(This is Part IV in a five-part series on bipolar. To catch up, see Bipolar on the Job Part I: “Will I Be Able to Return to Work?” Part II: “To Tell or Not to Tell?” and Part III, “How to Talk about Bipolar Disorder.” )

When you receive a bipolar diagnosis (and disclose it to your employer), you gain protection under the law via the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As long as your employer is on notice of the problem and you’ve expressed some desire to get help, your employer is required to engage in a dialogue with you to determine whether reasonable accommodations would enable you to perform the essential functions of the job.

When most people first hear about the ADA, they mistakenly assume that it’s restricted to physical disabilities, such as not being able to lift something heavy or walk up a flight of stairs. However, as Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) points out in its online publication entitled “Filing an ADA Employment Discrimination Charge: Making It Work for You“:

… the law is for people with psychiatric disabilities, too. It forbids discrimination against people with both physical and mental disabilities in employment, transportation, public facilities, and public communications. The ADA’s employment requirements are especially important for people with psychiatric disabilities. This is because many employers share society’s fear, prejudices, and lack of information about mental illness.

To qualify for protection under the ADA, your situation must meet the following conditions. You…

  • Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of your major life activities
  • Have a record of such an impairment (your diagnosis, for example) or are regarded as having such an impairment
  • Are otherwise qualified to perform the job duties; that is, you must meet the skill, experience, education, and other job-related requirements of the position, and with reasonable accommodations be able to perform the essential functions of the job

This brings us to the question of accommodations, and reasonable ones at that. Here’s SAMHSA’s definition of reasonable accommodations:

Accommodations are changes to the work environment or the way things are usually done that allow an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. An accommodation is not considered reasonable if it creates an “undue hardship” for the employer. Undue hardship refers not only to financial hardship, but also to accommodations that are overly extensive or disruptive, or that would change the nature or operation of a business.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers a free booklet on what are considered “reasonable accommodations” complete with instructions on how to go about requesting them: Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Before you spend the weekend wading through that publication, however, you might want to check out the Job Accommodation Network’s “Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Bipolar Disorder” by Kendra M. Duckworth. This publication can help you identify accommodations that people with bipolar disorder find particularly helpful. The article groups the accommodations to address particular issues, as presented in the following sections.

Maintaining Stamina during the Workday

  • Flexible scheduling
  • Allow longer or more frequent breaks
  • Provide additional time to learn new responsibilities
  • Provide self-paced work load
  • Provide backup coverage for when the employee needs to take breaks
  • Allow time off for counseling
  • Allow for use of supportive employment and job coaches
  • Allow employee to work from home during part of the day or week
  • Part time work schedules

Maintaining Concentration

  • Reduce distractions in the work area
  • Provide space enclosures or private office
  • Allow for use of white noise or environmental sound machines
  • Increase natural lighting or provide full spectrum lighting
  • Allow the employee to work from home and provide necessary equipment
  • Plan for uninterrupted work time
  • Allow for frequent breaks
  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks and goals
  • Restructure job to include only essential functions

Difficulty Staying Organized and Meeting Deadlines

  • Make daily To-Do lists and check items off as they are completed
  • Use several calendars to mark meetings and deadlines or one central one, depending on circumstances and individual needs (multiple organizing tools can sometimes be counter-therapeutic overwhelming or confusing)
  • Remind employee of important deadlines
  • Use electronic organizers
  • Divide large assignments into smaller tasks and goals

Working Effectively with Supervisors

  • Provide positive praise and reinforcement
  • Provide written job instructions
  • Develop written work agreements including the agreed upon accommodations, clear expectations of responsibilities and the consequences of not meeting performance standards
  • Allow for open communication to managers and supervisors
  • Establish written long term and short term goals
  • Develop strategies to deal with problems before they arise
  • Develop a procedure to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodation

Difficulty Handling Stress and Emotions

  • Provide praise and positive reinforcement
  • Refer to counseling and employee assistance programs
  • Allow telephone calls during work hours to doctors and others for needed support
  • Provide sensitivity training to coworkers and supervisors
  • Allow the presence of a support animal
  • Reinforce peer supports

Attendance Issues

  • Provide flexible leave for health problems
  • Provide a self-paced work load and flexible hours
  • Allow employee to work from home
  • Provide part-time work schedule
  • Allow the employee to make up time missed

Issues of Change

  • Recognize that a change in the office environment or of supervisors may be difficult for a person with bipolar disorder
  • Maintain open channels of communications between the employee and the new and old supervisor in order to ensure an effective transition
  • Provide weekly or monthly meetings with the employee to discuss workplace issues and production level

We would like to hear from anyone who’s had experience in this area employees with bipolar, employers who have made accommodations, attorneys, psychiatrists, therapists, and anyone else who can offer some valuable insight, advice, or tips about implementing reasonable workplace accommodations for employees with bipolar disorder.

Join us next week for Part V of this series: “What If I Can’t Work? Protecting Your Rights” when we offer some suggestions on protecting your rights as an employee if you find yourself in a position in which you can no longer perform your job duties even with reasonable accommodations.