Talent   //   March 30, 2023

‘I got fired four times for insubordination:’ Working with bipolar disorder

“The mania would kick in just because you’re flying, your timezone is messed up, you’re not sleeping the same,” said Tom Wootton as he described the challenge of sustaining a full-time job at a software company while managing bipolar disorder.

It was a great gig on paper. He got to travel to interesting destinations across the globe while enjoying a steady job. But the reality for Wootton was very different. “That kind of lifestyle was really dangerous because it would trigger my mania. It would start to escalate and I’d need to see what tools I had to moderate it,” he said.

Wootton had his first manic episode – defined as increased energy, excitement, impulsive behaviour, and agitation – at 9 years old. But it wasn’t until much later, at the age of 42, that he was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Today, Wootton, 67, is the executive director and founder of the Bipolar and Depression Outcomes Research Institute where he works for himself at home and teaches different organizations about the condition.

Bipolar disorder can cause moods to swing from extremely high (referred to as manic episodes) to extremely low (depression). Depressive symptoms can include a lack of energy, feeling worthless, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts, according to medical definitions.

“There were lots of times I was depressed so much I didn’t want to go to either a work event or a social event,” said Wootton. “Like there’s no way I’m going on this thing, I’m too depressed.”

Employers have done an increasingly better job at reducing the stigma around mental health in the workplace, including offering more services, ranging from talk therapy to ketamine-assisted treatment. However, while mental health diagnoses like depression and anxiety are becoming easier to talk about, others, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are still kept under wraps. 

World Bipolar Day is celebrated on Mar. 30, the birthday of artist Vincent Van Gogh, who was posthumously diagnosed as having had bipolar disorder. It’s meant to bring world awareness to bipolar disorder, which affects 40 million people globally, and eliminate stigma.

Bipolar disorder can severely affect areas in your life such as work, school and relationships. However, there are a number of ways that folks have successfully navigated their bipolar disorder to their advantage in the workplace. In fact, Wootton likes to reframe bipolar disorder as “bipolar in order.”

“There’s bipolar, which means I have highs and I have lows, and to me the disorder part means I don’t understand it enough to be able to make it work and I’m acting in ways that I think are disordered,” said Wootton. “Bipolar in order means I still have highs and lows, but it’s no longer in disorder. It’s ‘I’m no longer affected by the highs and lows in a way that makes me unfunctional.’”

“It definitely has its perks in the entrepreneurial world”

Chris R. Smith is a successful and accomplished entrepreneur who views bipolar disorder as an entrepreneurial strength. He’s a sales and marketing expert and the bestselling author of “The Conversation Code,” a blueprint for small business professionals in mastering the art and science of conversion. Smith also co-founded the SaaS marketing platform Curaytor, an Inc. 500 fastest-growing business, which helps small business professionals successfully grow and scale their business. 

“Having bipolar disorder can be a double-edged sword, but it definitely has its perks in the entrepreneurial world,” said Smith. “When I’m in a hypomanic phase, my creativity and energy levels are through the roof. It’s like my brain is firing on all cylinders, and that can lead to some fantastic ideas and a whole lot of work getting done.”

The hypomanic phase is a state of increased energy and exhilaration. Wootton said “when you’re hypomanic, you can do great things. You’ve got the enthusiasm, you’ve got the ideas, and your mind is going well, but that can easily turn into a mania where you can’t do it.”

“When I'm in a hypomanic phase, my creativity and energy levels are through the roof. It's like my brain is firing on all cylinders, and that can lead to some fantastic ideas and a whole lot of work getting done.”
Chris R. Smith, author and co-founder of SaaS marketing platform Curaytor.

“If I focus on the positive aspects of my bipolar disorder, I can use it to my advantage in entrepreneurship,” said Smith. “I have these grandiose thoughts, blind faith, and endless energy that can really drive me forward. And I know that success in life is all about having a positive inner dialogue and living in the present moment. That’s how I turn my bipolar disorder into a superpower. Plus, the ability to empathize and connect with others can help in building relationships and networking.”

Smith is still learning to ride the waves and harness the strengths of his bipolar while working on managing the lows.

Wootton recommends that those who are diagnosed with the disorder would take time to understand it so they can harness its strengths. “The way I look at it is people will go to college and spend a ton of money and four years of their life because at the end of that they get a good career out of it,” said Wootton, who offers a free eight-week online course to better understand bipolar. “My attitude is that you should spend at least a couple of years, not at college, but getting your bipolar together. That would be the investment where you’re in a position where you can take advantage of the good parts of bipolar. Now you have the ability to go out there and actually perform with less accommodation at work.”

“The best employee for three months”

On the flip side, for some who live with this disorder, work can quickly become overwhelming. And in trying to manage their bipolar they aren’t able to work at all.

“Maintaining a consistent workflow can be tricky when you’re dealing with fluctuating energy and mood swings that can impact productivity, motivation, and interpersonal relationships,” said Smith. “It’s essential to have open communication with coworkers so they understand the situation.”

For example, Wootton described how he’d be “the best employee” for three months. “I was more productive, more energetic, worked harder, poured myself into it, my mind was going faster,” said Wootton. “All of these reasons, I was the best employee they ever saw. I rapidly grew, they kept promoting me, I was great at it. Then the hypomania wore off and the depression kicked in and I’d end up quitting. You do that a few times and pretty soon you think I can’t keep a job.”

