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Back to Work with Bipolar Disorder: Part I

Many people with bipolar disorder are able to successfully return to work once they’re on an effective treatment regimen, which typically includes one or more medications. In Bipolar Disorder for Dummies, however, we recommend that you avoid mood stressors and triggers – and returning to work, especially a demanding job, can be loaded with stressors and triggers. In this two-part series on returning to work with bipolar disorder, we offer some suggestions on how to ease the transition back to work.

Every individual and situation is different. Some people have no option but to return to work full-time and really have very little support from loved ones. Others may have a tremendous support network, an understanding supervisor, and very accommodating co-workers. Some people may even find that returning to work is less stressful than staying home, and they really embrace the opportunity to return to work.

Following are some suggestions that can ease the transition back to work:

  • Meet with your doctor first. You may need a doctor’s release to return to work. In addition, your doctor may offer some helpful suggestions concerning how to handle your medications in the workplace.
  • Set up a doctor’s appointment ahead of time for the end of your first work week. By setting up an appointment in advance, you can return to work knowing that if anything goes wrong, you can get in to see your doctor soon. You can always cancel if things are going well.
  • Consider any workplace accommodations that can help you function more effectively at work. Under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), you have a right to reasonable accommodations. Check out the Job Accommodation Network’s “Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Bipolar Disorder” by Kendra M. Duckworth. This publication can help you identify accommodations that people with bipolar disorder find particularly helpful.
  • Discuss your return with your supervisor. You’re not required by law to disclose your diagnosis or treatment, but if you feel comfortable disclosing this information, it may make your supervisor a little more understanding and flexible.Tip: You can often predict how your supervisor may react to your diagnosis by thinking back to actions she performed or words she uttered in the past. How accommodating has your supervisor been regarding other illnesses and absences from work? Has she ever made unkind remarks about people who were “nutjobs” or “headcases?” Past behaviors are the best predictors of future behaviors.
  • Discuss your return with one or more coworkers you trust. Again, you have no obligation whatsoever to disclose your diagnosis or treatment. In fact, a disclosure may not always be the best idea. But if you have coworkers you trust, a support person on the job can help you watch for early warning signs and avoid potential conflicts.
  • Lighten the load at home. If you have a partner or other loved one who can relieve some of your burden at home, ask him or her to take on some additional responsibilities or chores or hire help (if you can afford it). If someone else can chip in by paying the bills, picking up the house, cooking, and making sure the kids (if any) are taken care of, at least temporarily, you may feel less stress at work.

Note: You may need to submit medical forms and other paperwork to receive sick pay or other benefits, but keeping up on all the paperwork can be quite stressful and difficult when you’re feeling depressed or overwhelmed. Get help from a family member or friend, a union representative, or your employer’s human resource department. Union representatives and HR workers are typically very knowledgeable about your rights and dedicated to making sure that your employer follows the proper legal procedures.

From Joe: When my wife was experiencing her worst mood episodes early on, when we really had no understanding of bipolar disorder, her doctor would simply prescribe medications and send her back to work. Looking back, it reminds me of a boxer who’s getting pummeled in the ring being patched up in his corner and then sent back into the ring to get pounded some more.

She wasn’t well enough to return to work. The major breakdown made her weak and confused. When she did return to work, her mind was in such a fog that she couldn’t perform her job duties, which understandably increased the stress she was feeling and ultimately led to another breakdown and all the fallout that resulted from it. Now, not only did she feel stress, but she also felt like a failure.

I think a lot of times people have no choice but to get patched up with a few meds and try to return to work before they’re fully healthy. But if you have enough sick time and a support network in place, I would strongly advise that you avoid returning to work prematurely. If possible, wait until you feel fully healthy and ready.

Please post a comment to share your insights and experiences with others, and please check back next week for Part II of “Back to Work with Bipolar Disorder.”

Back to Work with Bipolar Disorder: Part I

Candida Fink, MD

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APA Reference
Fink, C. (2014). Back to Work with Bipolar Disorder: Part I. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 21 Feb 2014
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