Being a Project Manager with a Mental Illness

Being a project manager by definition means you are in a position of leadership.  Your job is basically to lead the assigned team to project fruition from a time, scope and financial perspective.  This reputation of being a leader means you are expert in resolving issues and risks and in motivating people on your team to supply their best work even if you only have influence and not direct control over these resources.

Being in a position of leadership means your supervisors put complete trust in you for your management techniques and your perceptions on what needs to be managed by the team and what may need to be escalated up the chain for management to handle.

In short, being a project management professional means your superiors trust your ability to cognitively manage the project or projects in front of you.  This puts a person with a behavioral health diagnosis in a difficult spot.  By definition of having a behavioral health diagnosis there will be times when that person’s cognitive ability is impaired for a period of seconds or hours, best case scenario, to a period of months or longer, worst case scenario.  

When there is a break-down of this “trust” when a behavioral health event is exposed either voluntarily or involuntarily, all trust in the project manager diminishes to nothing.  There is no in-between in that as a project manager when you have a break-through event, you are trusted a great deal less or not at all.  It is all or nothing with no in between.  As a project manager you are riding on your good reputation at handling people, handling scope, handling time and handling money.  If any of these is less than perfect, the project manager loses face at being a project manager for that employer.  A behavioral health event – exposed – at any time in my experience means the trust in the impacted project manager is reduced to nil.

This is difficult and complicating and may lead that project manager not to be open about his or her behavioral health diagnosis in the long-run.  This compartmentalization is something I have experienced and sadly found to be much more effective than being honest about my bipolar illness to my employer.  During the times that I have been able to compartmentalize my illness, I have had much more success in the workplace.  Sadly though, this success in the workplace is not matched at home with good management of my bipolar illness and its ups and downs (quite literally). 

Rare but not unheard of is reassignment of a project manager to a position that is no so dependent upon constant team leadership.  I have not experienced this transfer of responsibilities but I have seen it happen once while in employment with a big corporation.  The person in question was experiencing panic attacks and was treated somewhat more fairly than myself by being transferred to a new position that was intended to help relieve the panic attacks.

Do you feel your behavioral health diagnosis was or has been accepted without stigma in your workplace? If so, what do you think the important factors were? If not, what would you have liked to have gone differently?

4 thoughts on “Being a Project Manager with a Mental Illness

  1. I think it definitely complicates things when the effects of illness can directly impact the ability to perform work tasks. I think reasonable accommodations need to play a much greater role in the workplace when it comes to mental health, and they need to be just as common and just as openly talked about as accommodations for physical disabilities. If aspects of the work can be changed to support the employee’s mental health, such as the transfer of certain responsibilities, that’s likely to improve outcomes for both the employee and the company.

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    1. I agree with you 100%. My experience is such that break-through events cycled and spread like wildfire through the company and then I was all but criminalized. Perhaps defining what reasonable accommodations look like for the typical worker or the typical project manager would be a step in the right direction? Perhaps co-leading projects would be an alternative? I have had some really good luck in volunteering for a mayorial board on environmental development issues. I was able to share my situation as an ‘anxiety disorder’ to the Chair of the Board and not share any of the medical stuff with the rest of the Board. This seemed to work well. The Chair was very much understanding and encouraged me to take time off as needed. He was impressed with my project management abilities to help lead one of the subcommittees, but he understood when things got hectic for me. The rest of the Board were not informed so the stigma issues did not pervade accordingly. I would be curious to ask a group of people with mental health concerns what would be reasonable accommodations in their books? I think it is a great question and not one I am sure I can answer. It is so true that we do not hesitate one bit to think of reasonable accommodations for physical ailments. Why so hard to know what a mental health accommodation would look like? Just thinking out loud.

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