should I tell my boss about my bipolar disorder? should my spouse?

A reader writes:

How can I explain to my boss how my bipolar illness sometimes affects my ability to get going in the morning? Up until now, I have kept my bipolar quiet, but after several instances of not making it to work till noon and being too ashamed to call, my supervisor is now completely furious and unwilling to accept anything less than me being there 10 minutes early.

My illness does not affect my job performance; in fact, I am the only employee that actually “works.” I end up doing my specific job and every other operator’s job as well. My only issue is sleep disturbances. Unfortunately, this may be my demise, as I can never predict when I will have them, nor can I say I’ll never let it happen again.

I have a family to provide for. I do respect my supervisor… so much in fact that when I do oversleep, I feel terribly guilty and this only makes my illness worse!!

My spouse is desperate to talk to my supervisor. On a few occasions, I’ve considered allowing her to do so, in the hopes that she could explain my situation better than I could. After all, she lives with it every day and sees it from a different perspective. I am tentative about allowing her to do so, but also know she is able to explain my occasional limits without any emotion, just giving facts, whereas I feel like I am making excuses for something I really have no control over. This hits where it counts, if you know what I mean!

How would you feel about speaking to an employee’s spouse about their illness before speaking to the employee? It’s the approach, admittance and shame that is going to end up causing me my job of 10 years.

Ugh, I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I’m sure it’s challenging enough without having to worry about your job on top of it.

But do not have your spouse talk to your boss on your behalf. A spouse should never, ever contact an employer, unless it’s to say the spouse is in the hospital and unable to come to work. It would come across as unprofessional, probably cause serious awkwardness, and likely forever taint your reputation in your office. So resist that.

But you definitely should talk to your boss and/or your HR department — preferably HR, actually, which is unusual for me to recommend. Here’s why:  I’m not a lawyer, but I think the Americans with Disabilities Act may be your friend here. The ADA applies if you have an impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” and it includes sleeping as a major life activity. If indeed you’re covered under the ADA (and if your employer is — they need to have at least 15 employees for it to apply), then your employer is required to offer you “reasonable accommodation,” as long as doing so won’t cause the employer undue hardship and and as long as you can still meet the essential functions of your position. A “reasonable accommodation” might be letting you come in late a certain number of days.

However, to get ADA coverage, you need to actually request an accommodation; they aren’t obligated to offer one (and in this case they wouldn’t, because they don’t know about the illness). So you should raise the issue as soon as possible, and consider getting documentation from your doctor about the accommodation she recommends.

The reason I’d meet with HR about this rather than your boss is because HR is trained in laws like this, whereas your boss might not be.

Now, there are potential downsides to doing this. Your HR people might be incompetent, or your boss might hold this against you (and the company might incompetently allow her to do that), or you might find out that you’re not covered under the law for some reason (again, I’m not a lawyer, so I’m just giving you my best reading of the law; I may be wrong, and you may want to take to a real lawyer before proceeding). There’s also a good Psychology Today article here that talks about the pros and cons of being open about bipolar disorder at work, and I highly recommend reading it.

However, it sounds like any potential downsides might be outweighed by the downsides of not saying something. Right now, your boss thinks you’re oversleeping for no good reason at all, and just not bothering to call when you’re going to be late, and that is definitely something that will upset even the most tolerant of bosses. I’d argue that it’s better for her to know the full context, even if she’s not especially sensitive about mental illness, than to go on thinking that you’re just unconcerned with getting to work on time … because the latter is pretty much guaranteed to end badly, whereas a straightforward discussion has a good chance of getting you to a better outcome.

Not a perfect chance. But a good chance.

After all, look at it from your boss’s perspective — if you had an employee who wasn’t coming in until noon and wasn’t calling, you’d probably be really annoyed. But if you knew they weren’t just sleeping in for the hell of it, you might be a lot more inclined to come up with an accommodation.

And last, there’s this:  I know that I can’t undo an entire culture’s worth of weirdness around mental health issues, but shame has no place here, no more than if you had cancer or epilepsy. And you might be underestimating your boss in that regard. If she’s like most people, she’s had people close to her struggle with similar issues. But no matter how she reacts, this shouldn’t be about shame; this should be about managing a disease, the same as if you had any other.

