My First Job out of Graduate School – Compartmentalization

My first job out of graduate school was as a Business Analyst in the IT department of a local engineering and environmental management firm.  This position built upon my role in information management at the state cultural organization where I worked before graduate school.  Shortly after joining this firm as a Business Analyst I was promoted to a financial application services manager position and worked in that capacity for a couple of years.  The position used and developed project management skills but was more process oriented than project outcome focused. 

During this time I completely compartmentalized my bipolar illness.  I went to Psyche appointments on my lunch hour.  I went for lab work on Saturdays.  Basically, I provided no insight to my employer or my boss that I was managing bipolar symptoms.

Ironically, this seemed to work well for my career.  I was managing four programmer analysts and helping to manage and develop software systems.  It seemed to help that I was managing a team who had more technical know-how than myself.  So, I was just facilitating progress; I was not driving progress.  It also really helped that my boss trusted me implicitly to manage the software program assigned to me and was always available if I had an issue that needed to be escalated to her level or above.  It meant a lot to me and to my ability to function that this escalation window was always accessible to me. 

Within a relatively short period of time, I went from being at a reasonable paygrade to being at a somewhat high paygrade for the time.  There was definitely stress on the job but what seemed to make a big difference was that the team of four programmer analysts were first in line when there was a triage situation.  This occurred a lot since the application we were using was still in a beta test mode for all intents and purposes.  But when there was an emergency as there was about once a month or so, my programmer analyst team was first in line to answer the “distress page.”  (This was still the time of pagers and not smart phones.)  My role was more to manage the process when there was a software outage rather than come up with the solution myself.  I depended on the programmer analysts for that.

So my problem with having reduced sleep at night was not really a problem in this job due to the pager protocol and my team being first in line rather than me being first in line when there was an outage or some other problem with the software.  This idea of missing a night’s sleep to nurse the computer system back to health did not really start until I began work a few years later as a project manager for a large telecommunications agency. 

Looking back on it now, I did not necessarily have less stress at this financial software job, it was just that I did not have stress that was a trigger for the bipolar symptoms – mainly lack of sleep for one or more nights.  In addition, it meant a lot that I functioned more as a process manager than a formal project or program manager.  It was my job to ensure problems were resolved but not directly to resolve them.  As a certified project manager some years later, the job was to solve the problem directly with the team.  This may seem like there is not much difference between these two scenarios, but the bottom line is that it is different to be responsible for process rather than outcomes.  In the financial services job, I was focused on process.  Later in more formal project management jobs I was focused on outcomes or results.  Also, again, it really helped me to perform in this job knowing that there was a clear escalation process when issues arose that I was not qualified to address. 

In terms of mental health stigma at this job, there was really no disclosure of my bipolar illness so there was no “real stigma” to address unless of course you count the fact that I felt compelled not to share my diagnosis with anyone at work.  I had circumnavigated the stigma situation, but this was only for a few years of my career.  I often wonder if compartmentalizing my illness during this job should have served as an example to me in later project management jobs.  I believe I continued to try in later years in project management positions to continue with the compartmentalization, but as the stress of the work positions grew so did my inability to control my bipolar symptoms on the job and off.  The increase in stress of the job was coupled by the fact that the stress I was now experiencing was directly triggering my bipolar symptoms – largely the sleep deficit trigger. The compartmentalization was something like having a pressure cooker going all the time.  The pressure was there even if I was not acknowledging it.   At some point in each project management job I took, the top was bound to blow off.

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?