Why Do Those With Bipolar Disorder Often Struggle to Work or Hold a Job? What’s the Deal?

A person who lives with bipolar disorder can often find it quite difficult to follow through with daily tasks and routines that most are capable of and used to doing on a daily basis. Holding a job and working is one of them. This can be a huge road block for those who struggle with the disorder both mentally and financially.

The fact that many with bipolar disorder have trouble working is constantly judged and misunderstood.

They may hear comments such as:

  • “Why can’t so and so work?”
  • “What is so difficult about going to work?”
  • “What does bipolar disorder have to do with it?”
  • “It’s laziness. There is no reason you aren’t able to work or hold a job.”
  • “We all have things that we don’t want to do, but we have to do it anyway.”
  • “Everyone is expected to work. There is no reason you can’t.”

It is also a fact that those who make such comments are unfamiliar and uneducated about the illness.

In fact, there are quite a few factors that can affect their productivity and there are many symptoms of the disorder that contribute and can cause such disruption in their daily lives.

What is bipolar disorder?

If unfamiliar with bipolar disorder, it is a mental illness characterized by alternating mood changes (also known as mood swings) of mania and depression. Bipolar is also considered a physical illness and not just a mental illness because it can also affect a person physically as well. For example, their energy levels can be greatly impacted, making it near impossible to be productive.

During mania, a person living with the disorder may exhibit an increase in energy, excessive or rapid speech, insomnia, spending sprees, irritability, aggression, and an overall seemingly euphoric and/or agitated personality state.

During depression, an individual living with the disorder may present symptoms such as a decrease in energy, sadness, withdrawn behavior, aggression, irritability, feelings of hopelessness and/or abandonment, excessive crying, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or ideations, and negative thoughts and thinking patterns.

It’s important to note that even with the mood changes fluctuating between mania and depression, bipolar individuals can and do experience normal states. It’s not always one extreme to the next.

Now this still may raise questions as to how these mood changes can affect a person living with bipolar so greatly that they are unable to work. With these drastic mood changes, their emotions, mentality, and overall appearance, both physically and mentally, changes.

In times of mania, the individual may be unusually productive which actually can be very helpful when working a job and completing daily tasks. They may even be quite the overachiever, reaching goals and deadlines left and right. They may describe these feelings of mania as “I have never been feeling better” and “life is great!” Once the mania begins to swing into a depressive state, the individual may start to feel and appear overstimulated which can lead into anxiety, irritability, and aggression. Once the over-stimulation stage occurs, it may suddenly become difficult for them to concentrate and finish the tasks they were once attending to without becoming frustrated and overwhelmed. They may also begin making more mistakes in their work and take more risks.

In times of depression, individuals with bipolar disorder may feel unmotivated and experience an overall sadness and unhappiness in their lives. Some may outwardly portray these feelings and episodes as “I’m bored with my life.” “Nothing matters anymore.” No one cares about me.” Things would just be easier if I wasn’t around.” There are also times where the depression becomes too great to even function at all. The feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and anxiety can even sometimes result in more serious complications such as suicide.

How does bipolar affect their work?

In a work environment, it can be difficult to cope with the symptoms. At work, most people tend to put their best foot forward and those with this illness strive to do the same. When they are at work and are experiencing such severe and sudden changes in their moods and symptoms, it may become too overwhelming to cope with both the stress of their work duties, the overall environment (feelings of discomfort and lack of support), and the changes they are currently experiencing within themselves. With all of this happening at once, this can very easily create a recipe for disaster, causing the individual to leave or skip work , quit, and/or even result in a termination of employment. When bipolar individuals start repeating the patterns of quitting or being terminated from a job, it may be a good idea to create or turn to a safety net such as SSI, SSDIor other sources of income/support if possible.

It is crucial for those who struggle with bipolar disorder to be properly medicated, keep regular doctor appointments, and to ultimately be stable before setting out to work. It is also true though that there are many successful bipolar individuals who can go to work daily and experience minimal issues. This article may not apply to everyone as each person with this illness experiences symptoms at different severities.

Some factors that could increase the chances for them to succeed in their work environment would be:

  • The type of job. Something not too stressful and/or something they enjoy doing.
  • The job setting or the environment.
  • Having an understanding employer.
  • The amount of hours or the shifts.
  • Successful, while on-the-job coping skills.
  • Seeing a therapist and psychiatrist often.
  • Stabilized moods – Having the correct and working medications.

Those who are familiar with bipolar disorder know that stress is often a huge trigger for bipolar mood swings and working is often a stressful event, but even more so for those with bipolar disorder.

So, what’s the deal? 

The deal is that people with mental illness and bipolar disorder deserve a little more understanding and support. It’s not that they don’t want to work or because they are lazy, it’s because of an illness that greatly and ultimately affects their daily lives. It can become very frustrating and stressful for the bipolar individual not being able to work when they really want it. It can affect their self-esteem and feelings of their worth. Working is definitely an obstacle for some bipolar individuals, but there is always hope and there are always more tries and options. Never give up and don’t be afraid to seek support such as a trusted therapist or counselor to help you achieve your goals because it can be possible.

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  1. If those who don’t understand the effect bipolar disorder can have on the ability to work experienced just a few moments of the complete and utter mental chaos the illness can cause that would be enough to cure them of their ignorance.

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