Good luck. You have lots of company in this boat.

{ 49 comments… read them below }

  1. Michelle

    To the OP, I definitely (x100) know that you need to address this. I would suggest talking to your supervisor first. Are you comfortable with her/him? If so, talking to them about this will help them understand why you have difficulties coming in sometimes. Please DO NOT BE ASHAMED!!! This is a serious illness that (imo) should be treated as a physical illness and the sooner your supervisor (or HR department, depending) knows, the better. Both of my parents suffer from this illness and while I don’t feel as though I have it, I also have sleep disturbances. I’ve also worked with others who struggled with anxiety. One of my former co-worker’s explained how it affected her work and how she took medication (I’m not suggesting that you do or need to disclose you take medication) and her boss was completely respectful of this!

    Please give us an update. I’m rooting for you! I understand how AAM would discuss ADA procedures/etc, and that is up to you, but I’m not sure that this counts as a “disability.”

    Either way, I hope you will be able to share what’s going on so it does not jeopardize your position. I also hope you have a compassionate and understanding boss/employer.

    I have to agree about having your spouse talk about it. Unless she already has a rapport with your boss, that may not be the best way to tackle it. But it sounds like she’s really supportive, which is key.

    Good luck!!!

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      There were some amendments to the ADA in 2008 (called the ADAA) that resulted in bipolar and other disabilities being more clearly included in the ADA (see http://www.adaproject.org/ADAAAQ&A.html ), but what I’m not sure about is if the sleep element itself would be considered something they had to reasonably accommodate. I’d think it would be though.

      1. Anonymous

        I worked at a place for many years…promoted several times. My last several months there I was diagnosed with a mental illness and about that same time my boss tells me my performance hasn’t been up to par. Well, that’s because I was too busy sleeping. Just as my medication was kicking in I was suspended. Yes, I told both the manager and HR but they could have cared less.

        Good luck, hopefully your employer will be more understanding.

        1. Anonymous

          Just as an FYI- this took place in 2010. The company has a footprint in several states and an employee base of just over 2,000.

          1. fposte

            Just curious, Anon–did you explicitly invoke the ADA? Some companies are really literal about the employee having to initiate the request. It’s also possible that what was sought wasn’t considered within the bounds of reasonable accommodation for the job.

            It’s also possible, of course, that they were jackasses. Hope you’re better situated now.

        2. Anonymous

          I’m not a doctor but do have issues with depression that have effected my job in the past. It’s my understanding to be protected by the law you need to talk to HR\management BEFORE it causes problems.

      2. Joey

        This is what the interactive process is for. Frankly the op doesn’t really know if the sleep disturbances affect performance. That’s up to the employer to decide. If you keep the focus on finding ways to accomplish the job even when it requires an accommodation you’ll have a much better outcome. And, it might be possible to consider a different work schedule to accommodate the sleeping. Or you could use something like a radio to help prevent you from falling asleep. Check out askjan.org for accommodation ideas.

  2. Sarah G

    Alison, great answer to a really tough, painful, and complicated scenario. What about the possibility of getting a Dr’s note that you are undergoing treatment a serious medical condition that creates sleep disturbances? Maybe being non-specific would be worse than being upfront, but just a thought.

    1. KellyK

      That’s actually a good question. Does ADA require that the employer know what the condition is, or just how it affects work and that it is a condition that ADA covers?

      In some situations, being vague and secretive might seem like you’re making it up or get the rumor mill going wondering what’s wrong with you. But depending on your boss’s TMI threshold, I can also see them being quite happy to know that it’s a medical thing, figure out what needs to be done to accommodate it, and leave it at that.

  3. Matthew Pass

    As a sufferer of mental illness for a long time I too have had many days off work – not through oversleeping, but rather when I just couldn’t cope. In the past I used to pretend to my employer that these days off were for other reasons (e.g. I had a bad cold, or had put my back out).

    About three years ago, however, I came clean and told them I suffered from depression. Their response was incredible – they were incredibly understanding: changed my role to offload some of my responsibilities and even paid for some counselling for me.

    Partially as a result of this, my sickness record is right down now and I’m a far more productive employee. Of course, not every employer is going to be as helpful, but I would definitely recommend coming clean.

