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Opinion Editorials

Managing bipolar disorder and what I wish my employers understood

(EDITORIAL) This editorial offers a perspective on living with bipolar disorder in the workplace, giving employers insight into how to support similar team members.

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bipolar disorder

I met Jacob Martinez (Jake) a few years back at one of our offline events. He is an eager and ambitious person that always wears a smile (and seriously, it’s an infectious smile), always seeks to help people around him, and is kind and positive at every interaction.

In his most current effort to help others, Jake asked what I thought about his writing about his new bipolar disorder diagnosis, something that most people hide and pray no one discovers. But not Jake. As he dug deeper into the rabbit hole of available information, he realized there was little available discussing how this diagnosis impacts career paths, and almost nothing available to help employers to understand the nuances.

And let’s face it – there are plenty of people hiding their diagnosis, and employers that could be missing amazing talent simply for not understanding how to accommodate.

The following is about Jake’s journey with his diagnosis, how it has impacted his career, and his ideas on how hiring managers and business owners could interact with people living with bipolar disorder in a way that keeps their talents in full use on the job. This isn’t scientific and the suggestions aren’t based on some HR seminar, no, it’s meant to give you unique insight that most people don’t share – I want you to read this through Jake’s eyes. It’s a brave look into working with this challenge:


As someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, I’ve struggled to find resources that would help individuals like myself jumpstart our careers and learn to navigate working full time with a mental health disorder. Most generalized stories about mental health disorders and the workplace focus more on how things didn’t work out and not on how they started or advanced their careers.

Many give examples of individuals with mental disorders in high ranking positions who end up leaving their specialized field to work as part-time cashiers or other less stressful and less triggering roles in order to seek a better work environment for their mental health.

I’ve also found that there is a lack of resources for employers when it comes to helping employees with mental disorders. Not many employers are prepared to do so, nor have this skill in their wheelhouse. Without this knowledge, training, and experience, how could they understand the struggles of what it’s like to work with a mental disorder and be expected to provide the necessary support to help their staff?

Many factors contribute to this being overlooked or left unaddressed, such as the stigma behind people with mental disorders in a work environment, or simply because no one knows how to talk about it. When I apply for jobs, I always ask myself “Do I put in an application that I am someone with a condition that needs reasonable accommodations? Is that even an option?” How would I even begin to ask an employer to understand what I am going through? And while I’m still figuring this out and working through what my diagnosis means for my career, I’d like to share my experience and start talking about it.

Like many young individuals, I started college bright-eyed and with a hopeful outlook. I navigated internships, jobs, and full course loads but only to exit with a mountain of debt and depression that can be best described in a meme. Many, with no prospects out of university and an average GPA, end up working menial jobs to get by, hoping for their big break.

For me, this time was spent at Torchy’s Tacos, a local Austin Texas favorite. My luck finally came through when I found a new opportunity. I thought to myself, how hard could it be to deliver packages to people? Especially in a city like Austin where anyone could make a business out of cleaning cat litter boxes. This company, I thought, was going to be my lucky break – my jumping-off point. And it was for about a year. That is until my bipolar diagnosis came in.

Suddenly dealing with bipolar disorder…

I experienced sporadic shifts between depression and hypomania. With my diagnosis came a new understanding of what my limits and strengths were. I understood that stress only made it worse but that physically moving around was the best way to cope with it. Working in a warehouse-type environment allowed me to run around, helping to melt my stress away physically.

But when it came down to job performances, some weeks were better than others.

When I did well, management would make comments like, “I like this new you,” or “whatever is happening, don’t change it.” But nothing was said when I didn’t do so well. Comments continued to dismiss the real issue that I was heading towards an uphill climb of mania. And as I climbed higher and higher, more mistakes began to happen – small ones that added up beyond anything I could control. With each and every episode of mania or depression I had, the trust I had taken time to build and cultivate slowly began to fall apart.

Then came the drop – an episode of depression so deep that it’s hard to recover from. For myself, this began as a result of multiple episodes and when several “options” were laid out on the table by my employer.

