability (impulsive aggression may be present during a manic phase)

Bipolar disorder unfortunately causes the highest percentage of serious impairment among all mood disorders, and when diagnosed with the more severe type of the illness, individuals often have distinct episodes in which they require intensive treatment and impaired function in the workplace.

What is the impact of Bipolar Disorder in the Workplace?

The type of bipolar disorder the individual is diagnosed with will determine the impact within the workplace.  Individuals with Bipolar Disorder often have the most significant impairment when experiencing an acute manic episode.  Individuals that have bipolar disorder cycle in and out of acute episodes.  In between these episodes, individuals may experience a return to their baseline with no or limited symptoms present.  However, during an episode an individual may need time away from work during a hospitalization until his symptoms are stabilized enough to allow him to function well in the workplace.

Mental illness tends to be stigmatized and judgements are often made about employees who need to take time away from work for treatment of a mental health condition.  But in reality, there is no difference in the need to take time off from work to allow your body to recover from the flu as there is from the need for an individual to take the time off work to recover from a manic or depressive episode.

Is Bipolar Disorder Real?

There is a common misperception that mental health disorders are not a real or are caused by personal weakness.  Research and scientific evidence has demonstrated that bipolar disorder creates significant changes in the brain and have a genetic link.  In fact, if an individual has a first-degree relative with bipolar disorder, they are ten times more likely to also have the disorder.

It is extremely important for individuals with symptoms to be properly diagnosed and to receive treatment under the care of a medical professional, as bipolar disorder is associated with significant life-threatening risk.  It is estimated that 1 in 5 individuals with bipolar disorder complete suicide and individuals with bipolar disorder are estimated to have a 9.2 year reduction in life expectancy as a result of co-occurring medical conditions and increased risk of suicide.

How can Employers Create Opportunities for Success for Employees with Bipolar?

Despite the impairments that bipolar disorder may cause an individual, make no mistake: these individuals can be a true asset to any organization, similar to any employee who does not have the bipolar diagnosis.  Agencies will benefit from understanding how to support individuals with bipolar disorder and creating opportunities for employees to perform at their highest potential. 

  • Ensure all supervisors, managers and human resources staff are educated on the symptoms of bipolar disorder.
  • Learn to recognize the warning signs that an employee is struggling and provide support and guidance to help them access treatment options.
  • Engage in the Reasonable Accommodation process after a request for accommodation has been made.
  • Encourage and support employees in accessing EAP and appropriate mental health services.
  • Implement programs through HR or EAP that promote mental wellness and stress reduction.

Join FELTG for a webinar on Managing & Supporting the Employee with Bipolar Disorder, June 20. [email protected]


[Looking for Bill’s No. One favorite f-word? Look no further. It’s “forgiveness.” Accept apologies and move on. Life’s too short to be offended about things all the time.]

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