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:

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

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.

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.

• Read Heather Bingham’s insights on how to arm yourself – and the rest of your team – against negativity

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