Bipolar disorder is considered an “invisible” illness. This means that while there are potentially visual clues, you generally can’t ascertain just by looking at someone whether they have it. This is especially true when that person is symptom-free.
People living with bipolar disorder who work are generally people in recovery and are, especially while at work, symptom-free. Thus, most people living with bipolar disorder can hide their diagnosis from their employers.
Is your bipolar disorder your employer’s business?
The simple answer is “no.” You are not legally required to tell your employer that you have any medical condition. However, there are some exceptions that should be noted.
- If you are requesting an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you must disclose.
- If you have a prolonged absence and need the job protections provided by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you must disclose.
- If you are using employer-sponsored, short- or long-term disability, you may be required to disclose at some level.
If you are being treated the same as everyone else and not asking for anything outside of what the typical employee is getting, then there is no reason that you are required to disclose. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any reason to. It just means there is no legal requirement.
Can you be fired for having bipolar disorder?
There are two answers to this question: the legal one and the practical one. Legally, in the U.S., you cannot be fired for any mental health-related diagnosis that does not directly interfere with you meeting your job requirements.
Practically, it is expensive, time-consuming, and often difficult to prove that the reason a person was fired was directly related to them having a mental illness. Further, there is no definitive medical test for bipolar disorder, making it easy for an employer to argue that the employee is committing fraud. These are realities that most employers are well aware of. And, depending on the size of the company, their legal representatives and HR departments are frequently skilled at protecting their interests — and the company's bottom line.
It’s important to be aware that, while there should not be repercussions for disclosing bipolar disorder at work, there often are. There is risk involved and each person will have to decide whether such disclosure is worth it to them.
The decision doesn’t always boil down to what we want, but the difference between having a job or not. This, of course, translates into having a place to live, being able to eat, and even having medical insurance. Stability is something we all need in our lives, but it’s extra important for someone managing bipolar disorder.
Why would anyone disclose bipolar at work?
There are benefits to disclosing one’s bipolar disorder at work. For example, educating your employer may make your work environment less stressful. It could help your employer account for any changes in your behavior. Also, having knowledge of your condition may enable your employer to assist you in the day-to-day management.
For many, myself included, it feels wrong to not disclose. The secret can feel like a burden. In my case, I felt like I couldn’t connect with the people around me because I was having to constantly police my words and actions. I was terrified of being found out and it was exhausting. Every day, while at work, I was terrified that this was going to be the day I was found out.
I disclosed to my employer because, for me, the pros outweigh the cons. I wanted to be myself everywhere, including during work hours. I couldn’t live with the fear of being “found out,” and I wanted to be an advocate and show society what someone with my illness can achieve. I found an employer that worked with me and is supportive. Other employers weren’t so supportive, and that made it difficult. Fortunately, I was able to find a good arrangement that works for both me and the organization I work for.
Even with the risks, I believe that living openly with bipolar disorder is a powerful thing and will help make life easier for those who haven’t yet been diagnosed. It isn’t always easy, but it was the right choice for me.
Gabe Howard is the second-place winner of HealthCentral’s Live Bold, Live Now Photo Contest. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or his website.