Learning about bipolar 

Getting informed about bipolar can help you find ways to make your work life more bearable and less overwhelming when working with a colleague with the condition.   

How you react when all isn’t going well will play a critical role in determining your colleague’s ability to succeed. By learning about bipolar, you’ll be able to support your colleagues if and when they need it.

The car analogy

Firstly, imagine that you are coasting along a wide-open road in the country feeling like you are pushing the accelerator through the floor. However, you can’t get the speedometer to read over 5km an hour.  

Weeks or months later, you are travelling through congested city streets with your partner who is screaming at you to "please, please slow down!” You try with all your might to apply the brakes but watch as the accelerator creeps dangerously higher and higher. When someone experiences a bipolar episode, it can feel like the brain’s brakes and accelerators are stuck; the out-of-control accelerator launching you into mania, the brakes grinding you down into the depths of depression. 

Risk factors

Bipolar is a real illness, affecting the brain, which is the centre for controlling how you think, feel, behave, and relate. For someone living with bipolar, there may be times where even everyday tasks and interactions become challenging. 

The exact causes of bipolar aren’t yet known, however, there are several risk factors that are known to increase susceptibility, particularly genetics. Cumulative stress is a well evidenced trigger and may be involved in shaping the chemistry and physiology of the brain. 

Signs to watch out for

If you are working with a colleague with bipolar, you might sometimes notice extreme changes in their mood and behaviour that greatly deviate from how they usually behave.

What your colleague needs at this point is for you to be supportive, non-judgmental, and sincere. You may also find these tips helpful: 

  • Remember that bipolar is a disability as defined under the Equality Act.
  • Remember that sharing their diagnosis with others is disrespectful. The fact that your colleague shared about their condition with you doesn’t mean that it’s okay to share it with others.  

  • Be careful what kind of information you disclose when discussing your colleague’s condition. If you are working with someone with bipolar and you start gossiping about their condition with other colleagues, it can damage your professional relationship and trust with that person. 
  • Should your job involve sharing information with your managers about your colleague, be careful what kind of language is used and use constructive and positive communication. 

  • Bipolar can be a complex condition to manage. Your colleague may need your support sometimes and time off to get back on track. Allowing them time to get well without fear of judgement will enable them to return and be productive once again.  

  • Remember your colleague does not want to be unwell, away from work or cause any additional stress to their team. Without understanding, they can be riddled with even more guilt, which can be detrimental to their recovery. Your colleague is dealing with a lot, so do not judge them. Judging can add to the stress and stigma they may be feeling. 
  • They can offer support and share their ideas into the condition. They can be a role model for others.
  • Your colleague is going through a lot, so be kind to them. Remember that they are still the same person, despite their condition. 

  • Noticing changes early may trigger the person to put their self-care plan into place early to stop the symptoms getting worse. 

  • If you witness insensitivity from another colleague, simply state that is not how you see things and educate them further to minimise stigma. 

  • By being thoughtful and checking in, you can make an immense difference to the experience of a colleague. 

A supportive workplace 

People can have a successful career when they live with bipolar. In fact, living with bipolar may mean people bring some unique qualities to the table, particularly in certain job settings.  

However, support can play a key role in how successful people are in their professional environment. The best thing an employer can do is create an environment where it’s safe to talk about bipolar which allows colleagues the time and space to educate themselves about the condition.  

Relationships built on trust are so important. If there is an openness about bipolar in the workplace, then people are more likely to come forward before they become unwell.  

Lastly, remember it can be hard to tell what someone is going though just by looking at them. Let the person tell their story, including details about what they know helps and what does not. Try to create a positive interaction by expressing empathy, reminding them of their value and committing to helping where possible. 

Written by Heidi Charles NHS Nurse BSc RGN. Heidi has recently completed the NCFE CACHE Level 2 Certificate in Understanding Mental Health First Aid and Mental Health Advocacy in the Workplace and is writing The Bipolar Self Care Handbook. You can follow her on Instagram @thebipolarselfcarehandbook  

Last updated: 23 May 2024