First, my employer recommended that I take Family Medical Leave Assistance (FMLA). For someone like myself who never knew what FMLA was, I didn’t know where to start and what this meant. No one told me I would not be getting paid and that I would have to use my sick and personal time off to supplement my income. As someone who has built their identity around working, taking time off felt like an attack on my identity at the time.

Subsequently, I was also told I could be released for making any mistake (no matter how small or slight), attempting to change the work culture, or requesting anything unreasonable such as requesting time off for anything other than medical. My manager also called my episodic shifts a “stunt.”

Every time he said this, I lost faith in him, and he lost trust in me.

Some of the hardest words someone with a mental disorder can hear from a manager or mentor are, “When you pulled that stunt, I can’t trust you anymore” and “we will no longer be working together if you do that again.” His words cut deep and only made each episode worse—finally leading me to turn in my two-week notice.

During my time there, none of my managers ever asked if something was wrong when warning signs showed up. They just assumed that I had already checked out and given up. I felt like a cog that was replaceable and could easily be overturned. Trust was required to help me battle my mental demons, and in this case, that trust was broken on both ends. No one came out of this on top, coping skills were not utilized as they should have, and no one reached out like they said they would.

After reflecting on this experience, here’s what I’ve learned and wished my employer did:

  1. Trust: Trust is earned, not given as the adage goes. But for an employee living with bipolar disorder, trust is given before it is earned. I made the choice to trust my employer (and my entire team) by opening up about my mental health and battles – I had to. And while not everyone may be prepared to open up about what they’re dealing with internally, it can help.

    Doing this tells people that you’re asking for help and are making yourself ready to receive it. It signifies your willingness to allow others inside. This can be beneficial to you as it helps your team members become better at recognizing warning signs and understand when to check-in to see if you need help. My recommendation here to anyone working with someone who has a mental disorder: Listen if we choose to open up, don’t be dismissive of our efforts, and trust us when we ask to carry more for the team.
  2. Don’t assume: Someone opening up about a diagnosis can’t expect everyone at work to have a background in psychology or psychiatry and to understand when comments like “I like this new manic you” are harmful and dismissive.

    Not everyone is going to be interested in researching and learning how best to help a team member who is dealing with a mental health disorder. So, don’t assume that they know.

    What would have helped me and maybe changed my situation would have been to be more honest and direct about my specific needs upfront. For employers, try to also understand our needs and limits with stress. Ask your employees directly what they need from you in order to make them feel more comfortable. Another way of tackling this would be to ask your employee about some of the coping strategies they are learning in group therapy sessions. If you know your employee is going to group therapy, if you feel comfortable with it, check in with them and encourage them to keep up with those sessions. When assigning unique projects or extra tasks, it’s also helpful to explain what you are asking and offer employees the best ways to achieve it.
  3. Ask for and give reasonable accommodations: In my case, I eventually learned that taking time off was not an ‘attack on my identity’ as I had previously felt. I learned to accept it as part of living with bipolar disorder and know when to ask for it. Pushing for myself was empowering and was the best thing that could happen in that given moment.

    So, if you’re someone who struggles with bipolar or other depressive mental health disorders, the best thing you can do to help yourself, while building courage and confidence, is to speak up and be your own advocate. Ask for accommodations.

    For employers with a team member struggling with a mental disorder, when it comes to giving that team member time to themselves, it should never be a fight or argument. Change the schedule, do what you can to make accommodations, and support someone who needs time away for treatment.
  4. Give helpful feedback: In my experience, my previous employer either avoided giving me feedback completely or made dismissive comments like, “I don’t know what the hell happened…”, followed by something positive. Like many others who suffer from bipolar disorder, ineffective and unclear communication can easily lead us to spiral from misinterpreting details and having self-doubt.

    I would have benefitted from receiving clear and specific feedback, whether that was immediately after a mistake or as a conversation during team lunch. This small amount of open dialogue could have allowed us as a team to resolve conflicts, improve teamwork, help me build my self-esteem, and improve my performance.
  5. Show appreciation and have open dialogues: What is equally important for employers to do is letting us know that you are paying attention to and appreciate our efforts, regardless of how small or large of a task we complete. In a warehouse, things are extremely routine, but it doesn’t take a lot to thank someone for trying.

