We live in a culture that prioritizes productivity and output above connection, rest, and self-care -- all essential components to maintaining mental health. As such, our sense of self-worth is often intimately tied up with our professional and financial lives. When you live with bipolar disorder, and all of the workplace challenges that come with it, that sense of worthiness can plummet into a lurch of suicidal feelings and ideation. I know, because work stress has taken me to those depths. (Note: This post contains a trigger warning.)
Work and Bipolar or Depression
Did you know that workplace suicide is on the rise? According to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, there has been "an 11 percent increase in work-related suicides." Today, owing to the pandemic, mental health issues have taken a turn for the worse. In fact, the World Health Organization recently announced that "mental health, suicide prevention needs greater attention during pandemic." (Note: This post contains a trigger warning.)
Here is an unpopular opinion: not everyone can turn their passion into a career and that's okay. In fact, not everyone should even try to do that in the first place. But here's the thing: doing meaningful work is indispensable if one wants to keep depression at bay. Even though you are not your job, the work you do does impact the quality of your life. When you do work that matters to you, life with depression becomes easier. This is a personal observation. When I was training to be a software tester, I was miserable. And when I became a writer, I finally felt a sense of satisfaction.
We live in a culture with a profoundly unhealthy attitude towards work. Every day, we are fed a message that our worth is directly tied to our productivity and that making room in our lives for rest, play, or tending to our basic needs as humans is frivolous, even selfish. The go-go-go attitude and desire for endless productivity in our workplaces is stressful for even the most neurotypical person, but when you live (and work) with bipolar disorder, the game has even higher stakes.
I know it's okay to take a mental health day during a pandemic because yesterday afternoon, I unraveled. I couldn't move, I couldn't eat, all I could do was crawl in bed and breathe. And that's how I spent the rest of the day.
The decision to disclose your bipolar at work is an important one. You may feel unsure of whether or not you should speak to your employer about your illness, or worried that you could face professional or personal repercussions for speaking up. There are risks to talking about bipolar at work, as well as potential benefits.
When I'm hypomanic, I tend to overcommit myself. Yet, when I tell people that I have bipolar II disorder, I often hear "Oh, I'm sure the depression sucks, but I wish that I had a little taste of mania! You must feel great and be so productive when you're manic." While not intentionally harmful, such comments display an ignorance of the realities of living with bipolar mania (or, in my case, hypomania). Many people have the miconception that mania puts one into a hyper-productive state. But the truth is that mania more often than not hinders performance rather than aids it.
In recent years, constant connectivity and hustle culture have made it difficult for us to define boundaries between work and life. Now that many of us are working from home owing to the coronavirus pandemic-induced social distancing, the lines have become more blurred than ever.
Real talk: when it comes to time management, I don't have the best track record. While most people can benefit from improved time management skills, keeping track of time and using it productively seems to be the bane of bipolar existence.
Most of us are well aware of the importance of a strong work ethic to succeed in one's professional life, but the idea of a healthy rest ethic isn't well known. In fact, thanks to today's hustle culture which demands that we work as much as possible, we are acutely overworked across generations. Irrespective of what certain people in positions of power want us to believe, overworking, also known as hustling, is bad for the mind and body.