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Keven Moore: Bipolar disorder in the workplace presents challenges, but they can be overcome

Each week “resident riskologist” Keven Moore shines the light on America’s riskiest behaviors – from unsafe driving practices to workplace stress to common home accidents. And in the process, he provides the information needed to help people play it a little safer.

According to the National Institute of Mental Disorders, approximately 5.7 million adult Americans, or about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older, are affected every year with bipolar disorder.

Although the illness can start in early childhood or as late as the 40s and 50s, the median age of onset for bipolar disorder is 25. It affects all sexes, races, ethnic groups and social classes. Bipolar disorder is the sixth-leading cause of disability in the world, and as many as one in five patients with the disorder will eventually commit suicide.

A former supervisor of mine suffered from bipolar disorder. David was one of the most dedicated, hardest-working individuals that I ever met, and he would always challenge us to be our best. He once used the phrase ‘Whatever it takes” to dare us to exceed and achieve our objectives and goals. We became close friends and I later discovered that he suffered so much that would eventually take his life.

People with bipolar disorder can have a range of symptoms. Many experience dramatic mood swings, going from an emotional manic high to a very emotional low. In general, symptoms of a manic episode may include: high energy, excessive activity, and/or restlessness, overly good mood, irritability, inability to concentrate, little need for sleep, poor judgement, reckless spending, aggression, feelings of power and often many suffer with bouts of alcohol or drug abuse. The emotional highs are then often followed with emotional lows known as depressive episodes that include hopelessness, lack of interest, anxiety, low energy, excessive sleeping or insomnia, feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness and suicidal thoughts.

Many employees diagnosed with the disorder are notorious for engaging in risky behavior which can endanger themselves or others in the workplace. In my profession as a risk management and safety consultant, many of us have learned that employees with a bipolar disorder are inclined to have more workplace accidents because of their impulsiveness during the manic phase.

Researchers say that the risky decisions people make during manic episodes come from deep inside their brains in a primal pleasure-seeking region, reducing their perception of risk.

What’s more, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health and its National Institute of Mental Health found that bipolar disorder costs twice as much in lost productivity as major depressive disorder. Each U.S. worker with bipolar disorder averaged 65.5 lost workdays in a year, compared to 27.2 for major depression. Even though major depression is more than six times as prevalent, bipolar disorder costs the U.S. workplace nearly half as much — a disproportionately high $14.1 billion annually.

Before you pick up the phone to call your human resources manager to find and root out these potential loss exposures, you need to be aware that these employees are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In fact, as recently as March of 2012, a federal judge in Washington State handed down a decision in favor of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concerning bipolar disorder.

The judge found that Cottonwood Financial Ltd. improperly fired a store manager. The evidence showed that after the plaintiff requested a short medical leave to adjust to new medication prescribed by his doctor to treat his condition, he was improperly fired.  The case is one of the first disability discrimination lawsuits taken to trial concerning bipolar disorder, which now serves as a reminder that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to both mental and physical disabilities. The plaintiff in the case was awarded a $315,000 judgment. 

Since 2003 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has held that people with mental disabilities such as bipolar disorder are protected under the ADA and that employers must offer reasonable accommodation for their disability.

So the burning question is: How do you accommodate an bipolar employee to enable him or her to better endure stress, maintain focus, be more organized, meet deadlines and maintain good attendance?

Bipolar Disorder Sign

Here are some helpful hints:

Provide a flexible schedule to help work around episodes of depression. People with bipolar can be very productive during manic periods but less productive during depressive episodes. Some employers have explored the option of allowing affected employees work from home or to allow the employee to switch to part-time hours when necessary.

Offer longer or more frequent breaks to help employees with bipolar to recharge themselves. To accomplish this, however, employee may need to work additional hours to compensate.

Establish shared responsibilities by teaming another employee up with the affected employee and let them work out how they are going to complete the work. Sometimes during a manic state the bipolar partner will pull far more than his share. The key to making this work is to pair them up with somebody who is understanding and willing to deal with the up and downs.

Reduce distractions in the employee’s work area to help with concentration during mood swings. Look to provide a private office, increase natural lighting or full spectrum lighting, and consider providing white noise or environment recordings.

Divide larger assignments into smaller, achievable ones and allow for periods when only essential baseline functions need to be done during extreme high and low periods.

Encourage better organization by developing checklists or task-lists to keep the affected worker on task.

Provide written instructions to help reduce the chance that supervisors will be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Develop a written agreement with the employee as part of company accommodation efforts, that spells out the employee’s baseline performance standards, that clearly defines the consequences of a failure to meet those standards.

Create an evaluation process that helps both the employer and employee identify what’s working and what’s not.

Keep the lines of communication open between the supervisor and the affected employee and keep everything positive.

Reduce sudden or significant change, whether it’s in office procedures, duties or responsibilities. Such sudden changes can trigger both depressive and manic episodes, so remember to introduce changes incrementally if given the chance.

Schedule periodic meetings to give the affected employee an opportunity to discuss problems, performance and progress toward goals. Try to schedule regularly so that they won’t be threatening.

Remember to praise and encourage; supervisors need to be specific with their praise. How did their performance of a task impact the project? How did it help you or make your job easier? Remember to stay away from empty praise, as people with bipolar disorders tend to be keenly watchful and can spot a artificial compliments a mile away, so keep it real.

Provide sensitivity training to the rest of the staff members, making suggestions for adaptations to help affected employee better cope, and provide the employer with information he needs to avoid problems.

Being bipolar in the workplace presents a huge challenge when stress and unpredictable demands arise. In a survey conducted by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, almost nine out of 10 people with bipolar disorder said the illness had affected their job performance. More than half surveyed said they thought they had to change jobs or careers more often than others. And many felt they were either given less responsibility or passed up for promotions.

If left untreated, the disease can greatly affect job performance, not to mention quality of life, as was the case with my good friend David. However, a combination of medicine therapy and an understanding employer can be effective. Working closely with your health care providers and support network, most employers and affected employees can learn how to manage symptoms and find a balance that works.

R.I.P. David.

Be safe, my friends.

Keven Moore_350

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com

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  1. Sam Johnson says:

    Managing (blank) with medication can be difficult. Natural supplements, like EMPowerplus, are the way to go and way better for you in the long run. Tons of people swear by it! Take a look at their site


  2. HN says:

    This article is incredibly condescending. He offers embarrassing generalizations. The author is not a medical professional. The job environment he describes would be like hell for someone with bipolar disorder. People that have been diagnosed with this need flexibility, and a job where these individuals can use their talents and creativity, even if they have an uncontrollable, incredible urge to research some biological phenomena or read all night, or paint, or make discoveries on their own schedule, or any number of things that are hard to control, and are linked to creative genius characteristics, but these jobs aren’t readily available. Several research papers have linked bipolar disorder with genius and Kay Jamison Ramsfield is an expert on this subject and has also contributed immensely.

  3. Sonny Allmand says:

    Wow fits me to a tee I can go for 4-5 days wide open with 2-3 hours of sleep per night and its more than enough. I write and read and when I write I just have an influx of thoughts and feel I’m a well so deep I could write 7 books. But I know the crash is coming so I try to just enjoy the up while its here. It never last over 5 days and the fall is usually about 10 days long. So sad

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