Reviewed by Tanya Harrell, PhD, LPC, NCC
Bipolar disorder can turn your life upside down. If your symptoms are severe enough, you may go through a series of jobs, losing each one when the next episode strikes. That’s bad enough if money isn’t an issue, but what if you need to work to support yourself? If you could get a disability for bipolar, the money problem would be solved. But is that the right decision for you? Here’s what you need to know about bipolar, disability, and work.
How Bipolar Can Affect You At Work
Bipolar disorder can have a profound effect on your life. If you want to know whether you have this mental illness, you can take a screening test online. Some people with bipolar seem to manage work very well. Others struggle every day. The symptoms of bipolar disorder can be extremely disruptive to your work life. Here are some of the things that might happen if you’re trying to work during an episode of bipolar.
During A Manic Episode
Working during a manic phase might not seem bad at all, at least at the time you’re manic. You may feel on top of the world and believe you’re the smartest person at your company. But then, when the manic episode is over, you realize things didn’t go as well as you thought.
One thing that often happens when you’re manic is that you alienate your coworkers and others at your company. People don’t typically feel good about being with someone who thinks they’re better than everyone else. And people with bipolar often spend a lot of time correcting other people, After all, they’re the smartest and know best – or at least that’s how someone with bipolar may feel and express themselves. If your mood is irritable, others may avoid being around you at all. When you’re talking loudly and rapidly, it’s hard for others to understand or relate to what you’re trying to communicate.
Getting The Work Done
Racing thoughts and wild random ideas can affect your work, too. You may annoy people with a flood of unworkable ideas. Or you may actually start putting one of your unrealistic ideas into practice. Your idea may be unsafe, unproductive, or a waste of time. Another issue is the way people with mania overschedule themselves. You may schedule many meetings and not be able to keep them, disappointing and angering coworkers, clients, and vendors alike. You start many things but complete nothing.
Showing Up For Work
Mania can often interfere with your ability to get to work at all. You may be so wrapped up in your thoughts and frenetic activity that you don’t realize it’s time to go to work. Engaging in risky behavior when you’re off work can have consequences for the next workday. For example, if you drive drunk, you might damage your car enough that you can’t drive it to work.
During A Depressive Phase
You might think that being depressed wouldn’t be so hard on your work life. After all, you aren’t being wild and uncontrollable. You’re just doing your job and minding your own business, right? The truth is that people with bipolar experience more role impairment during the depressive phase. One study used the Sheehan Disability Scale to assess bipolar people from 11 countries. In this group, 74.0% of those with depression and only 50.9% of those with mania had role impairment. Why is that? Here are some of the ways that depression can affect your ability to work.
Going To Work
It’s hard to get to work consistently when you’re having a major depressive episode. Just getting out of bed can be an extreme challenge. If you do get up, you may be moving so slowly that you miss your ride or get to work late. If you once enjoyed your work, those feelings are now gone. Work is no longer fun or exciting. It’s just a chore you dread and feel incompetent to do.
Doing The Work
Because your self-esteem is extremely low, you aren’t likely to propose new ideas or agree to tackle important assignments. But it can be worse than that. You might not even feel enough confidence in your abilities to manage your current tasks. Also, you may have trouble concentrating, and making decisions may seem overwhelming or even impossible.
Getting Along With Others
Sometimes, people can continue to do their jobs even when they’re depressed. That’s easiest if you work alone or have limited contact with others since self-isolating is a depression symptom. Getting along with coworkers can be difficult during a depressive episode. People may avoid you when you’re showing sadness because they don’t know what to say. They may get annoyed when you put yourself down or dwell on the worst possible scenarios. At meetings, you may have trouble contributing to the discussion in any way, either because of your negative frame of mind or your inability to concentrate.
What About Psychotic Symptoms?
Some people with bipolar disorder experience psychotic symptoms during a manic or depressive episode. People who are having psychotic symptoms can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t.
During psychosis, they may have trouble thinking and communicating clearly. Concentration can seem impossible. They may become suspicious of others or have extreme anxiety. Eventually, they may begin to hallucinate, have delusions, talk incoherently, or lack awareness of what’s happening around them.
