A Second Story of Bipolar Tolerance in the Workplace

This is the story of my second employer – an arts and cultural council in New England and state / public organization.  This was a difficult time for me as I was just getting acclimated to the fact that I would need meds for the bipolar indefinitely.  In addition, it was the time that my Dad and Step-mother died of cancer in 1989 and 1988 respectively.  In the post below, I make some comparisons about leadership roles with the state organization versus later leadership roles in project management. 

My opinion is that it made a great deal of difference to be employed by a state organization.  The rules seemed a good bit more relaxed and allowed me to take extra time off when my Dad died.  It was during this time – 1988 to 1992 – that I experienced my bipolar in what I call mini-breaks every six months or so.  During this time, I moved in with my big sister and she helped administer Haldol and Mellaril during the 3 to 5 days of the mini break-through’s twice a year.

Without my sister and her help, I would have needed to be have been hospitalized during this time.  I am still indebted to her for her love and kindness to me during this time and literally opening her doors to me at a time when I could not find my way on my own.

In any case, this job with the state never questioned my need for sick leave.  Again, I cannot remember if I was put on short-term disability but I don’t think so.  Basically, I was allowed to take as much sick time or leave time as needed.

In terms of a support role or a leadership role, my position started off as support and migrated more toward leadership.  I had a very close relationship (professionally) with my boss, so there was no need to go over the bipolar situation with her.  We never directly talked about it and she was the one who elevated me from a support role to a more senior oriented position.  I became an Information Officer and began a career which would one day be in the Information Technology or IT space. 

One aspect of the leadership nature of the role with this cultural organization is that I was not really managing a large team of people in a typical project management type atmosphere.  I was responsible for the relationship with the computer programmer who was contracted by the organization and for the relationship with the elderly gentleman who volunteered at the agency in a computer programming capacity.  So, it was important that I be able to communicate with contracted and volunteer computer programmers as my “team.”  On the flip side, I was not leading a large team of seven to ten Business Analysts and Computer Programmers in the software development process.  The leadership consisted of managing the software development process with these two computer programmers only.

In the long run, this seemed to have made a difference – I excelled at maintaining the relationship with the two programmers but did not have to command a team of IT professionals (other than these two) in the development of software programs used to process applications at and to this cultural council.

At this organization, I started off as an Administrative Assistant and moved toward a Program Associate role and eventually landed as Information Officer.  This movement within the organization meant my colleagues and my supervisors knew my ability to function (or not) when I was in various positions within the organization.  I did not automatically land in a leadership position and have to “prove” myself as capable of that role.  Instead, I was employed for two years as an Administrative Assistant during the time of intense illness and death in the family. After those two years I was elevated to Program Associate and showed an affinity for database design and database development.  This work was eventually what proved to my boss that I would make a good Information Officer.

So this is the role in which I first began to show signs of information management capabilities.  These capabilities would continue with me after I graduated from Business School and received my MBA.  My first job out of graduate school was as a Business Analyst for a local engineering and environmental firm.  I will visit the story of my employment there coming up next. 

Story of Bipolar Tolerance in the Workplace

These next several posts will be dedicated to stories about how my mental illness was accepted or not by my various employers over the years.  This first story is about my first job out of college as a paralegal for a law office in a major New England city.  In the post below, I compare paralegal work and project management work.

When I started working as a paralegal, the Americans with Disabilities Act had not yet been passed.  This was 1986.  When I signed up to work for this law firm, I was asked to fill out a questionnaire.  As memory serves, one of the questions asked about whether I had a mental illness.  This was before it was illegal to ask this question.  The ADA did not get passed until 1990.

At the time in 1986, I opted not to be truthful in the questionnaire.  I felt it was my right and my knowledge that the employer could not or should not access.  This created the start of the process of always wondering whether it was good to declare my bipolar illness or not with an employer. 

During the two years that I was a paralegal at this law firm, I exhausted my sick leave due to the bipolar diagnosis.  I was still in process of getting the right combination of lithium and Tegretol together.  I was also adjusting to taking meds on a regular basis.  As many may know often it takes a year or two before you can accept your illness and that you will need to stay on meds likely indefinitely. 

I don’t recall whether I was put on short-term disability during this time or not.  But there was never talk of letting me go or firing me because of the bipolar illness or because of exceeding the allotted sick time for my station at that law firm.

In general, the lack of a negative reaction to my being out ill was a positive outcome in the long-run.  Today I consider this “tolerance” of my mental health needs to be a very positive outcome with an employer.  I had not yet been certified as a project manager – that would come later in 2002.  All in all and in retrospect, I found that working as a paralegal and having a mental illness were a combination that was somewhat manageable for me and for the employer. 

Years later in the 2000s I found that working as a project manager and having a mental illness was not a manageable combination at all.  The stigma associated with the mental illness particularly in the project management workspace was just too great.  This stigma has been discussed at various of my former blogposts.

What appears to be a deciding factor between “tolerance” and “intolerance” of the mental health condition is whether the specific job is in a supporting role rather than in a leadership role.  As long as I was a paralegal and providing support to a team of attorneys, the idea of having some sort of mental health complications was “acceptable.”  However, a project management role is/was a leadership role and therefore creates/created less “accepted” or “acceptable” responses proffered by the project management organization in the project/program management workplace.  I wonder if I had been an attorney at the same law firm whether the same level of “tolerance” would have been extended to me.  Or, if as an attorney I would have been in a leadership role and, therefore, the complications of mental illness would have also been less “accepted” and “acceptable.”

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?