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Coping with Work Issues and Bipolar Disorder

Enforcement of nondiscrimination laws

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces Title 1 of the ADA, the section that covers employment. Call (800) 669-4000 for EEOC enforcement information and (800) 669-3362 for enforcement publications. Other sections of the ADA are enforced by, or have their enforcement coordinated by, the US Department of Justice (Civil Rights Division, Public Access Section.) The Justice Department’s ADA web site is

In Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Act provides essentially the same rights as the ADA. The Canadian Human Rights Commission administers the act. You can get further information by calling the national office at (613) 995-1151.

If you feel that you have been discriminated against due to your disability or a relative’s disability, contact the EEOC, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, or the appropriate agency in your country promptly. In the US, a charge of discrimination generally must be filed within 180 days of when you learned of the discriminatory act. Although you do not need an attorney to file a complaint, an attorney experienced in job discrimination law can help you draft the complaint to make it more likely to be successful.

Leslie, age forty-four, experienced discrimination early in her career, but was not able to combat it, as it occurred before the ADA extended protection to people with disabilities:

“I had a summer hypomania in late 1987 and got transferred to a low-profile position in another department at work.

“When I was depressed again I started withdrawing at work and obsessing on what had happened at the other department. I couldn’t concentrate on my work either, and spent a lot of time getting on support newsgroups and e-mail lists.

“My project leader wrote up a humiliating questionnaire for me to fill out about why I didn’t say hi to people in the hallways, why I spent so much time on the computer, and other behaviors. My first set of contrite, self-deprecating answers wasn’t acceptable. It didn’t occur to anyone present at the meeting that followed that my problem might be depression.”

“Eventually I got on the right medication. However, the damage at work was done, and when layoffs came around, I went with the first wave.

“My career was going fairly well until I got on the psychiatric meds-many of them trash your short-term memory. Now I have trouble retaining verbal information especially, and keeping a job is very difficult. I was recently fired from my job for
requesting accommodations under the ADA.”

The Federal Rehabilitation Act

The Federal Rehabilitation Act bans public employers and private employers that receive public funds from discriminating on the basis of disability. The following employees are not covered not by the ADA, but by the Rehabilitation Act.

  • Employees of the executive branch of the federal government. (Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act)

  • Employees of employers that receive federal contracts and that have fewer than fifteen workers. (Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act)

  • Employees of employers that receive federal financial assistance and that have fewer than fifteen workers. (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act)

If you are a federal employee (section 501), you must file a claim within thirty days of the job action against you. If you are an employee whose employer has a federal contract (section 503), you must file a complaint within 180 days with your local Office of the US Department of Labor, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. If your employer receives federal funds (Section 504), you have up to 180 days to file a complaint with the federal agency that provided funds to your employer, or you can file a lawsuit in a federal court. The Federal Rehabilitation Act is enforced by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, (202) 514-4609.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 includes protections for adults attending school or working for employers who get at least some public funds. That list includes colleges, government bodies, and many non-profits, and may sometimes cover private firms that accept government contracts.

If you live outside the US, talk to a disability advocacy group about the laws that affect you on the job. If you live in one of the nations within the European Community, you can cite European Union civil rights regulations as well as applicable local or national disability rights laws.

The ADA does have a hitch: it only applies if your bipolar disorder presents a significant disability, or if your employer believes that it does-even if that belief is based on misconceptions about mental illness. This has led to a Catch-22 situation for many people with neurological conditions or mental illness: yes, there are drugs available that can treat the symptoms of these conditions, but those drugs don’t work
consistently for everyone, and may not work at all for some. They also carry with them side effects and dangers.

However, recent Supreme Court cases uphold the idea that if a disability can be corrected with medication, eyeglasses, or other temporary measures, it does not qualify for ADA protection, despite many lower-court cases that say otherwise. Future challenges can be expected in this area of law; indeed, California recently passed a bill that removes the “significant impairment” criteria for persons in that state.

One way around this roadblock is showing that the medication itself creates a disability. Lithium, for example, effectively suppresses mood swings for many people who take it, but it can also cause hand tremors and “brain fog.” Slow thinking and shaky hands on the job can be disabling in of themselves, and may qualify you for ADA protection.

An attorney can explain where you stand legally, and may be able to help you fix the problem without going to court. Mediation is an increasingly popular and less costly option.

Coping with Work Issues and Bipolar Disorder

Mitzi Waltz

APA Reference
Waltz, M. (2018). Coping with Work Issues and Bipolar Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.