    A few small words and gestures could have been really helpful in breaking me out of a depressive funk or a manic episode and can certainly help someone else in the future.
  6. Practice mindfulness: At this moment, let’s check in with our emotions. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT Therapy), some of the questions they ask are about checking in with your emotions and your thoughts. Are you in control of your thoughts or are they in control of you? Are we still in touch with our emotions? Perhaps we are cross at ourselves for playing the victim to our mind’s frustrations?

    When it comes to mental disorders, employers need to be more understanding of what their employees are going through. However, we as individuals should also be able to look inwards and see what we are feeling. Core mindfulness is a skill to develop no matter what position you work in or what you’re dealing with. Mindfulness teaches awareness of thoughts and feelings, the focus on the here and now.

    From my experience, learning to control my thoughts and emotions is an effective way of dealing with my bipolar disorder. While it took time to discover, I learned that my mindfulness practice was running around the warehouse and moving. This allowed thoughts to flow in and out of my mind without having to give them any power over me. Knowing this made me feel stronger and clearer. Finding a mindfulness practice to help you cope takes time and experimenting – so try different things and figure out what works for you.
  7. Ask for help: If you’re struggling with a mental disorder at work, there is nothing wrong with asking for help. That help may look differently for everyone, be it talk therapy, telling a co-worker, or taking time off. Either way, sometimes the best way to help yourself is to start asking for help. If you’re someone who has a co-worker struggling with mental disorder, pay attention and reach out to them if they need help.

While I’m still learning to navigate my bipolar disorder, this experience has taught me (and hopefully others) some helpful lessons. I have learned to manage it better and am continuing to advance in my career path.

My hope is that companies make a more concerted effort to improve their training on mental health disorders in the workplace. I also hope that by sharing my story, I can help others with bipolar disorder to excel at work.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Patricia

    April 21, 2021 at 7:15 pm

    This should be required reading for employers in ANY business sector. Thank you, Jake. #EAHWP

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Opinion Editorials

The secret to self improvement isn’t always about improvements

(EDITORIAL) Self improvement and happiness go hand in hand, but are you getting lost in the mechanics of self improvement?

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fitness happiness

Think back to your New Year’s resolutions. Now that it’s summer, how many of them are you still keeping? Think about which ones stuck and what went by the wayside.

If you’re like most of us, you had big plans to make yourself better but didn’t stay the course. I’ve only managed to keep one of my resolutions, but it isn’t always easy.

I want to take a look at why we can’t keep our goals. I think we’re always on a journey of self-improvement. It’s easy to get obsessed with reading self-help books or trying to learn new things. We want to be better. This spring, I went through a Lent study with a group of people. Lent is a time of growth and self-reflection, just six weeks. And yet many of us are struggling to keep up with the daily reading or maintaining a fast of something we willingly chose to give up.

Why do we fail?

I think we fail because of three things.

You might think I’m going to say something like we fail because we don’t have willpower, but I think that is the farthest thing from the truth. I’m no therapist, but I’ve read the literature on alcohol and drug rehab. It’s not willpower that keeps a person sober. It’s community. One reason I think we fail at our goals is that we don’t have a cheerleading team. I believe that we need people on our side when we’re trying to improve.

Secondly, I think we fail because we want immediate results. We have this mentality that things should happen quickly. I’ve written about this before. It’s like you workout once and want that swimsuit body. We get frustrated when we don’t see results right away. So, we move on to the next pursuit.

Do your goals lead to happiness?

Failure can also be because self-improvement goals don’t always lead to being better person. We do a lot of things because “we should.” Your doctor might think you need to lose weight. Maybe your boss wants you to be a better speaker. Meditation should make you a better person. Maybe you ran a marathon, and now you think you need to run an ultramarathon because that’s what your best friend did.

What makes you happy isn’t always what you should be doing.

Your doctor might be right, but if you’re choosing to lose weight because you want to make your doctor happy, you’re probably not going to stick with a program. If you’re trying to learn Spanish to make your boss happy, again, you’re probably not going to enjoy it enough to really learn. If you’re chasing after goals just to say you’ve done it, what value do your achievements bring to your life?