  4. Clobbered

    Oh for the love of God talk to your boss. Actually in my experience you may not even have to disclose what your condition is. I had someone working for me that had trouble sleeping and so sometimes felt asleep near dawn and woke up at noon and I never demanded to know what their issue was – they were a good person, they put the hours in, did decent work and they were straight to me and I so went and did battle with HR to accommodate them (US laws like ADA did not apply).

    So if you think your boss is a good guy, I would talk to them before I talked to HR, but AaM is the pro here, you should listen to her.

  5. Suzanne Lucas

    Get your rear end into HR TODAY. Not tomorrow and not next week.

    The problem is you absolutely can be fired for not coming to work on time, even if you are bipolar and otherwise do a fabulous job. You’re not protected (generally speaking, exceptions exist) by ADA unless you ASK for it and the company is aware of this.

    One of my, ummm uninformed, colleagues at BNET just wrote an article about how you should never tell HR about your medical problems because they’ll hold it against you. Maybe. But, the reality is, unless you speak up the laws and your HR department CANNOT protect you.

    Please, please, please, go to HR and do what it takes to get official ADA accommodations established. It’s entirely reasonable to have an accommodation that allows you to come in late every once in a while. (If it’s a really frequent thing, it’s not reasonable, but unless you’re a call center or something, it’s reasonable to occasionally come in late.)

    Sorry, I just think the OP sounds like a great person who has been handed some bad luck and I’d hate to have her lose her job over this, when there are ways to save it.

  6. Anonymous

    Just in case that you are not covered by the ADA, and if your employer offers, considering second shift is not a bad idea.

  7. Rachel

    I agree with everyone else but keep in mind two things:

    1. You want to go into this with some possible solutions. You said you can’t predict when it will happen. Is your spouse around when you’re getting up in the morning? Is there someone that can call when you’re not able to make it in so that your supervisor is not just left wondering each day if you’re going to show. Or perhaps there are some signs that the next morning you will be sleeping in so you can call and alert your boss the previous night.

    2. You will face stigma coming out about your mental illness. It’s not fair. However, the more prepared you are for this the better you will be able to make it through.

  8. rachaelgk

    OP, my heart goes out to you. Would really love to hear a follow up on how it went – good luck!!

  9. mouse

    Oh the guilt spiral; so many people truly don’t understand that particular thought process and dismiss it as shooting ourselves in the foot when it’s sometimes, quite literally, completely uncontrollable. I totally feel you OP. No advice to offer (because anything I said would be hypocritical) just wanted to offer some solidarity.

  10. Natalie

    My situation is a little different because my absences are planned, but back in December I had to let my two main bosses know that I was going to be gone in the middle of the day one day every week to see a psychologist. I was pretty anxious about having that conversation with them – our office is small and I’m sure that some of my coworkers are not in the mental-illnesses-are-illnesses boat. Ultimately, though, it all worked out fine.

  11. Jamie

    I can only speak to this from a management perspective – but Alison is right in that if you don’t address this it can only end badly.

    Showing up that late without a phone call more than once would be grounds for termination in a lot of places – I would definitely address it.

    Also – I understand the impulse to want your wife to mediate this, but that would be a very bad idea, imo. You don’t want your boss to begin to doubt your ability to deal with your career issues professionally. And while it’s certainly a broader problem for you – how it impacts your job is a career issue and the only one that should concern your boss.

    Good luck.

  12. Freida

    I’m not a lawyer or HR person so you’ll have to verify this, but a friend of mine who suffers from depression had similar complications that resulted in occasional lateness/absences. He eventually spoke to his manager and HR (once the absences became a problem) and HR suggested not ADA but FMLA–for chronic conditions (which apparently includes depression and bipolar disorder) you can get intermittent leave. I don’t know the specific details, though I think that you need to have it certified by a doctor.

