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mental illness in the workplace: why i won’t tell my employer i have bipolar disorder

Whenever I start a new job and fill in paperwork that asks whether I have any medical conditions, I always pause for a moment. I don’t have epilepsy, I’m not deathly allergic to anything, nor do I have diabetes.

But I do have bipolar disorder.

I was diagnosed seven years ago after a manic episode triggered by a number of factors, one of which was an emotionally abusive relationship. The episode had been building up for a while. My behaviour was impulsive, I was going without food and sleep, and I was experiencing a state of hypersexuality that saw me sleep with men other than my partner. I began receiving psychiatric help after one night, when in a heightened paranoid state, I pulled a knife on my boyfriend because I was convinced he was in league with the devil.

Since then I’ve had to take medication twice a day, every day. There have been some times where I have really struggled, and I have to be very careful about managing my stress levels, as this can be a major trigger for a manic episode. I’ve worked full time as a journalist for the past five years and at no point during this time have I felt comfortable telling an employer about my illness. It would possibly be in my best interest. Maybe we could talk about my workload, my hours, and discuss some ways of giving me leeway so I don’t go into manic mode, which often comes with a healthy dose of paranoia, but I just can’t bring myself to.

As well as (or perhaps because of) having bipolar, I also suffer from a case of trying to over-achieve, and prove I am extremely capable. I have taken on jobs in the newsroom that can be severely stressful. I want to be successful. And I don’t want my bosses to think that I can’t do my job as well as the next person because I have a mental illness.

Despite society’s increasing acceptance surrounding mental illness, I’m scared people will stop seeing me as a suitable fit for the job.This holding back of the truth has often meant heightened levels of anxiety at work when I take on more work to prove nothing is wrong (leaving me in distress), quiet tears in the toilets, thinly veiled anger meltdowns, and days off. This isn’t a sob story, or a tale of woe. Plenty of other people do it tougher than me with illnesses that are more severe. But I think we need to open up the mental illness conversation in the workplace wider than it is now.

Progress has been made when it comes to talking about depression. Plenty of very high profile celebrities have even revealed they have bipolar. But it still feels like anxiety, bipolar and schizophrenia are still cloaked in a fair amount of shame when it comes to admitting to them in the workplace.

I started a new job recently, and in the extensive HR induction there was no mention of coping with mental illness, either pre-existing, or that which is brought on by work stress. But shouldn’t it be? Would it not be a good idea to have a discreet system in our workplaces where sufferers of mental illness feel comfortable coming forward to their bosses without judgement? I don’t even feel comfortable revealing my name in the byline for this story in case my employer or a colleague comes across it.

I feel like I’ll just keep pushing myself through my career, trying not to let these cracks show and covering-up the uphill battle it is.

I’m lucky – I have the support of family and friends. But sometimes it’s hard to keep up the mask of confident, professional 30-year-old career woman at work.

Do you suffer from a mental illness? How do you cope with work, and are you open with your employer about your condition?

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2 thoughts on “mental illness in the workplace: why i won’t tell my employer i have bipolar disorder

  1. I don’t put down depression and anxiety on job applications but if I get to an interview when they inevitably ask you your weaknesses or areas of improvement, I say ‘I can get quite stressed out so I try to keep in mind being aware of when I’m taking on too much, and ways to manage doing my best work with remaining happy and confident.’ Which I think flags that maintaining good mental health is a priority while still showing that I’m capable and a hard worker and self manage without saying the diagnoses that might scare off people who don’t fully understand what it means.
    If I’m having a rough time, I’m lucky that my current boss will let me take time to get better, or encourages me saying ‘this is too much workload right now’ because she knows I work like a gun when I’m better. I’m really lucky. But it is a worry for me that the real words for what I have would change her opinion of me, and I don’t feel confident to more openly discuss the full scope of what’s going on. This is also a worry for future jobs.

    • I know exactly how you feel. Back in the nineties, when I first started working, there was a lot of emphasis on how mental illness was just like any other illness and ‘you shouldn’t be ashamed of it, etc’. I was in my early twenties and had been knocked back for yet another job that I knew I was qualified for when I finally figured out that not everyone had got the memo, so to speak. Next job interview I made no mention of my depression or anxiety, and guess what – the job was mine. Later on when I became a manager and I had a staff member tell me in confidence that they suffered from mental illness, I would always be very empathetic, telling them I knew how it felt, but to cover them I advised them not to let too many people know. I felt awful doing so, but that was the way it was, unfortunately. I’m a mother now, and although I hope my son doesn’t inherit any of my negative traits, I will be torn if he does. Not sure whether he should be out and proud about it, or to keep it under wraps, because it’s still just not understood by enough people.

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