Bipolar disorder is one of the most common mental health conditions. We look at the symptoms and how to support individuals with the condition.

With mental health issues being so common — over 10% of the world’s population have lived with a mental health disorder — it’s likely that a member of your workforce has experienced a problem with their mental wellbeing.

Among the most common mental health conditions, bipolar disorder affects more than 1.4 million people in the UK and Ireland, and can have a profound impact on every aspect of a person’s life, including their relationships, family and work life.

Research has suggested that as many as 5% of the UK population are on the bipolar spectrum and 1 in 100 people are diagnosed with bipolar disorder in Ireland.

What is bipolar disorder?

Formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, bipolar disorder is a severe, life-long mental health condition that causes extreme shifts in moods. Most people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder will experience two types of emotional episodes: “depression”, where they feel low and lethargic, and “mania”, where they feel creative and energetic.

Signs and symptoms

As with many other mental health conditions, the symptoms of bipolar disorder can make work more difficult for employees who are living with the illness. Therefore, it’s important for employers and team leaders to be aware of the signs and symptoms, to enable them to provide proactive support.

A noticeable lack of energy and concentration, irritability and poor decision-making skills might indicate your team member is experiencing an episode of depression. This can last for months and may include a loss of interest in everyday activities, a lack of appetite, difficulty sleeping, feelings of despair and possibly suicidal thoughts.

If an employee is experiencing a period of mania, they may seem elated, talk very quickly or become easily distracted and agitated. They might be full of new ideas and not feel like sleeping or eating. In this phase, they might make risky decisions, make significant life changes or spend large sums of money.

Other behavioural warning signs to look out for in the workplace include regularly working late, not showing up to work and being less tolerant of colleagues. As with other conditions, the symptoms and phases vary from person to person.

Treatment

Treatment includes medicines to prevent episodes of mania and depression and to treat the main symptoms when the phases occur. Talking therapies can help sufferers navigate the triggers and signs and deal with depression, etc.

Without treatment, the different phases can last for months.

Tips for employers

With more people working from home, it is vital to keep in regular communication with affected employees to ensure that they are coping and to be on hand to offer support.

Other ways that organisations can help are as follows.

  • Education — encourage managers to learn as much as they can about bipolar disorder if they have a team member with the condition to enable them to provide proactive and compassionate support.

  • Workplace adjustments — speak to the individual and work together to agree some reasonable adjustments you can make in the workplace. These could include ensuring there is enough natural light, supplying a SAD lamp or changing the position of their workstation.

  • Flexible working — support the employee’s wellbeing by allowing them to adjust their working hours when they are going through a depressive phase or medicine change, or by offering remote working.

  • External support — know where to find specialist support. Confirm that managers and employees know where to go if they are struggling, whether HR, their GP, specialist services or the organisation’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

Conclusion

By encouraging and supporting employees with bipolar disorder, you are fulfilling your duty of care as an employer. When you cultivate a sense of awareness and acceptance in the workplace, you reduce the likelihood of discrimination against those with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses and ensure that their skills and contributions are not overlooked.

Health Assured

For professional advice, including mental health and wellbeing issues, contact Health Assured, the UK’s leading employee assistance programme and wellbeing services provider on 0844 891 0350.

Last reviewed 7 May 2020