Going back to work after a bipolar episode

Amanda writes about receiving a diagnosis of bipolar and disclosing her illness with friends and colleagues.

I was diagnosed in February this year after I had a second psychotic episode. The psychiatrist waited until I had come out of my psychosis and informed me that I had bipolar 1. It was a shock. I work as a teacher part-time and I was on sick leave when I was told my diagnosis. I managed to return to work in May having been off work for five months. I felt ready to return to work in February but the whole process of going through Occupational Health meant it took time before I was permitted to return to work.

When giving me my diagnosis the psychiatrist warned me not to take on too much. I decided not to complete my Master’s degree, gave up the committee work I did in my spare time, and my foreign language evening classes so that I could reduce stress and focus on managing at home and work.

My psychiatrist told me that there were three things that could possibly trigger another episode, including lack of sleep, stress and long journeys. I've been careful to pay attention to the amount of sleep I am getting as not sleeping is one of my early warning signs. A lot of my family live overseas and I'd like to visit them so I intend to travel to see them and see how that goes.

I didn’t want to disclose my diagnosis to my employer but after two episodes of sickness absence in two years they were asking questions and wanting to know if I had been given a diagnosis. An HR advisor at the community mental health services was supporting me to stay in work and said it was far better for me to disclose so that work knew that I had a treatable illness rather than something vague as stress (which could possibly be work-related).

I followed her advice and believe it was the right decision. Sometimes it’s hard because I feel as though I am under extra scrutiny but I know that my colleagues are just looking out for me so that they can help nip another episode in the bud. Six months after I returned to work, I still have weekly supervision meetings with my manager and termly review meetings with HR to discuss my progress at work.

What are reasonable adjustments?

Reasonable adjustments were made at work on the recommendation of my employer: I gave up a leadership responsibility and changed my days of working so that I never work more than two days in a row. This means I don’t get overtired and can sustain a work/life balance.

My colleagues treat me as they did before except they are very sensitive to changes in my mood. For example, if I come into work a bit quiet they will pick up on it, which can feel over-protective but I know they just want to make sure that I'm well. I don’t think my colleagues know what bipolar is really like as I was off work and didn’t see them while I was ill and hospitalised and I was quick to phone in sick when I felt unwell. Some colleagues have relatives with bipolar so they have a better understanding than others. 

It's difficult knowing that my colleagues all know about my diagnosis although they generally don’t treat me any differently. I would eventually like to try and get an extra day of work each week but want to wait until I've been stable for three years. The most important thing is being able to maintain my current role and staying well.

Bipolar UK is a good source of help. When I was first diagnosed I had many questions I wanted to ask about the illness. Bipolar UK’s website, my local Support Group, mood scales and Support Line were all things that I used to support my condition.  I asked about long distance travel and travel insurance companies, I was sent information on bipolar and I signed up for Work and Learning support. I still chat with the Work and Learning service and they have given me information about returning to work, making reasonable adjustments in the workplace, and answered any questions that I’ve had.

I am open about my diagnosis. I told all my friends except a couple of older friends as I wasn’t sure if they’d understand. My friends were very accepting and many told me they knew of other friends or relatives that had bipolar or were suffering from mental health issues. It's been a very positive experience and it has been good for me to know what other people with mental health issues also experience.

Eight months after diagnosis I don’t think about bipolar as much as I did when I was recovering from my episode and coming to terms with the diagnosis. I monitor my moods and try to keep things in balance, making sure that I see friends regularly and do nice things to balance everyday things like housework and paying the bills.  I think making sure your life is in balance and you are not taking on too much or too little is key to staying well.  Taking my medication also helps too.

Bipolar UK’s Work and Learning service certainly helped me to get back to work along with the community mental health service support.  Bipolar UK does have a wealth of experience and resources to support people back to work and is a source of support not only for me, the employee, but also my employers.