Bipolar and Work

Someone said something interesting to me online a week or two ago.  They said they thought that it was strange (I think that was a polite way of saying “stupid”) that I had mentioned in my blog and on my twitter feed that I have bipolar at a time when I was also looking for a job.  It’s not something that had really crossed my mind until that point and, as you can see, the comment obviously hasn’t put me off talking about it again.  What it did reiterate, however, was the public’s perception of mental health issues.  I’ve already discussed this before in relation to depictions of mental health problems in film and TV – and, since that post, I have since seen the fourth series of Canadian cop show Rookie Blue, which really should be ashamed of itself in its depiction of someone with bipolar as an obsessive stalker who puts people’s lives at risks through her actions.  We appear to take two steps forward but then one step back.  (That said, I still have a soft spot for Rookie Blue).

Now, all of that isn’t to say that bipolar makes a career or a job an easy thing, and I’m the first to admit that choosing a profession carefully so that you can somehow accommodate your highs and lows is a priority.  However, we don’t live in a time where people can pick and choose where they work or what they do.  Six years after the banking crisis, a job is a job and many need to grab whatever they can find.  Despite that, allowances need to be made and realism has to play a part because bipolar or depression or any other mental health condition is likely to cause issues at some point.

Let’s take, for an example, a job in an office in which the employee is expected sit at their desk and process 100 forms per day.   The chances of me, with bipolar, being able to perform at the same level constantly day after day, week after week, is highly unlikely.  By the very definition of the condition, one day might result in 200 forms being processed, and yet on another I might struggle to get 30 done.  A daily deadline of this kind is therefore not really feasible; during a depressive phase everything I do is almost in slow motion. However, a weekly or monthly target is certainly possible.  So, if instead of 100 forms a day, I was told I needed to 500 per week or 2000 per month, that would be fine, as I could make the most of the times when I was feeling OK and therefore give myself breathing space for when the inevitable down periods came along.

I’ve been studying for the best part of eight years, through my BA, MA and then PhD, but I did work full time for nine years before I started studying.  I hope things have changed in the workplace since then, and there is more understanding of conditions such as bipolar and depression.  I remember having a particularly bad spell back in 1998 and having some time off work because of it.  Most colleagues tried to be understanding, although the truth is that they didn’t understand because people were less educated about these conditions back then.  On my return to work, I was constantly asked if I was “OK”, and my line manager at the time told me my work needed to be checked thoroughly by her because of my “mental instability”.  The truth was that my work was fine, it was just me who wasn’t.  However, I got to the stage where I realised pretending I was fine was the way forward.  So I started going to work each day, assuming a bright and breezy cheerful persona for eight hours in order to stop all the questions, and then arrived home knackered each night because I had been putting in an eight hour acting performance of which Laurence Olivier would have been proud.

As it happens, the coping mechanisms that many of us have in place after having these conditions for so long probably make us more reliable workers than many others.  I knew I had to work around the bipolar while I was studying, and so would get coursework done a week or two in advance of the deadline in order to give myself a breathing space in case a bad patch came along.  I did the same with my PhD, finishing it within the three year period and writing a 70,000 word novel alongside it.  That’s not intended  to be a boast, but a sign to potential employers reading this that we are as reliable as anyone else, and to those with the condition it’s a message that it can be worked around if we put out mind to it.

There are shit periods, though, and last week was one of them for me – probably the worst I have been for a couple of years.  Luckily it was short-lived and I seem to be back to “normal” now.  But, even then, the marking of essays still got done on time, and the seminar still got prepared and delivered in the same fashion as any other week.  And no, I didn’t sit at the front of the seminar group rocking back and forth crying and screaming.  At least, if I did, no-one mentioned it afterwards (I jest).

What I’m trying to say here is that the prejudices towards (and misinformation about) those with bipolar and other mental health issues still continue.  Slowly but surely we are hearing of people who have turned their lives around and who are not only living a “normal” life but achieving more than many without the condition.  Determination is a wonderful thing.  Yes, allowances will have to be made at some point – not just by employers, but by friends and family too.  Bipolar isn’t just a pain for the person who has it, but it can be a bastard for the people who have to live with it as well.

And attitudes are changing, especially among the young.  The support amongst the younger generation on social media of campaigns to stamp out mental health stigma is staggering…and beautiful (and the same is true of campaigns to stamp out homophobia and bullying, too).   And a difference is slowly but surely being made.

But there is a long way to go.  If sufferers are going to do their best to live a normal life with their condition, then there needs to be more understanding (or, more accurately, flexibility) amongst employers as well.  Just because mental health issues aren’t always visible doesn’t mean they don’t exist or that there shouldn’t be a certain degree of allowances made within the workplace to accommodate the various ups and downs that come with these conditions.   We’re trying our best, and all that we ask for is that we are met halfway.

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