Loren, one of Bipolar UK's Media Ambassadors, discusses her experience of bipolar and how it relates to and impacts her full-time employment.

Managing bipolar in the workplace

Most people these days seem to be happy to break down barriers and taboos about mental health. Usually this means talking about depression, as many know someone affected by it or can relate in some way. Bipolar can also have depressive episodes, but also mania, which means treatment is different to just taking antidepressants. I think people don't understand bipolar very well, as the term is too commonly used to describe erratic behaviour or severe mood swings.

Becoming unwell

I strongly associate my initial diagnosis with work. I had just passed my probation with a new company, was working on an intense project with difficult clients under high pressure, still learning a lot about the company and brands I was representing. I was also trying to have a social life, working very late most nights, up early, and working some weekends. There were personal factors too, but it was predominantly stress from work.

I eventually became manic. As this had never happened to me before, and because my personality traits can be similar to the symptoms of mania (high energy, talkative, jumping quickly from one thought to another, etc.), there are no way of realising what was happening or how severe it would become. It was a complete surprise to myself, my partner, family and friends.

I'll skip the detail but my other half could tell I'd had some form of mental breakdown and sought advice from my GP, who advised taking me to the A&E where I was seen immediately by the on-call psych team. I am still very thankful to him that he didn't have me admitted to a psych ward (a very real possibility at the time) and chose to try and care for me at home, with the home treatment team visiting me twice daily. Slowly they saw me less, I started visiting the hospital daily, and eventually that decreased as I got better.

Lack of recognition

A few months prior, a colleague had a burst appendix and was off work for 3 weeks. We sent her a big bunch of flowers, a card from our team and a basket of Australian goodies. I was off work for 9 weeks in the end and I had no contact from anyone in the business. It upset me.

I realised later why this was: HR had recommended no contact because my breakdown had occurred due to high work stress and HR thought that if colleagues contacted me, it would bring additional pressure to come back too soon. I'm not sure if it would have or not, but I did feel annoyed I didn't even get a get well soon card.

Going back to work

After being off for 9 weeks, most of which is still hazy to me as I was heavily medicated, I was eager to return. I loved my job, despite being asked by psychiatrists and even my other half if it's really what I wanted to do.

Going back to work was scary; I was nervous. My boss had been incredible, explaining that no one knew why I had been off except for those who needed to know (a senior leader, HR and my boss). I was especially grateful that no one asked why I had been off. I wasn't ready to explain but everyone said they were happy to see me and hoped I was okay. I think in this society, if someone is off work for an extended period of time and nobody says why, people assume it's not due to physical reasons but mental health or stress leave.

Disclosure

I'm a pretty open person and never saw what happened to me as a bad thing, just as a sign that I needed to redress balance in my life. I am happy to tell people but choose to do so when I feel it is appropriate and I feel comfortable.

While I'm quite open and happy to discuss my mental health, I do hesitate to have these conversations with certain people; particularly senior leaders in the business. I don't want any future promotions or career progressions to be impacted by this knowledge. This annoys me as I pride myself on being open and wanting to break down barriers. I guess I worry that if they knew about my mental health, it might (even subconsciously) bring a slight disadvantage to my chances during any interview process. If it comes down to me and another candidate, will knowing I have bipolar potentially put the other candidate in a better position? This is something I need to work on and I don't think there's a set answer!

Warning signs

I'll disclose my condition at some point with anyone I work with closely, as I need their support in keeping an eye on me. Whilst I manage my condition relatively well, I still like to have someone watching out in case they spot any symptoms. These include: higher energy than normal; working long hours; stress; talking very fast; jumping between thoughts, and not making sense.

Finding fellowship

A colleague and I connected over bipolar, though she was later re-diagnosed with something different. She mentioned feeling very weird because she was changing medication and when I asked what for, she answered "my brain". I knew instantly it would be similar to what I took, mood stabilisers) and, yes, she had a diagnosis of bipolar too! It's more common than you'd think.

What you can do

I think the most important advice I can offer is that if someone confides in you, or if you are worried about someone, take it seriously but don't treat it like some debilitating ailment.

Ask "are you okay?" if you feel someone is acting out of character. If you think it's inappropriate to ask in front of your colleagues, talk to them quietly as they're making a cup of tea or when you see them alone. Just knowing someone is paying attention or is willing to ask about you can mean a lot.

Everyone is on the mental health spectrum; we're susceptible to stress, moods, worries. It's just that some of us have bigger extremes in this area.

For more information about managing bipolar at work, take a look at our Employment Support service.