Supporting a Colleague with Bipolar Disorder

What is Bipolar Disorder? 

Imagine that you are coasting along a wide-open road in the country feeling like you are pushing the accelerator through the floor, only to find 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 bipolar disorder, 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 depth of depression.  

Sunday March 30 was Bipolar Awareness day, and the team here at Mindful Employer would like to share with you what we have learned through direct experience working with individuals who have experienced Bipolar Disorder and their colleagues in workplaces throughout Australia.  

A few facts and figures on Bipolar: 

  • 1 in 50 people in Australia will develop Bipolar Disorder at some time in their lives 

  • People from all ethnic backgrounds can be impacted 

  • Treatment can do much to reduce and even eliminate the symptoms  (www. SANE.org)  

What causes Bipolar Disorder?  

Bipolar Disorder is a very real physical illness, affecting the brain which is the centre for controlling how you think, feel, behave, and relate. For someone experiencing Bipolar, there may be times where even everyday tasks and interactions become challenging. The exact causes of Bipolar disorder aren’t yet known, however, there are a number of risk factors that are known to increase susceptibility, particularly genetics. Cumulative stress is a well evidenced trigger, and viruses may be involved in shaping the brains chemistry and physiology.  

Signs and symptoms of Bipolar Disorder  

Mania 

  • Rapid speech and thoughts  

  • Flight of ideas at work and taking on too many projects at once  

  • Decreased need for sleep, resulting in working round the clock  

  • Inability to concentrate and easily distracted  

  • Increased involvement in risky, potentially self-destructive activities  

  • Agitation, irritability, emotional intensity 

  • Neglecting to eat, losing track of time. 

When someone is experiencing an acute manic episode, they can sometimes have: 

  • Delusions – fixed, false, irrational or illogical beliefs 

  • Hallucinations – hearing, seeing, or sensing things that are not real. 

Depression 

  • Inability to take pleasure out of positive experiences  

  • Low interest in usual activities and tasks 

  • Sleeping too much, resulting in fatigue and lateness for work  

  • Expressions of feeling worthless, hopeless, and overwhelmed

  • Inability to make decisions and focus 

  • Withdrawal from family and friends 

  • Loss of energy, feeling exhausted. 

Tania’s story

Tania Lewis was 21 years old when she first experienced her symptoms, she would have several episodes of mania and depression resulting in hospitalisations before she was finally diagnosed at age 28. In the early 1990s she was working at the Victorian Police, a role she enjoyed, although it could be quite stressful at times:  

We were investigating domestic violence cases and child abuse which can be quite confronting. At the time I was just working longer and longer hours, taking on more work and not going home when I should. I also wasn't sleeping well, I wasn't eating properly. I was 23 by this stage and one day I woke up and I couldn’t get up.  I just couldn't go to work that day, and I didn't know what was wrong. I ended up progressively getting worse, until I experienced a psychotic episode. I was hospitalised and ended up having to take 6 months off work.  

It was very difficult and confusing time for Tania and her family, but she recalls that she was very well supported by her employer at the time.  

My boss was so supportive. He came to my home. I was living back with my parents, he was very compassionate and just asked me how I would like to be supported at work, without judgement. He just asked, “What would be helpful?”. It was incredible, he was so thoughtful and genuine, trying to find ways to accommodate my health needs, which was not a common practice at the time”   

Tania continued in the force for 15 years and has since been working as a Lived Experience Educator and consultant with Barwon Health. According to Tania, the best thing an employer can do is to … 

Create an environment where it’s safe to talk about your mental health. Increase awareness by providing education on mental health issues and how to support others. Relationships built on trust are so important. If there is an openness about mental illness in the workplace then people are more likely to come forward before they become really unwell. By being thoughtful and checking in, you can make an immense difference to the experience of a colleague.

5 ways to help someone who has Bipolar Disorder  

If one of your team members is experiencing a mental health condition it is important to be understanding, supportive and proactive. You don’t need to be an expert on Bipolar Disorder to show care and be willing to offer assistance. To support someone with Bipolar Disorder, the first step it to establish empathy and understand the control the illness has over your colleague.  

  1. Respect privacy 

    If someone has trusted you with their private medical information, it is critical that you don’t share this with others without the person’s consent.  

  2. Notice changes

    We bring an objectivity to others that we cannot bring to ourselves. Noticing changes early may trigger the person to attend to their self-care plan early, without the condition starting to cycle further.  

  3.  Take a non-judgemental stance and listen

    It can be hard to tell what someone is going though just by looking at them. Let the person tell their story, including what they know helps and what doesn’t, and create a positive interaction by expressing empathy, reminding them of their value, and committing to helping where possible. 

  4.  Ask how you can help and offer flexible arrangements 

    Even if you are experienced in supporting someone with a mental health condition at work, take the time to understand how your colleague would like you to help. At the same time, it’s useful to become aware of the flexible work arrangements available, as they might not be aware of what could be modified to make an episode easier to continue working though. Things such as changes to start times, moving their desk to a quieter area, temporary changes to duties, and accessing additional time with managers can all help.  

  5. Fight stigma in the workplace  

Work is an important element for all of us, feeling valued, paying bills, connecting us to others, giving a sense of routine and purpose. Mental illnesses still attract stigma and shame (stigma literally means “mark of shame”). It is critical to take opportunities to get educated about the condition, to stand up for a co-worker experiencing a mental health condition, to encourage the person to reach of for help, and to support the person to obtain reasonable adjustments. If you witness insensitivity, simply stating that that’s not how you see things. Monitor team cohesion and inclusiveness and ask if what they would like you to tell others in the team.  

A final thought on knowing what you can and can’t do to help.  

It’s natural to want to help your colleague, however, just as with physical illnesses, there is only so much you can do. Your presence, patience, and willingness to help are invaluable, but ultimately it is up to the individual to decide how they will deal with their condition. 

Need further assistance? 

Education is critical to providing a work environment that supports people when they become unwell. Mindful Employer workshops go beyond awareness. Our workshops aim to educate and empower so that both staff and leaders can understand what to look for and confidently take action when needed.

Contact us if you would like to talk with our experienced psychologists about mental health training for your workplace.

For more information on living with Bipolar Disorder visit SANE Australia. 

People like us - Jess https://www.sane.org/people-like-us/jess  

SANE Helpline: 1800 187 263

Lifeline telephone counselling: 13 11 14 (24 Hrs)