    1. Anonymous

      I agree that FMLA might be a better route here. Your company must have at least 50 employees to qualify, you must have worked at least 12 months for that employer in total and at least 1250 hours in the last 12 months. You have to get a certification form from HR and have your doctor complete it, which you have 15 days to do after HR gives you the form. With FMLA you are not required to tell them why you need leave. The time you are absent would be unpaid, but a company can’t use FMLA absences against you (for termination purposes, or raises/promotions/bonuses either). You are limited to 12 weeks of FMLA a year, so if you work 40 hours a week that’s 480 hours worth of lateness or time missed for appointments. The company can require you to get a new form from your doctor periodically. Keep in mind that a recent court cases ruled that employees on intermittent FMLA have to follow their companies usual call in procedures. If you are unable to do that when you’re late, you might need to talk about an alternative like having your spouse call to report your absence when you can’t. You should tell your boss right now that you are having health issues that cause you to be late and will be asking HR for papers to file for intermittent FMLA, and then go right to HR, before they make a decision to discipline/terminate you for tardiness.

  13. Anonymous

    I was diagnosed with the milder form of bi-polar called cyclothymia. Same symptoms (a mix of depression and mania) but less severe. It’s often undiagnosed because it’s mistaken for extreme moodiness. Sleep is one of the biggest issues because I’m either working 24/7 and can’t sleep or working as little as possible and can’t get out of bed. I found sleeping pills helped a lot when I’m manic (I use Ambien) and milder sleep aids like melatonin helped to regulate my sleep when I’m depressed. Aside from medications, exercise and diet changes have been a massive help.

    As for telling your boss, I’ve only done it once when I was not taking to a new medication. I was extremely paranoid and on edge 24/7 and had to slowly ween off it so would be that way for a while longer. It definitely effected my work and I was getting into hot water. YMMV but I would never do it again. It permanently changed my relationship with the CEO and HR director (who I was really good friends with previously). The problem with mental illness is some people are really closed minded about it and there’s no way to tell ahead of time. I was being groomed to take over my department until I told them about my illness. I eventually left and am doing really well but wish I never disclosed it. You can protect yourself from being fired but there could be other negative results that can’t be regulated. Only you know your boss though. Either way, I would certainly not involve your spouse as it doesn’t make you look professional.

  14. Shannon Terry

    Thank you for posting this important question and thoughtful, thorough answer.

    In light of the loss of Amy Whitehouse, while I wasn’t really a fan, to see talent & passion destroyed by addiction yet again is just so sad. We all have SOMETHING that challenges us, in the case of the person in this article, for some it’s emotional/mental. It just reminds me how important it is to take care of our own inner struggles, whatever they are: admit them to ourselves and trusted others, ask for help if we need it (and usually, we do! and that’s more than OK!), and take action – small steps are what work for me. And to talk about these hard things without shame or judgement — and when it comes to the workplace, definitely talking to the right professionals first – ADA advisors, lawyers, doctors, and then HR and maybe our direct supervisor – excellent advice. Thanks for this post!

        1. Jennifer

          I don’t believe alcoholism/addiction has the same protection as other illnesses, though, unfortunately. If this has changed, great, but last I knew it hadn’t.

          It should change if it has not.

  15. LCL

    Please tell your manager. I would be sick to find out that the employees I have been pushing to get to work on time have a legitimate medical reason to be late and my aggravation with them is aggravating their illness. Because now, in the absence of any knowledge, I am assuming these people are dealing with some kind of substance abuse issue. They are in a job where they can’t be impaired, and this isn’t going to end well for anyone.

  16. O.P.

    Wow. I am completely overcome by the thoughtfulness of each response! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, ideas and well wishes.

    At this point I am weighing my options between ADA and FMLA… Being I am in the process of starting over with a new Dr. and new medications, I’m leaning towards FMLA… Anyone is familiar with BiPolar Disorder knows new medications are a slippery slope.

    Being that FMLA, is vast Knowing that I will be losing income based on my need for “time off” or “occasional accommodations”, I feel it would be more readily accepted by my Supervisor when I do have to use it. (Not to mention income loss is very motivational!)

    I do not expect my Supervisor to fully understand my situation… But, recently found out a lot of the time it is not necessarily his frustration with my absences, as it is that he is having to listen to 2 my coworkers (there’s only 4) complain about my tardiness… (incoincendently it is “their” job that I pick up all the slack on) which leads me to a whole new question! (wink wink Allison)

    I will continue to update… with the hopes my situation and impending outcome will serve as comfort or help for anyone in this situation.

    Thank you once again AAM! May you receive your blessings in tenfold for every person you help!

    O.P.

