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Telling Your Boss You're Bipolar Can Help Your Career

If your boss isn't a dick, that is.
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Open Minds is a column that explores your most pressing questions about mental health, with the goal of pushing back on stigma and cutting through the confusion. Send your questions to

I was just offered my first real job since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Do I have to tell my new employer anything before I can accept, and could they possibly withdraw the offer based on that?
First off, congrats. It may not have escaped your notice that our job market is still a bit of shitshow, so this is nice news to receive under any circumstances.
The shortest answer to your question is that mental health impairments, which include conditions like bipolar disorder, are protected from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. You do not have to tell your new employer about your diagnosis, nor can they legally change their mind based on it if you do. Stigma, however, is a very oppressive and powerful thing, and loads of people who disclose their diagnosis have reported being let go shortly after for reasons employers maintain are unrelated.
"It absolutely happens," says Claudia Center, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco who's worked in disability rights for more than two decades. "How likely it is really depends on a lot of circumstances, including obviously the employer's compliance with the law."
Our societal failure to acknowledge and adjust for mental illness has awful repercussions for the economy. This means it's generally in an employer's best interest to not be a dick about it, but as with all discrimination, the driving forces are ignorance and fear, not logic.
So you don't have to say anything—but depending on the severity of your condition, there are a number of reasons you might want to. The biggest thing to consider is whether you'd benefit from workplace accommodations. These might include things like access to a quiet room when necessary, or a modified/flexible schedule—being able to start earlier or later in the day, or work from home when necessary, or reserve Wednesday afternoons off for therapy. Your employer isn't required to pay you for that time, but they are required to allow you to go.
"A lot of it's just being understanding, which isn't really an accommodation per se," Center says. "But if someone presents a little bit differently or maybe has some days where they have one effect and then other days with another affect, just to kind of roll with it and [understand] that there's nothing wrong with that."
Consider whether you can perform the essential functions of this new job without these accommodations. If they would help you with anything beyond those functions, you have a legal right to them as long as they're deemed reasonable, but in order to formally request them you do first have to say why. (Employees at some companies qualify for accommodations under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows you to maintain much more privacy about your requests than does the ADA, but this won't apply to you until you've got a bit more seniority; something to bear in mind for the future.)
If you choose not to disclose, the ADA has pretty strict rules about what your employer is allowed to pry into—basically job-specific stuff only—so even if down the road they ask you about your mental health directly, they're probably out of line and you still don't have to tell them if you don't want to. The same goes for any employer-sponsored wellness programs that might threaten you with hundreds of dollars in premium hikes if you don't fill out a questionnaire about your mental health and behavior.
In a fair and just world, I'd say any workplace that would punish you for having a medical condition is not a place you need to work. But this not that world and not everyone has the privilege to be that choosy, and there are inevitably going to be some situations where it's not worth the risk or hassle.
In my last column I mentioned that I used to take Seroquel, an antipsychotic to help me sleep, in college; I actually ended up going off it the summer after I graduated, because occasionally it made me sleep so heavily I'd miss an entire day. This was fine as a second-semester senior, but I couldn't see a good way of explaining to supervisors at my new internship that I hadn't shown up one day (and hadn't called) because my medication had knocked me out for 20 hours.
So I stopped taking it. This was not ideal, but I didn't want to go through the whole ordeal of explaining the situation to people I was only going to be around for a couple of months. I was also fortunate enough that my symptoms weren't so severe that I needed the medication to live. But I did get worse, and my performance ended up dropping off more than I'd guess it would have if I'd just missed a couple of days.
I didn't know about accommodations. Even if I did, I don't think that at 22 I would have had the self-assurance to ask for them. All other things equal, I would disclose if you think your symptoms will be visible at work, even if they don't affect your work; and if you think you'll need accommodations, even if you don't right now. Some industries will of course be better able to facilitate them than others, but don't do yourself a disservice by not availing yourself of whatever options you do have if they could help you work and feel better.
Many people feel you should disclose because it helps weaken the stigma—and it does—but remember that kind of social burden is only yours if you want it. You're not obligated to be an activist for an issue just because it affects you. Some people are better-positioned than others to go public about this stuff with less serious consequences. It is absolutely okay to decide that your job security is more important than being the face of something. "If there's no [immediate] reason, most people don't disclose," Center says. "I can say with some definitiveness that, by and large, the vast majority don't disclose until there's a reason to disclose, like if they need to take a leave of absence."
But if you decide you would like share your diagnosis with your employer, I'd suggest you tell them earlier on, when (as much as might be possible) you're feeling well. Telling them when you're already in the midst of a crisis might not necessarily be a problem because they feel misled, but it might be a problem because you're liable to be less articulate and not do yourself justice when you explain what's going on.
If people learn about your diagnosis for the first time when you're experiencing an episode, the state you're in then is how they'll remember it. If you can introduce the idea in advance, when your demeanor is more familiar, they'll be more likely to associate your condition as existing compatibly with the person they have already met and liked.
Be specific both in your requests and in your reasoning. Explain that your job performance will be better working a 10-to-6 instead of a 9-to-5 because your medication makes you foggy in the mornings, or that you need the freedom to move to a quiet room on short notice sometimes because noises or crowds can amplify your mania. Bring documentation from your medical provider. People are more likely to take your disclosure seriously—both the fact that your disease is real and that you are still capable of the task at hand—when an expert is involved. (To be safe, archive any emails or record of communication, and if all else fails, you can learn about your options for filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission here.)
If your symptoms have been with you for a while and it's just your official diagnosis that's recent, lay out how you've remained productive in the past; ditto the side effects of any medications you've been on long enough to be familiar with. Tell them that you wouldn't have applied for the job if you didn't think you could do it well, much as they decided when they hired you.

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