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. 

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?

Stigma Resistance and Existence in the Project Management Workplace:

I have found in my 35-year career mostly doing project management work that the company you work for is only as accepting as the people who make it up.  When I have experienced a supporting atmosphere for my bipolar illness (which is extremely rare), my mentor or my boss has come from a place where mental illness was in their family.  One a husband, one an aunt.  This was volunteered information to me from them.  I find the ability of the workplace to be supportive is in direct correlation to the boss or mentor having first-hand experience with mental illness.  For all intents and purposes, the individual and not the company is the determinant of a supportive environment for working with a mental health condition.

It should not be this way.  The company as a unit in and of itself should be able to show understanding and support for mental health challenges particularly with such advances as the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

In my experience, the company is more prone to act out of fear or out of ignorance and assume someone with a mental health condition is dangerous to themselves and to others around them.  There is a tendency to criminalize people with mental health diagnoses in the workplace when that mental health diagnosis is exposed. 

Not uncommon is the ushering out of the office by building security when the mental illness surfaces.  Is this ever done when you have diabetes?  Or a brain tumor?  Or cancer?  No, you are not humiliated and meant to feel you are criminal just for being ill.  These other illnesses are accepted as part of the risk profile for managing employees.  People are given support for their illness by co-workers and by management for these other non-mental illness profiles, while for mental illness profiles the employee is considered an immediate and unsurmountable threat and treated as a criminal.

Again, I would hope in the US the Americans with Disabilities Act would change this criminalization of people with mental health diagnoses in the workplace, but in my experience it has not.  That sounds out as a sad state of affairs for employment for people with mental health diagnoses.

Have you ever been treated poorly at the office because of a mental health diagnosis or break-through event? Have you ever been treated well for the same? What causes some employers to act in a way that is supportive and others not?

Mental Health While Working in Project Management

This is a series of blogs which attempts to talk about stigma existence and stigma reduction in a particular field of work – project management.  Beginning in 2002, I became certified as a Project Management Professional.  This feat was subsequent to obtaining my college degree and my Masters in Business Administration.  In this series of blogposts, I will talk about several issues including: 1) being accepted (or not) for having a mental disorder while serving as a project manager, 2) addressing stigma associated with a mental health diagnosis while practicing as a project management professional, 3) learning to adopt risk management principles from project management principles to self-care and risk management with a mental health diagnosis,  4) detailing work places and individuals that seemed accepting of mental health diagnosis either before, during or after practicing as a project manager full-time,  5) balancing two or more projects versus one project while being diagnosed with a severe mental illness, 6) calculating the rewards and the challenges associated with compartmentalizing mental health issues while serving as a project management professional, 7) relaying the benefits of openly discussing the impacts of mental illness on my ability to serve as a project manager, and 8) detailing specific examples of prejudice in the workplace due to a mental health diagnosis.    

Some of the material may seem redundant as I have experienced repeatedly non-acceptance in the field of project management for mental health in general and for mental health diagnoses in particular. 

In a few months’ time

Come the end of December, I will be writing a series of blogs about my time in the workplace and the various responses I have gotten over the years either when I have exposed my bipolar diagnosis or it has been exposed through circumstance. I believe you may find that not too many workplaces are supportive of a mental health diagnosis. I have struggled over the years as to whether to reveal this “secret.” I hope these several blogs will give the younger folks following this thread some indication of the pitfalls of allowing your behavioral health diagnosis to be open or not in the workplace. My sentiments still remain mixed as to whether disclosure is a good thing or not.