    1. Diane

      In my state and at my employer, you can be protected by both ADA and FMLA at the same time. They cover different things and can overlap. Your HR department knows this (or should) and will help you determine which one, or both, apply. But you have to ask. You can simply disclose to your manager that you’re treating a medical condition with new medication and may experience some sleep disturbances or other issues while it’s being adjusted. You can suggest, with HR’s input, changes to schedule or a prior agreement to work late on days you come in late. Your boss can agree or counter depending on what’s doable and what your workplace can reasonably be flexible about.

      In my experience with FMLA, I had to disclose my medical diagnosis to HR, but not my manager. I chose to share information with my office, though, and found them to be very supportive.

      Best of luck! I know it’s difficult and scary to bring this up at work, but you do have good options.

    2. Anon

      So how should his boss handle the other employees disgruntlement while protecting his privacy? When it seems like one employee is getting unfair accomodation (after he sorts his situation out) and his coworkers are complaining, how does a boss handle those issues in the face of maintaining another employee’s privacy?

      Thanks!

    3. Jennifer

      Good luck to you! I have a number of people in my life who are afflicted with BP, and I know how difficult it is to treat and how difficult it can be for someone who suffers from it to cope with day to day life.

      I really hope this works out OK for you.

  17. Anonymous

    Just a couple things to add in here…there’s a lot of sympathy on this thread but I wanted to chime in with some realism: mental disorders are awful – they’re often considered less dangerous than physical illnesses and there’s a lot of judgement around them. It sucks but it’s the hand you’ve been dealt.

    You mention in your initial letter that your illness does not effect your performance. It does. Showing up at noon directly effects your performance because you’ve lost a half day. It also effects the way your coworkers see you, the way your manager sees you and the way you see yourself. You mention a lot of shame and fear and use avoidance to cope with those feelings which creates a cycle of ugliness and gets you in a worse position.

    As hard as it may seem, this is your responsibility, not your wife’s. I’d suggest FMLA and an honest discussion with your manager…once you start talking, the shame will likely lift and you can get to a solution that works for both parties. The first step though is realizing that this disorder IS effecting your career and taking ownership of that.

  18. Anonymous

    You state:
    “My illness does not affect my job performance; in fact, I am the only employee that actually “works.” ”

    and then ….

    “but after several instances of not making it to work till noon…”

    I wish you all the best, but I have to agree with your boss as well.

      1. Kev

        You shouldn’t assume the OP comes in at 12 and leaves at 8 either. (No offense to the OP).

  19. Anonymous

    Whether or not you disclose your specific mental illness to your manager and HR, I think it would be very helpful to approach them with specific information about how your condition may influence your job performance, what they can expect from you, get clear on what you can expect from them, and what you can do own your own and together with your employer to help mitigate any disruptions. Treat this like you would for any other other personal issue (ex. divorce, foreclosure, etc.) that is none of your employer’s business except the part about how it will impact your job performance.

  20. Anonymous

    I too feel really bad for the OP but can you imagine if this letter had been written by the manager? “…I have an employee who randomly doesn’t show up for work when they are scheduled and then appears at noon without even a phone call….”

    If that letter had been written this whole forum would be telling the manager they are “horrible for not addressing this sooner and allowing it to continue is harming the team they manage”.

    I also may be reading too much into it but didn’t the OP reference themselves as an “operator”…if this is a call center or similar place not showing up until noon would be a major hardship on the employer.

    If the employee really can’t consistently show up on time and the are an “operator” in the true sense of that word perhaps they need to find another line of work that is less reliant on punctuality.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’m thinking it’s probably not a call center since she referred to doing her coworkers’ work sometimes.

      I do think your point is well-taken about what it looks like from the manager’s side, but that’s the argument for the OP filling in the manager and/or HR ASAP — so that they realize that’s not the whole story. It’s very possible that once they understand the circumstances, they’ll be able to work out an arrangements that works for everyone.

  21. Emily

    There are also lots of government agencies and non-profits which provide support to people with disabilities. There might be some good help in the OP’s community that would provide free assistance with navigating the legalities. Theoretically the public library would be able to point the OP to such an agency – it’s hard to point out a specific one without knowing the state/city.

