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Coping with Work Issues and Bipolar Disorder

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There are two major on-the-job issues for people with bipolar disorders: getting work, and keeping it.

Most Western and Asian countries offer employees at least some protection from disability discrimination on the job. In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal to refuse to hire a person simply because she has, or appears to have, a disability-as long as that disability will not prevent her from doing the job.

Preparing for job applications and interviews

Careful preparation for job applications and interviews can help you avoid job discrimination. Make an honest assessment of your skills and job history when deciding what job to apply for. Working with a job counselor can help you prepare your resume and practice interviewing skills. Apply only for jobs that you are able to do, as employers have the right to reject you if you are not qualified for the job. If you have a choice, choose to work for a company with a large workforce, as it is less likely to discriminate and more likely to offer group life and health insurance.

Interviewers are only allowed to discuss a job applicant’s disabilities if they are visible, or if the applicant brings up the topic. Accordingly, you don’t need to volunteer information about your mental illness during a job interview.

Monique, a woman with bipolar disorder, says:

“With my current employer (a mental health advocacy group) it has not been a big deal, and I’ve felt comfortable talking to people here about my mood disorder. But with other jobs that I’ve had, I have been hesitant and afraid of discussing it. I don’t want to be treated differently than any other person,

“I think if it was a position where I felt I was going to stay there and I felt comfortable with my co-workers, I would reveal it-but not at the job interview.

“And even though I have told people here, I haven’t told everyone. It’s personal, and I want to feel comfortable with the person before we talk about it.”

Unless you have specific mental or physical limitations that affect the type of work you are applying for, the fact that you have a bipolar disorder should have no bearing on your qualifications for the job. Knowing your rights, and preparing strategies for your job interview, can make the difference between being hired and being rejected. The following suggestions on how to conduct yourself during a job interview may help.

  • Do not volunteer information about your medical history. Employers have the right only to determine if you are capable of performing the job. They do not have the right to ask about personal or confidential information during an interview.

  • Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers cannot ask about medical history, require you to take a medical exam, or ask for medical records unless they have made a job offer.

  • Do not lie on a job application or during an interview. You can be fired later if your dishonesty is uncovered. Instead, answer only the specific questions asked. Try to steer the conversation towards your current ability to do the job, rather than explain your past.

  • Do not ask about health insurance until you have been offered a job. Before accepting the job, get the benefits information and review it thoroughly.

  • If your medical history becomes an issue after the job offer, get a letter from your physician that briefly outlines your treatment and stresses your current good health and ability to do the job. Ask the doctor to let you review the letter prior to giving it to your potential employer. If your doctor is willing, you might even prepare this kind of letter yourself and give it to your doctor for a signature.

  • See the web site of the
    US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
    for the EEOC’s technical
    assistance documents on Pre-Employment Disability-Related Questions and Medical Examinations. The EEOC also has a document on the definition of disability used in federal civil rights (anti-discrimination) laws.

  • Both federal contractors and federal aid recipients (hospitals, universities etc.) are required to actively recruit people with disabilities. If you are seeking a job with one of these employers, inquire about its affirmative action program. People who need to take a pre-employment drug screen, or whose jobs require regular screening for drugs, will need to inform the tester about prescription medications they take. In most circumstances this information is not shared with the employer. Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits many types of job discrimination based on actual disability, perceived disability, or history of a disability by employers, employment agencies, state and local governments, and labor unions. Any employer with 15 or more workers is covered by the ADA.

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In addition, most states and some cities have laws that prohibit discrimination based on disabilities, although what these laws cover varies widely. If your state or city has laws that provide more protections than the ADA, those laws prevail. If the ADA provides more protection than local or state laws, it prevails.

The ADA requires that:

Employer may not make medical inquiries of an applicant, unless:

  1. Applicant has a visible disability, or

  2. Applicant has voluntarily disclosed his medical history.

Such questions must be limited to asking the applicant to describe or demonstrate how she would perform essential job functions. Medical inquiries are allowed after a job offer has been made, or during a pre-employment medical exam. The employer must provide “reasonable accommodations” unless it causes undue hardship. An accommodation is a change in duties or work hours to help employees during or after treatment, when symptoms are worse, or when new health issues arise. An employer does not have to make these changes if they would be very costly, disruptive, or unsafe. If it seems likely that an increase in symptoms could jeopardize your job, work proactively with your employer to make needed accommodations.

Employers may not discriminate because of family illness. For instance, if your spouse has a bipolar disorder, the employer cannot treat you differently because she thinks you will miss work to care for your spouse or file expensive health insurance claims.

Employers are not required to provide health insurance, but if an employer does offer health insurance, the company must do so fairly to all employees.

Coping with Work Issues and Bipolar Disorder

Mitzi Waltz

APA Reference
Waltz, M. (2020). Coping with Work Issues and Bipolar Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.