As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, maintaining good mental health is more important than ever – not only to combat the uncertainty, confusion and fear around Covid-19, but to cope with self-isolation and social distancing, with the UK in lockdown and people confined to their homes.
To mark World Bipolar Day – a global awareness initiative that promotes education, discussion and sensitivity around the condition and takes place on 30 March each year – we spoke to BOOST&Co’s organisational psychologist, Heather Bingham, who has both professional and personal insight into bipolar.
Here, she gives her expert advice on how you can help colleagues with bipolar disorder. Her tips can also help to create a supportive environment for anyone going through a rough patch, especially in these turbulent times.
People with bipolar are an asset in business
The national charity Mind, which provides free advice and support to anyone with a mental-health condition, defines bipolar affective disorder as a way in which a person’s mood can change between two very different states – mania and depression (the illness was previously known as manic depression). In the UK, around 5% of the population is believed to be on the bipolar spectrum, with 1% to 2% unwell enough to need medication.
“Stigma and misunderstanding often lead people to believe that those with bipolar aren’t fit for work,” Bingham says, noting that just 21% of those with a diagnosis are currently employed. “I’ve been privileged to see the best and worst of bipolar disorder at work, both as a People professional and as a ‘sufferer’, and I’m convinced that more people with bipolar can enjoy a meaningful working life.” Her argument is echoed by the charity Bipolar UK.
Theresa May’s review: employers must help
Former prime minister Theresa May commissioned an independent review into how employers can better support the mental health of their employees, including those with mental-health problems or poor wellbeing. The authors of Thriving at Work (2019) found that poor mental health costs employers between £33bn and £42bn a year, with an annual cost to the UK economy of between £74bn and £99bn. They concluded that employers should be:
- equipped with the awareness and tools not only to address, but also to prevent, mental ill-health caused or worsened by work;
- equipped to support those with mental-health conditions to thrive, starting with recruitment and continuing throughout the organisation;
- aware of how to gain access to timely help to reduce sickness absence caused by mental ill-health.
Carrying out these recommendations “may seem like quite a burden, but so is letting people go and paying to replace them”, Bingham says. “If you, as an employer, can take steps to help employees who are in crisis, you can save yourself these costs, and gain loyalty and commitment from your team in the process.”
Waiting a decade to be diagnosed
It takes, on average, 10.5 years to be diagnosed with bipolar, so Bingham considers herself lucky to have received her diagnosis in just six. Working at McKinsey & Company for much of this time, she found her employers “incredibly supportive”, she says. “They let me switch to a four-day week. They let me work flexible hours. They let me have periods of frenetic energy, coupled with less productive periods. They didn’t bend over backwards, though, and I had to learn to work through it and to deliver some of my work regardless of my cycle.”
Bingham is unsure as to whether her employers helped her “knowingly or instinctively”, but her own experience and subsequent observations have enabled her to develop a series of techniques to help others with the condition.
How you can help employees with bipolar
- Equip people with awareness. “This doesn’t mean that employers are responsible for ensuring that everyone knows the ins and outs of severe mental-health issues like bipolar; you mustn’t take responsibility for making diagnoses and you must not encourage your employees to do this, either,” Bingham says. “However, depression and anxiety, alone or together, are the symptoms of most forms of mental illness and can be the gateway to diagnosis.She suggests three simple techniques to help team members recognise depression and anxiety: add a “mental health at work” statement to your employee handbook; include articles on depression, anxiety and stress in your newsletters; and run short mental-health awareness sessions for your managers.
- Don’t create mental illness. “Take steps to avoid situations that cause unnecessary pressure or uncertainty,” Bingham says. “You can pay someone a lot of money, but this doesn’t mean that you will get the best from them by setting unrealistic expectations or unachievable goals. You can and should set ‘stretch targets’, but only if you know that with your support, they can be achieved.”
- Don’t exacerbate mental illness. Bingham feels strongly about some of the inexcusable conduct she has witnessed in the workplace. “I have seen business leaders push people suffering from mental-health issues to breaking point and beyond, just to create an excuse to sack them. I don’t need to explain that this is wrong on every level,” she says.
- Make sure support is available. “If you’re worried about someone, point them in the direction of the support you’ve put in place,” Bingham says. This could include reminding team members about private medical-insurance plans or your company’s employee assistance programme; if you do not have one, consider paying for counselling sessions instead.
- Manage those returning from time out. The performance of employees with mental-health issues can suffer, but conditions such as untreated bipolar can also result in unusual behaviour. Sufferers may become aggressive, while others become unable to behave appropriately (“I know of someone who, in their first week at work, became very hot and just took off their top, which seemed perfectly rational to them at the time,” Bingham says). Employers and People teams “have to work to acknowledge any residual embarrassment, but ensure that employees return with a clean slate”.
- Find the right role. “The combination of the right support and a role that plays to a person’s strengths works wonders. Whether someone is facing a psychological or physical challenge away from work, you will always get the best out of them if they experience the fewest barriers to success at work,” Bingham says. “I will always be grateful to BOOST&Co for providing me with a role that suits me down to a ‘T’. My job may be hard, but my life is considerably easier!”
- Look after everyone else. Remember that the stresses of looking after someone with a mental-health condition are shared by workmates, not just family and friends – “especially as we spend a lot of time together”, Bingham says. “It is your legal responsibility to ensure that you and your People team keep close to those affected, directly and indirectly, by mental-health issues.”
Don’t write people off – help them to adjust
With the right adjustments, most people with bipolar succeed at work. But although many are able to manage their conditions using medication and other therapies, both psychological and physical, “you’ll never meet any of them, because the fear of being ‘found out’ drives them out of the workplace”, Bingham says.
Although medication can cause side-effects, these can be managed through workplace adjustments such as flexible hours and home working. This means that, “looking at bipolar specifically, it is disastrous to write off 1.3 million people from an active role in the economy”, she says.
Busting the bipolar myths
There remain many misconceptions about bipolar. Here, Bingham recalls a 2018 article in Cosmopolitan magazine that cited seven of these, and gives her own reaction to them.
- All bipolar is the same. “Some people are more up than down, and vice versa,” the organisational psychologist says. “Some can go up and down in a day, while others cycle between the two over months or even years.”
- It’s a personality disorder. “Bipolar affects moods, not personality,” she says.
- It just means “bad mood swings”. “The highs can be utterly euphoric, but the lows can be crushing.”
- Being really happy is one of the symptoms. “I wish it were!”
- You’re ill all the time. “Many people can stay well for years, especially if they stick to their treatment regime, have regular check-ups and avoid the misuse of alcohol and illicit drugs,” Bingham says.
- All medication comes with bad side-effects. “Any side-effects depend on the individual and the combination of drugs they are prescribed,” she says. “Initially, these can be challenging to handle, but managing them is eminently achievable.”
- It stops you from living a normal life. “Even in cases that require a complex drug regime, the condition can be managed to the point of normality – whatever that means!”
The message is a positive one. With events such as World Bipolar Day serving to raise awareness of the condition, people with bipolar can be helped to manage their mental health and to lead rewarding working lives. Their presence in the workplace also benefits their colleagues, not just businesses, by improving all employees’ awareness of techniques for maintaining good mental health.
So if you’re an employer, make sure you’re sensitive to people with conditions such as bipolar: they could be exactly what you need as teams are encouraged to bond more strongly in these difficult times.