  22. Anon y. mouse

    Ouch, rough situation. I agree with everyone else: go talk to HR, right now! It sounds like you’ve got options and are working on ways to deal with this, so you’re on the right track.

    Hopefully you’ll get a lot of support from your company. You may face some prejudice as well, unfortunately that is the state of our culture right now. Ultimately it’s your choice how much you want to share and with whom. It sounds like depending on the fine print you may not even be required to divulge which illness is causing you problems.

    Concerning getting your wife involved, it’s a good idea to have someone knowledgeable and detached from the situation to speak on your behalf, but that needs to be HR and your doctors, not your wife.

    Good luck. I can say from personal experience that finding the right medication changes the entire world, I hope you discover it soon.

  23. Anonymous

    My ex spouse was bipolar and had the same sort of issue, although he usually refused to take medication for it. He frequently relied on me to do things like speak with the many bosses who fired him and others disturbed by his behavior. Do not ask or allow your wife to do the same. In my case, constantly having to explain his behavior resulted in my own professional reputation being harmed to the point where I had to move to a new area to work (employers viewed my spouse as a liability) and I also started to feel much more like a nurse than a wife. Go speak with HR on your own and leave her out of it for the sake of your marriage.

  24. Emily

    AAM, I just want to say thank you for responding to this question with honesty AND respect. Good luck, OP!

  25. Joe

    I was diagnosed in March as BP II. I started a new job in May and I thought everything was going well. I got a bonus in June for outstanding performance. I wrote a program for some android tablets that they had. I was working on a second version of it when my boss called me into her office. She asked why my attitude seemed down. I explained that I really liked the job and everything was going well and my performance wasn’t suffering. She said she understood that my performance wasn’t suffering, but I didn’t seem to be very happy. I finally let loose and explained it to her. Two weeks later they found my website. I was and still am hosting a website out of my living room. Its just my resume and it could use a little punching up. They claimed that I was “actively seeking” new employment. So they gave me option of termination or resignation. I went with the latter just so I didn’t face for another minute. I’m with a much smaller and much friendlier company but fear of telling them anything has basically paralyzed. I am pretty confident they would make almost any accommodation if I asked but once burnt is a lesson learnt.

  26. Jud Allen

    I was recently diagnosed bi-polar. I had been suspended for an incident that was seen as work place violence. I was not medicated properly and had been suffering panic attacks the week prior to the incident. I also was unaware of being bi-polar at that time. Do I have any rights to appeal the suspension due to me being bi-polar ?

  27. izzy

    I would say yes and no to tell them your bipolar.yes because it covers your end legaly.I say no because the company may see you as a liabilty.

  28. Anon

    I am bipolar II and have had really bad luck when telling employers about it.

    On one occasion, I was forced to tell my employer when I ended up in the ER twice in the same month for physical reactions to medication changes. These were not mental issues, but allergic reactions. At that point, any work that took any responsibility was quietly taken away from me until I was doing nothing but basic clerical work when I was hired to do a much more responsible position.

    On another occasion, when I was on a job through a temp agency, I told the agency about my sleep problems due to bipolar when my boss complained when I was 15 minutes late one day. I specifically brought up the ADA and maintained that it was a reasonable accommodation, especially since the co-worker who also held my position would come in hours late a few times a week smelling of alcohol. I was told that it was not a reasonable accommodation at all as far as they were concerned and a week later was let go without reason or warning. (I hadn’t been late again.)

    To add insult to injury, they fought my unemployment stating that I was fired for cause, but then were unable to provide any documentation or reasoning for this. A week after I was let go, a different agent at the same agency, who apparently was a little dim, sent me a recruiting email for the same job I was just let go from. I told him he better check his records along with an admittedly snarky comment that I had just been let go from that position the week before. He wasn’t offering my my job back, mind you, he just didn’t know that I was the person that just held the position. Of course, after they lost the first challenge, they claimed they offered me another position and claimed that they didn’t have to pay because I refused work. All I had to do was send the email chain to the person at unemployment and their argument was rejected in a few days.

    So, long story short, get everything in writing if you are going to do this, because my experience is that telling an employer about your mental illness will often backfire, no matter what the actual law says. They will just claim their retaliation against you is for some other reason besides your mental illness and there is little you can realistically do about it.

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