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Bipolar on the Job: What's an Employer to Do?

Updated on December 15, 2016
There are down days......
There are down days......
And there are up days...
And there are up days...

Accommodating Employees with Bipolar Under ADA


Many people are not aware that Bipolar Disorder is now considered a disability protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Since 2003, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has held that people with mental disabilities like bipolar are protected under the ADA and that employers must offer reasonable accommodation for their disability. The EEOC states clearly that “The individualized assessment of virtually all people with bipolar disorder will result in a determination of disability under the ADA; given its inherent nature, bipolar disorder will almost always be found to substantially limit the major life activity of brain function.” As such accommodations must be made if at all possible as with any other disability.

Fortunately for employers the Federal Office of Disability Employment’s Job Accommodation Network (JAN) offers some suggestions as to how employers can accommodate an employee with bipolar disorder.

Challenges faced by workers with bipolar disorder include difficulties with:

  • Stamina
  • Concentration
  • Organization
  • Meeting deadlines
  • Stress tolerance
  • Coping with authority figures and supervision
  • Attendance
  • Coping with change

Let’s face it, if a worker has bipolar disorder, employers are going to be hard-pressed in many jobs to accommodate most of these challenges. Enduring stress, maintaining focus, being organized, meeting deadlines and the rest of this list are pretty much minimum standards for keeping your job in most company. The contents of this list make it quite obvious as to why people with bipolar have such a hard time keeping jobs and why so many wind up giving up even trying to go to work.

JAN suggests some accommodations an employer can make to help keep a valued employee (or even an unvalued one now that EEOC has won a series of accommodation lawsuits against employers).

  1. Flexible scheduling can help employees work around episodes of depression. People with bipolar can be very productive during manic periods and if that’s valuable to the company, it might also be worth it to shorten work hours or give time off when the employee is in the worst of a depressive episode.
  2. Longer or more frequent breaks can help employees with bipolar to recharge. The employee may need to be at work more hours than other employees in order to get a full day’s work done during slow energy times.
  3. Paired responsibilities can help. If you can find another worker who shares the same tasks who is willing, you can assign tasks to the two and let them work out how to get the work done. Sometimes the bipolar partner will pull more than his own weight; sometimes less. The trick is finding someone who doesn’t mind his partner’s ups and downs and can step in to complete tasks when his partner is dragging.
  4. Reduce distractions in the employee’s work area. Concentration is a problem during both manic and depressive mood swings. Use white noise or environment recordings (the sounds of the sea, rainstorm at night, wind on the prairie – that sort of thing).
  5. Allow the employee to work from home if they can handle it or set them up in an isolated area where they won’t be disturbed.
  6. Divide large assignments into smaller, quickly achievable segments.
  7. Allow for periods when only essential baseline functions need to be done during extreme high and low periods.
  8. Help develop checklists or tasklists to keep the worker on task. A good computer organizer program that sends alerts and reminders can be a non-confrontational way to remind an employee with bipolar of deadlines and tasks that need completion.
  9. Praise and encourage. Supervisors and leaders need to be careful that they communicate positive information as well as negative. Supervisors should be honest when they praise any employee, but especially with one who has bipolar. When you praise, be specific. How did their performance of a task impact the project? How did it help you or make your job easier? Stay away from empty praise or praise for nothing. People with bipolar tend to be hyper-vigilant and can spot a phony compliment a mile off, so keep it real.
  10. Provide bipolar workers with written instructions to reduce the chance that supervisors will be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Written instructions help redirect if the employee strays off task without being threatening.
  11. Develop a written agreement with the employee as part of company accommodation efforts that spells out the employees baseline performance standards that clearly defines the consequences of a failure to meet those standards.
  12. Keep the lines of communication open between the supervisor and the employee. Make communications on balance, largely positive.
  13. Develop written long and short term goals for all your workers and make sure that everyone understands them. Try not to appear to focus on the employee with bipolar. The tactics you develop and goals and objectives you create will help your whole team to perform more effectively, not just the employee you are attempting to accommodate.
  14. Create an evaluation process that helps both the employer and employee identify what’s working and what’s not and be prepared to make changes if necessary.
  15. Allow for the employee’s support system to interface with the company. They can provide sensitivity training to staff members, make suggestions for adaptations to help the worker with bipolar to cope and provide the employer with information he needs to avoid problems.
  16. As far as possible try to avoid subjecting the employee to sudden or significant change, whether it’s in office procedures, duties or responsibilities. Sudden rapid change can trigger both depressive and manic episodes, so introduce changes incrementally if at all possible. If the worker with bipolar is aware of impending changes well before they happen, he or she can more easily cope with those changes when they happen.
  17. Introduce new supervisors or team members and give the employee a chance to say goodbye to departing employees if at all possible.
  18. Hold periodic meetings with the bipolar worker to allow a discussion of problems, performance and progress toward goals. If they are regularly scheduled, such meetings won’t be threatening, but a matter of course and can provide an opportunity to valve off any anxiety the employee may have and provide an opportunity to warn him of coming changes.

These techniques help put greater control in the hands of the employee with bipolar, providing an opportunity for him or her to assume more responsibility for coping with the challenges placed upon him by his disease.

References:

  1. Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Bipolar Disorder: Kendra M. Duckworth, MS: Job Accommodation Networks, Office of Disability Employment Policy
  2. EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act
  3. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  4. Job Accommodation Network: Employees With Bipolar
  5. Psych Central: Bipolar Disorder and the Americans With Disabilities ActJD Supra: Terminated Employee with Bipolar Disorder Awarded $315,000 in ADA Case

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