How to Understand and Help a Bipolar Colleague

Mental health is a sensitive topic. It's an area that's not well understood amongst most people, yet a large portion of individuals are affected.

What is bipolar disorder?

The main characteristics of bipolar disorder are:

  • Shifts in mood. Someone suffering from bipolar disorder may be highly depressed, then become overly happy (this is known as a manic episode).
  • Changes in energy levels
  • Find day-to-day tasks challenging to complete

Factors that affect severity

There are varying degrees of bipolar disorder. As well, there are different factors that play a role in each case. Your experience will depend on these variables, regarding a bipolar colleague.

  • How well their treatment is working
  • What type of job you're working within
  • The conditions of their life outside of work

How can you tell is someone within your office is bipolar?

Depending on the level of treatment an individual receives, their condition will vary.

  • If their treatment has been successful thus far, you may not even know that he/she is suffering from bipolar disorder. In this case, the individual may have their condition under control. The only difference that may be seen is that he/she will not complete certain tasks as well as others. Realistically, that is the case for anyone. We all have strengths and weaknesses. The same concept applies to days off. They miss a few days here and there due to a doctor's appointment. Just like any other person, they're entitled to seek out medical attention when needed. The main thing is that they have their condition under control.
  • Treatment that is partially successful may yield issues with one's work environment. Unfortunately, if someone suffers from bipolar they may be difficult to work with. When they're depressed they may be absent from work, and once they're in a manic state they be challenging to work alongside. Partial treatment can most certainly still cause issues.
  • If completely untreated, the co-worker probably won't be at your place of employment for long. No matter what job they're taking part in, bipolar will have a great effect.

Tips to to help a colleague suffering from bipolar disorder

For someone who suffers from bipolar, everyday tasks can be challenging. Once someone is thrown into a stressful work environment, they can really struggle. There are ways in which you can make someone more comfortable, in turn making your work environment better.

  • If you have authority, offer the co-worker a few options. Try to be a little bit flexible in terms of scheduling, break times, and assistance. This will especially be important when they're trying to master a new skill. If possible, you may offer a work-from-home option. It's also important to work around their doctor's appointments.
  • Help your co-worker set up a workspace that is away from various distractions. This will allow them to stay more focused on their goals.
  • Encouragement is always welcomed. If your co-worker does well on an assignment, congratulate them. It's important to make any individual feel good about themselves, but especially important to people who are extremely sensitive regarding stressful situations.
  • Offer up some tips if you see that they're struggling. Show them some of the ways that you stay on track; to-do lists, day planners, utilising calendars, etc. This may create more organisation so that they're more effective.
  • Be understanding. The most important thing you can do is become educated on the subject. That way you can offer more productive, and accurate assistance. Many people with bipolar disorder do not want to burden others. Let them know you understand, and that you care. 
  • Be patient once they're in treatment. Bipolar disorder is a lifelong journey. If they have not yet sought treatment, encourage them to do so. 
  • Don't gossip. The worst thing you can do is gossip around the office. This is not beneficial to anyone, and can actually make matters much worse.

At the end of the day, every employee has a job to do. It is important to help someone, but do not get in the habit of covering for your colleague. If you are constantly making excuses for them, it will not help them. You may get behind in your own work, and they may not be pushed towards necessary treatment.

You need to be supportive, understanding, and encouraging. It will be up to them if they seek treatment. By pushing them into the right direction, you will be helping everyone involved. Work will be a more positive environment, and your colleague will be on their way to a happier, healthier life.