Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and cannot speak to your personal experience or the benefit you may get from implementing my tactics. Only you, your therapist and your psychiatrist can help put in place plans that are tailored for your wellbeing. Additionally, these are my experiences and may not be used as a reference guide for the typical behaviors and needs of others. Every person and situation is unique.
You may not know it, but March 30th is World Bipolar Day, a day to recognize the daily efforts and lasting legacy of those with bipolar disorder. There is a social stigma around metal health and what “bipolar” means in the workplace, but the truth is that there are likely more people in your network with this disorder than you know. In fact, 2017 numbers from Our World in Data reported over 46 million people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, globally.
I am Bipolar Type II, which is different from Type I. I recommend reading these articles to understand more, but the long and short of it—for me—is:
I manage the highs and lows with medication, but the swings still exist to a level that’s more extreme than a neurotypical person experiences. I will be bipolar for as long as I’m alive, which is important for others to know. Bipolar disorder isn’t something one just “gets over.” It’s like being born with diabetes. You can manage it, but it will never go away.
When asked to look at my work life and pair it with my mental health across the years, I can paint a picture that looks like this:
Some might think it’s a matter or maturity or my life “steadying out” over time, but those with bipolar disorder know that it’s not the same as an acute mental health issue that can resolve itself if given the space to heal. Bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in your brain, sometimes genetically inherited, that you cannot control without medication. It’s what some would call an “invisible illness” and can absolutely affect your daily life. In a nutshell, that’s what bipolar is.
Now, what might surprise people is what bipolar is not. It is NOT a cap on your ability to be successful in life. In fact, many high-performing individuals are bipolar and, as long as their symptoms are managed (that being the key), they can stay balanced and have successful and fulfilling long-term careers. The trick is to get the support needed.
First and foremost, I have both a therapist and a psychiatrist. There is no replacement for this kind of support. But, at work, I’ve made the decision to be honest with people. After building a good amount of trust with my managers, proving my work ethic and ability to perform, I went to them and said: “This is me. This is what I deal with. I may need your support if something happens. Will you help me?”
Now, this might be very hard for some people, and impossible for others. Mental health issues are not always easy to admit out loud. Please know that you don’t have to. In the United States, your medical information is no one’s business but your own, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still ask for support.
For example, when I’m “up,” I think I can conquer the world. I take on projects like nobody’s business and pump out the work while sweating up a storm and making everyone laugh. I’m, quite literally, manic. Eventually baseline comes to greet me, though, and I realize how much I’ve overloaded myself. It’s a pattern. I see myself do it time and again—but tell me that when I’m “up.” At that point, I’ll laugh you off and work even harder just to prove you wrong.
Sometimes that means external eyes. Because of this, I asked my boss to notice when I’m taking on too much and really challenge me to consider the amount of work I’m committing to.
“I found that Nichol had a hard time saying 'no' to anything and would often create artificial deadlines on the tasks she was assigned. On the surface, this presents itself as the perfect employee who can do everything now! What I learned was that Nichol was stressed about the arbitrary deadlines and often felt overwhelmed with the amount of work she had taken on. Since realizing this, I have worked with Nichol on being ok with saying 'no’ or ‘not right now’ along with setting realistic deadlines for herself that don’t include terms like ‘immediately’ or ‘ASAP.’”
—Jason Williams, Director of Customer Success
That’s for when I’m up through the roof. When I’m “low,” however, I often just need some modicum of privacy. I understand this about myself. During low times, seeing other people often makes it worse, draining me further and potentially making my “low” even lower. That doesn’t always mean that I’m unable to work, however. I make the joke that I can cry my eyes out and still type smiley faces at the same time, and it’s the absolute truth.
Before COVID, working from home wasn’t so prevalent, but I asked my boss for permission to work from home on those low days. I’d even make the active decision to keep my camera off, push off any meetings that didn’t absolutely need to happen right now, adjust my work hours if possible, or even just step away from my desk for a little bit to have a good cry, take a tiny nap, eat some comfort food, etc. I’m a fan of chips and milk. Don’t judge.
Even a day or two of this kind of flexibility and self-care can really make an impact. I want to be clear that I still performed. I still got everything done. I was just allowed to feel my feelings while I did it.
“Everyone has a need to adjust their work schedule from time to time. It could be for family care issues, to be home for a home repair or for some other unscheduled event. For some roles, which are directly customer-facing, or where others are dependent on the timing and timeliness of an activity, a greater degree of planning and coordination is required to accommodate schedule changes.
Where asynchronous work is possible, however, I strongly believe in evaluating results and the quality of output, provided that deadlines are clear. Allowing people to work when it is more convenient for them for whatever reason will often yield better results.
This was absolutely the case with Nichol. Once she explained how and why she felt best able to engage with certain projects, we were able to agree an engagement model that worked for both of us. The approach and timing might have been unconventional from my perspective, but I was never disappointed with the quality or volume of the work being done.
In short, Nichol was able to maintain my trust and confidence by being open rather than trying to 'force fit' to a norm and risk failure.”
—John Ainsworth, EVP & GM Application and Data Platform
I have been nothing but supported by my managers here at Progress. I can’t overstate how important that has been to me and to my success, but it’s not just about them. By understanding my consistent pitfalls in my off-baseline times, I’m able to support and advocate for myself to get what I need in my time of need. That’s the piece of the puzzle I’d like everyone to come away with. I wish all of you the ability to do the same.
Happy World Bipolar Day.
Nichol manages the online Support Community for many of Progress’ products. She works closely with key areas of the business, ensuring fresh enablement content is readily available for her users as well as working with moderators to keep our forum discussions active and helpful. She is a keystone to the Community platform, also hosting additional opportunities to connect with peers such as contests and games. Be sure to check out the Progress Community here.
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