If you’re obsessed because you “should” do something, you’re going to get burned out and fail. Whether it’s New Year’s resolutions, a self-improvement project or giving up meat for Lent, you need solid reasons for change. And if you give something a try that isn’t for you, don’t soldier on. You don’t need to spend years taking yoga classes if you don’t enjoy it.

When something becomes a burden rather than bringing benefits, maybe it’s time to take a look at why you’re doing it.

When you don’t know why you’re knocking yourself out to be better, maybe you need to figure out a reason. And if you feel as if what you’re doing isn’t enough, stop and figure out what will satisfy you.

I’ve been doing a lot of meal prepping on the weekends. Sometimes, I want to quit. But it pays off because I have less to do throughout the week. It might seem like a burden, but the benefits outweigh the burdens. I’ve been able to eat much healthier and use more vegetables in my meals, which is the one goal I’ve been able to keep. I have some good friends that help me stay on track, too. I choose to eat more vegetables for my health. I think it’s a combination of all these things that is helping me meet my goal this year.

Don’t give up on making yourself a better person. Just don’t become obsessed over the program. Look at the outcome. Are you pursing happiness on a treadmill or are you really working to find happiness?

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Opinion Editorials

What I wish I knew about finances in my 20s

(EDITORIAL) They say money makes the world go round. So, let’s discuss how to be smart with finances before it’s too late.

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finances

Being in my early twenties, something I’m still getting used to is the fact that I’m making my own money. This is not to be confused with the babysitting money I was making 10 years ago.

Twice a month is the same routine: I get my paycheck and think, “Wooo! We goin’ out tonight!” but then I snap back to reality and think about what that money needs to be put towards. The smallest part of it going towards fun.

It’s been tricky to really start learning the ins and outs of finances. So, I do what I usually do in any type of learning process? I ask for advice.

I used to be fixated on asking those more advanced in age than I what they wish they knew when they were my age. Now that I’m determined to learn about finances, that question has been altered.

I reached out to a few professionals I know and trust and they gave me solid feedback to keep in mind about building my finances, about what they wish they had known in their 20s. However, I don’t think this only applies to those just starting out, and may be helpful for all of us.

“It’s important to simply know the value of money,” says human resource expert, Nicole Clark. “I think once you start earning your own money and are responsible for your housing, food, etc. you realize how valuable money is and how important it is to budget appropriately and make sure you’re watching your spending.”

Law firm executive director, Michael John, agrees with Clark’s sentiments. “I wish I had kept the value of saving in mind when I was younger,” explains John. “But, still remembering to balance savings while rewarding yourself and enjoying what your efforts produce.”

There are so many aspects of finance to keep in mind – saving, investing, budgeting, retirement plans, and so on and so forth.

In addition to suggesting to spend less than you make and to pay off your credit card in full each month, Kentucky-based attorney, Christopher Groeschen, explained the importance of a 401k.

“Every employee in America should be contributing everything they can into a 401k every year, up to the current $18,000 maximum per person,” suggests Groeschen.

“401ks present an opportunity for young investors to 1) learn about investing and 2) enter the market through a relatively low-risk vehicle (depending on your allocations),” he observes.

“An additional benefit is that 401ks also allow employees to earn FREE MONEY through employer matches,” he continues. “At the very least, every employee should contribute the amount necessary to earn the employer match (usually up to 4%) otherwise, you are giving up the opportunity to earn FREE MONEY. Earning FREE MONEY from your employer that is TAX FREE is much more important than having an extra Starbucks latte every day.”

Whether we like it or not, money is a core aspect of our daily lives. It should never be the most important thing, but we cannot deny that it is, in fact, an important thing. It’s tricky to learn, but investing in my future has become a priority.

This editorial was first published in May 2018.

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Opinion Editorials

How strong leaders use times of crises to improve their company’s future

(EDITORIAL) We’re months into the COVID-19 crisis, and some leaders are still fumbling through it, while others are quietly safeguarding their company’s future.

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strong leaders

Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how a strong leader can see their teams, their companies, their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:

Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always, but is amplified when a crisis like COVID-19 occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve our teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms.

Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.

Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything is disrupted and people are now adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.

The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.

And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.

We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when we game plan, we strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.

That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.

Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.

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