If you have bipolar with psychotic features, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if you couldn’t keep your job. Not all employers are understanding, and not all coworkers will accept you after a psychotic episode. This can lead to a seemingly endless series of jobs.
Can You Get Disability For Bipolar?
According to the World Health Organization, bipolar disorder comes in sixth on the list of the leading causes of disability globally. Social Security does recognize bipolar disorder as a disabling condition. It is on the Social Security Listings of Impairments. Many people who apply for bipolar disability do receive Social Security Disability payments.
What You Need To Get Disability
To get Social Security Disability or even disability from a private insurer or employer, you will need to prove that you have bipolar disorder. You will also need to prove that it’s preventing you from working or staying employed.
Because there are no medical tests that can prove you have bipolar disorder, you’ll need a report from a psychologist or psychiatrist. The report will give details about your symptoms and their severity. It may also describe how your mental illness is affecting your life.
What You Can Do
You’ll also have to fill out a form with information about yourself and your illness. You can help yourself in several ways before you get to the point of doing that paperwork. Take the following steps to prepare for a disability claim.
- Write notes about your condition and your feelings on a calendar.
- If you couldn’t do something at work due to your condition, write it down.
- Always keep a list of all the medications you take and have taken in the past.
- Gather and keep information about how bipolar has affected your work.
- See your doctor regularly and take medications as directed.
- Ask your therapist to keep track of your symptoms that you may not recognize yourself, such as forgetfulness, irritability, or fatigue.
- Avoid using drugs or abusing alcohol.
Prior Work History Matters
It may not seem fair, but the amount of your disability check depends partly on how much you worked before you stopped working. As you earn money, you pay Social Security taxes. The amount of taxes you have paid in is used to determine the amount of the payments you receive if you’re disabled.
Supplemental Security Income is another type of payment you might receive if you become disabled. For this payment, your past income isn’t considered. However, many people find that SSI is not enough to meet basic needs.
What Happens If You Go Back To Work?
It might seem like going back to work would automatically make you lose your disability benefits. However, you can go back to work on a trial basis. If it doesn’t work out, you don’t have to reapply for disability payments in most cases. And because working usually provides a better income than disability payments, it might make sense to take advantage of this type of trial work program.
Would Working Be Better?
Everyone’s mental condition and ability to work are different. However, many people find that the challenges of work aren’t all bad. Going to work every day gives them more structure to their days, which helps them manage their symptoms better. Their self-esteem may improve, and they can do things that provide them with a sense of accomplishment.
But if you’re bipolar and decide to keep working, you may need to make some changes. Getting into the right work situation, managing work relationships, and coping with your mental illness are all essential. Here are some ways to make work better for yourself.
Get The Right Job
- Make sure your job fits your skills and talents.
- Choose jobs that take advantage of your creative side.
- Select jobs with quiet environments.
- Consider company culture and whether your coworkers support you.
Deal With Work Stress
- Take all scheduled breaks and ask for an extra break if needed.
- Try deep breathing or meditation during stressful times.
- Listen to your favorite soft music.
- Get outside during lunch.
- Get some exercise at your desk or take a walk.
- Go to all your therapy visits, even if you have to take off work to do it.
How Treatment Can Help
Treatment for bipolar disorder might be able to help you keep working. You can learn to regulate your emotions better. You can discover how to choose positive and realistic thoughts and behaviors. Your therapist can give you opportunities to express and deal with your feelings about work. They offer support and guidance as you make your way at your company.
Medications are also helpful, and most people with bipolar need them. These can help level out your moods and diminish symptoms of depression or mania. But even if you regularly see a psychiatrist or therapist, you still have to do your part. Take your medications the way your doctor tells you to take them. If your therapist gives you homework, do it. And you can improve your condition even more if you take a proactive attitude, like taking notes when you’re having mental problems.
Everyone with bipolar disorder must decide whether to keep working or not. The choice to claim disability is a serious decision. Before you take that step, try taking a screening test to know if you might have bipolar. Then, talk to a therapist about your idea and discuss it with them. You may find that you can manage work successfully when you have the right treatments. If not, you can live with your disability in the best way that’s possible for you.