Smith suggests using effective time management skills and self-care practices for managing the impact of bipolar disorder on one’s life. “Managing stress, getting enough rest, and finding ways to maintain a healthy work-life balance can help minimize the effects of bipolar disorder on one’s work performance and overall well-being,” said Smith. “Also, it’s crucial to know when it’s time to disconnect because it is easy to get fixated on certain aspects of your job or get overwhelmed by them.”

Smith says that while working with bipolar disorder can present unique challenges, with the right support, communication, and self-care strategies, it is possible to manage the condition and maintain a fulfilling and productive work life.

Wootton also suggests finding a career path that ultimately works for you. Being an entrepreneur, like both he and Smith are, is a good example because you can largely be your own boss. It certainly explains why entrepreneurs are 10 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder, as reported by Forbes.

“The accommodation is really I figured out how to do it and I figured out a career that actually works for me,” said Wootton. “When people do that, they can be really successful as a bipolar person in the career world.”

Talking to employers about bipolar

“It’s crucial for society to understand and support individuals with bipolar disorder rather than stigmatize or discriminate against them,” said Smith. “A little understanding and support can go a long way in helping individuals with bipolar disorder reach their full potential and lead happy and healthy lives.”

People with bipolar disorder have a lot to offer and their unique experiences can bring a fresh perspective to the table. 

“Honestly, I wish people would understand that we’re not just a walking mood swing,” said Smith. “With the right support system and some understanding, people with BD can truly thrive in the workplace.”

For example, people with bipolar disorder may require occasional breaks from work depending on the manifestation of their condition. The depressive side of bipolar disorder can lead to suicidal thoughts and have a detrimental effect on an individual’s ability to work. 

“I’m afraid that if I tell my boss I’m bipolar, that’s going to put a stop in my career that’s starting to go forward. It switches from ‘I’m a great asset to the company' to 'I’m needing accommodations.’”
Tom Wootton, executive director and founder of the Bipolar and Depression Outcomes Research Institute.

However, navigating those conversations with your employer can be tricky as well. Wootton often debated whether or not to tell his employer that he was bipolar so that he could get accommodations. 

“It’s like I met this person, should I tell them right away I’m bipolar?,” said Wootton. “When do I tell them? Same thing exists in business. I’m afraid that if I tell my boss I’m bipolar, that’s going to put a stop in my career that’s starting to go forward. It switches from ‘I’m a great asset to the company’ to ‘I’m needing accommodations.’”

But Laura Ksenak did tell her employers about her mental illness so that she could be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. At her previous job, she was hospitalized and in an outpatient program which meant she missed three months of work. 

“My superiors just took it in stride,” said Ksenak. “I worked under a supervisor who had family members with mental illness so she really got it. This shows how just by knowing someone with mental illness gives that person empathy.”

Smith agrees: “By providing a supportive and understanding workplace environment, we can help individuals with BD to reach their full potential while also prioritizing their mental health and well-being.” 

At Ksenak’s current job, where she is a blog author for National Alliance on Mental Illness, she recently took sick leave for four weeks without consequence while she waited for her medication to work and the mania to calm down. But Ksenak says her supervisor “doesn’t want to know more than she needs to,” which is different from her previous boss where she could talk freely. Overall, though, she considers herself lucky to have had two largely understanding supervisors, especially because it’s been a long path for her.

“I got fired four times for insubordination,” said Ksenak. “I quit two volunteer jobs with one day’s notice because my self-righteousness refused to carry out my duties as I had done several times before. Also, I sent caustic emails to a new supervisor because she was younger than me.”

Julia A. Fast, who was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar disorder II (which typically involves four distinct mood episodes each year, rather than the two episodes a year with bipolar disorder) of at the age of 31 after she had lived with the disorder for over 14 challenging years, said she has had a total of 44 jobs in her lifetime. She’s now 59 years old and is an author focused on educating people on bipolar disorder.

“The reality is I never held a job for more than a year and a half,” said Fast. “It’s way too hard for me. ”

While she doesn’t want there to be a stigma around bipolar, she asks an important question: Is that fair to employers?

“The reality is that the majority of people with bipolar have trouble with work. How do we accommodate the brilliant people with brain illnesses who do have a disability and do need to take breaks? That’s the question."
Julia A. Fast, author of "Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder."

“Are we just going to say go get your 15th job?” said Fast. “The reality is that the majority of people with bipolar have trouble with work. How do we accommodate the brilliant people with brain illnesses who do have a disability and do need to take breaks? That’s the question. We do it for pregnancy, we do it when people get cancer. I think we do need to be a little bit more understanding that we want to work with these brilliant minds, but many of us need special accommodations.”

For those who have bipolar disorder and have it controlled where they are ready to work, she recommends starting part-time and only working during the day. Before she was working for herself, she would sit down with her employer and tell them what they can expect from her, but in return she doesn’t do well with tight deadlines and that she might need extra time sometimes. It’s important to note that not all employers will be receptive to that.

“I’m realistically optimistic,” said Fast. “If we approach that way, we absolutely can find work that works for us. It’s very rarely going to be the way you think it’s going to be. You have to expand and say what is work I can do within my bipolar, not despite my bipolar?”