Understanding bipolar disorder

Severity of illness can vary from person to person
By Sarika Gundu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/24/2014

Workplaces play an essential role in maintaining positive mental health. But while they can contribute to personal well-being, they can also cause, contribute to or aggravate mental health problems. When an employee has an existing mental health issue, such as bipolar disorder, it can be a challenge for the employer to maintain a mentally healthy and supportive work environment.

But with the appropriate treatment and support, employees with a mental illness can lead
productive and healthy lives — both at work and at home.

What is bipolar disorder?

Bipolar disorder, also known as bipolar affective disorder or manic depression, is a type of mood disorder. A person diagnosed with bipolar disorder experiences alternating emotional states that run from extreme highs to extreme lows. These episodes may have nothing to do with any particular life event — they can occur spontaneously, independent of any trigger.

Bipolar disorder affects about one per cent of the general population. It usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood and affects men and women equally.

It is not known what causes bipolar disorder, although research indicates a genetic predisposition may contribute since it tends to run in families. Substance abuse and stress may also contribute to its development.

In addition to feelings of depression, someone with bipolar disorder also has episodes of mania. When people are experiencing manic periods, they exhibit symptoms that include:

•extreme optimism, euphoria and feelings of grandeur

•rapid, racing thoughts and hyperactivity

•a decreased need for sleep

•increased irritability

•impulsiveness and possibly reckless behaviour.


Like any other disease, mental illness responds better to early identification and treatment. Depression in particular responds very well to treatment. Both depression and bipolar disorder can be treated with psychotherapy, counselling, education and medication.

Electroconvulsive therapy has proven to be helpful for those who do not respond to other treatments.

Self-help groups are very beneficial in getting — and staying — on the road to recovery. A supportive network of family and friends is also very helpful. A depressed individual may not want the company of others or, conversely, may continuously want the company of certain people. It’s important to be patient and non-judgmental — listen rather than talk and keep an open mind to their thoughts and feelings.

Managing mental illness in the workplace

The severity of mental illnesses can vary from person to person. Two people can both be diagnosed with bipolar disorder but may require different accommodations in the workplace.

It is important for managers to discuss how they can best support these employees — but they should remember they’re managers, not health-care professionals.

To better accommodate employees with a mental illness, employers should:

Create a psychologically safe and healthy workplace: Stigma in the workplace prevents employees from sharing, talking and getting help for their mental health concerns. Addressing stigma is essential in creating a psychologically safe and healthy workplace.

Organizations should consider anti-stigma campaigns, mental health awareness workshops for employees and mental health training for managers. The National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace is an excellent tool for creating a psychologically safe and health workplace. These initiatives not only prevent stigma but also equip employees with the tools and resources to support themselves and their co-workers.

Build trust: If an employee has told his manager he has a mental illness, the manager should convey she can be trusted with such information. With stigma still very prevalent, it is important an employee feels comfortable about revealing such information.

Communicate: The manager should discuss with the employee what he needs from her to be successful in his role and what she needs from him to be successful in her role. They should work together on a solution that will help the employee meet his assigned duties. She should ask the employee how his illness and symptoms might impact his work. This information is helpful when creating an effective accommodation plan. The manager should stay calm and relaxed when communicating with employees.

Helpful queries can sound like this: “Help me understand your condition” or “What is the impact of your condition on your work?”

Employees with bipolar disorder, lupus, multiple sclerosis or any other illness that involves episodic symptoms may require certain accommodations in the workplace to better manage their condition and work. Some common yet effective accommodations to consider are flexible work hours, adjustable workloads, work-from-home options and job-sharing options.

Keep in mind that accommodations may change over time and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Be sure to touch base regularly with employees to understand how the accommodations are working out for them.

Sarika Gundu is national director of the workplace mental health program at the Canadian Mental Health Association in Toronto. She can be reached at sgundu@cmha.ca.

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