Bipolar at Work

Bipolar at Work – Nancy

Bipolar At Work: Disclosure and Accommodation

Federal law provides important protections for workers who are coping with disabling mental or physical illnesses in the workplace.  Know your rights, and plan carefully for whether, when and how to request accommodations and disclose special needs at work.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against anyone with a health-realted disablitiy in several contexts, including employment.  In order to get this protection, you, the worker, need to explain clearly what difficulties you encounter in completing your job responsibilities and what accommodations you need to perform your job effectively.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) refers to “soft” accomodations as those which may not cost an employer anything, but may enable an employee to work at a higher pitch of performance.  For example, someone who suffers from a high degree of distraction or stress due to noise in the environment may be able to wear ear plugs to help them concentrate better.  Some employees may find mornings or afternoons to be more productive work times, and employers may be able to schedule tasks accordingly.

An employer may request documentation from a health care professional to confirm that an employee is under their care, but it is not required that the actual diagnosis be disclosed.  It is important to realize, however, that the law lays down some basic principles, which may be carried out (or not) in varying ways.  Some employers find it relatively simple to provide caring, sensitive accomodations to employees with disabilities, while others, for many reasons, may react badly to such a request.

Especially in the case of mental illnesses, an employee should plan carefully when and how to bring the issue up in the workplace.  For some, it will work better to discuss the question with an immediate supervisor, while others may prefer to go through an HR department or higher authority in the organization.  Choose a quiet, low-stress time to request a meeting for this conversation, and have any background information that may be needed ready.

For an extensive discussion about disclosure in various contexts read our conversation with Cannon Thomas.

For more information about Bipolar at Work see the article “The ABC’s of Disclosure in the Workplace” from our friends at the website BP Hope.

For information from the HR point of view, see the article‘Soft’ Costs Can Help Manage Employees with Mental Disabilities.

-Nancy

  • Maggie

    This is informative but only focuses on legal aspects. That’s the least of my concern. What about the risk of judgement that I’m not to be relied on? Or the lack of understanding of that bipolar or other disorders does not equal bay shit crazy?

    • Those are good questions. As with many good questions the answers are not straightforward. One insight that I found very helpful was from Cannon Thomas… It is important when using words like “bipolar” to think carefully about what this word likely means to the person you are talking to. If that person seems prejudiced against differences in people then it might make sense to use a less fraught word, for example “depression”… Another issue is that “bipolar” encompasses such a diversity of experiences… from people with mild to moderate symptoms who almost always manage to function well or even extremely well, to people with moderate to severe symptoms who seem to be truly disabled.