Nobody can tell you whether you will be able to return to work. The answer hinges on several variables, including the severity of the illness, the effectiveness of the treatment you receive, how much support you have at work and home, the stress level (and your capacity for handling it), and how eager you are to return to work.

You might be better off rephrasing the question. Instead of asking “Will I be able to return to work?” Ask yourself what returning to work means for you:

  • Full return: Some people with bipolar take a few weeks or months off work, obtain the medications or other treatments they need, and then return to work as though nothing had happened.
  • Partial return: Instead of returning to your standard 40- to 50-hour workweek, you scale back, perhaps working only 3 or 4 days a week if your situation allows for it. Some people who take this approach find that they can, over time, build back up to working a full week.
  • Return with accommodations: The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) covers mental illness, so whether you return full-time or part-time, you may qualify for reasonable workplace accommodations. We cover this in detail in Part IV of this series, “Requesting Workplace Accommodations.”
  • Job change: Instead of returning to the same job, you may be able to secure a less demanding position with the same employer, seek employment elsewhere, or change careers.

Experiencing a major mood episode is often likened to being in a serious car accident. You may not look bruised and battered on the outside, but your brain has suffered serious trauma and needs rest to fully recover. In addition, you’re probably taking some new medications, which often require at least a few weeks to become effective and perhaps even more time for your body to adapt to them. In short, try not to be in too much of a hurry to get back to work.

You are much more likely to have a successful return to work by taking all the time you need to fully recover and get your moods on an even keel. A premature return increases your chances of experiencing another crash, which may make returning to work even more difficult next time.

Also ask yourself whether you can afford not to work. I am not talking just about money and benefits. Work offers a host of perks, including the following:

  • Structure: Bipolar often responds better in a structured environment, particularly in terms of schedule, and a workday can provide this structure.
  • Positive self esteem: Being productive naturally provides you with a sense of self-worth.
  • Camaraderie: For many people, work is the place where they socialize the most, and having an active social life (not too active), can level out your moods and provide support as you set work-related recovery goals and develop adaptive habits.

Don’t underestimate the value of these benefits when making your decision. But if bipolar prevents you from returning to work, don’t assume that you’re losing out on all this great stuff, either. You can structure your day, establish a healthy social life, and build self-esteem without a job – it just may be a little more challenging. These activities may take the form of volunteerism, new roles within your family, adult education, or avocational pursuits, such as gardening, book clubs, and art, or music.

We would like to know what you think. Please share your experiences and insights of returning to work with bipolar disorder. If you’ve been able to manage bipolar at work, how have you done so? Did you return to the same job under the same conditions or with changes? Did you change jobs or careers? If bipolar has prevented you from returning to work, what specifically kept you from going back to work? What are you doing, if anything, to keep yourself busy, structure your days, and maintain a social life?

Join us next week for Part II of this series: “To Tell or Not to Tell?” when we discuss the pros and cons of disclosing bipolar to supervisors and coworkers.