Working as a PM During the Birth of My Daughter

I was working as a project manager for a major telecommunications firm during the time I was pregnant with my daughter and during the time of her birth.  After my daughter’s birth, I took time off as I was experiencing debilitating postpartum depression.

Oddly enough, I did not experience any pushback in the workplace associated with seeing the OBGyn every month when I was pregnant.  There was no stigma to deal with – everybody can relate to being pregnant, right?  So taking a few hours off once a month to go to the doctor was no big deal.  In fact, I had support from my project management peers as well as from my program manager.

However, after the birth of my daughter, I experienced crippling postpartum depression.  This was not so readily accepted by my management at the telecomm agency.  There seemed to be suspicion as to whether I was ill or not and what kind of work I was capable of doing.  During this time I took short-term disability to deal with the postpartum depression.  I did not believe at the time that the project management work I had been doing in the telecomm space made sense for me going forward.  It was just too stressful.  As it happened during the time I was on short-term disability leave, the principal of a local environmental and planning agency approached me to offer me a job in environmental project/program management.  I thought at that time that work in the environmental sector would be less stressful than work in telecommunications project management. 

So I accepted the environmental job while I was out on disability and began that work when my daughter was not quite a year old. That job was very rewarding in some respects. In some respects the postpartum depression was still an issue.  What came to pass is that my boss developed lung cancer and within a year or so had retired and shortly after had passed.  There was very little room for exploring this employment opportunity long-term.  So once again I was preparing for a sea change in my career. 

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.

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?