Finding Work That Works When You Have Bipolar Disorder

I’m a psychotherapist who has worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor – that’s a specialist who helps people with disabilities, including bipolar disorder, find and keep meaningful work. I also have bipolar disorder myself, and have struggled over the years to find work that meets my own “special needs.” 

The research clearly shows that work helps people recover – it provides structure, a sense of meaning and purpose, and social interaction. I’ve seen clients who are depressed improve almost overnight once they find a job they enjoy. Personally, I’ve found that work gives me a chance to stretch myself in a way that increases my confidence, decreases my generalized anxiety, and brings a sense of fulfillment to my life. 

Seek Work That Supports Your Recovery

It’s important to find “work that works” for you. There’s no “best” career or job for someone with bipolar disorder – but there are some things to think about when deciding what type of work to do:

  • Think about the work environment. Will it support you and help you thrive, or will it be detrimental? Many people with bipolar disorder find they do best in a quiet, relaxed workspace where they can easily concentrate.
  • Think about the schedule. Part-time work or a job with a flexible schedule are good options. Daytime hours are generally best. Most people with bipolar disorder shouldn’t even consider work that involves overnight shifts or being on call – regular sleep is too important for recovery.
  • Think about the kinds of people in the job. Different kinds of jobs tend to attract different kinds of people. It’s best to find a job where co-workers have values and lifestyles consistent with your recovery.
  • Think about creativity. Many people with bipolar disorder don’t thrive unless they have regular opportunities to be creative. You can either find a job that involves creativity, or you can find a steady job that allows time to pursue creative activities outside of work.

Understand Yourself

Outside of these general guidelines, it’s important to understand your unique self. Richard Nelson Bolles, author of the famous career book What Color Is Your Parachute? said “The key to a happy and fulfilling future is knowing yourself. This self-knowledge is the most important component of finding the right career.” Some of the things you’ll want to understand about yourself include:

  • Your interests
  • Your strengths and aptitudes
  • Your skills
  • Your personality traits
  • Your values
  • Your physical abilities and stamina
  • Your limitations and barriers.

Do Some Occupational Research

After you’ve done some soul searching, the next step is occupational research. A good place to go for occupational information in the U.S. is O*NET (note: this article contains U.S. resources – if you know of similar resources in your country, feel free to mention them in the comments). You can also do informational interviews, which are brief meetings with someone in a career you’re considering. Here are some of the things you’ll want to find out about occupations you’re considering:

  • Work duties 
  • Required skills
  • Required education or training
  • Required license or certification  
  • Typical hours 
  • Working conditions (physical demands of the job, environment, and stress level) 
  • Salary and benefits 
  • Career path and opportunities for advancement 
  • Employment outlook (availability of jobs now and in the future).

Get Professional Help

If possible, get help with the career search process from a career counselor or other professional. Here are some possibilities for free or low-cost services in the U.S.:

  • Vocational rehabilitation: If you have a bipolar disorder diagnosis, you’re likely eligible for vocational rehabilitation services. If you are in the U.S., you can find your state’s services in this directory. There are also private non-profits that provide vocational rehabilitation services – some tailored toward those with mental health disabilities.
  • Your school or alma mater: If you’re still in school, see if there’s a career counseling center. Take advantage of all the free counseling you can. If you’ve graduated, find out what services are available for alumni.
  • Government employment services: The U.S. has a nationwide system of career services called One Stop centers. They provide a wide range of services. You can find your nearest One Stop with this service locator.

Try Self Help

If you can’t get professional help right away, you can start with self help by using a variety of books or websites. What Color Is Your Parachute? is a good place to start. I also recommend a book by Robert Chope called Dancing Naked: Breaking through the Emotional Limits That Keep You from the Job You Want. The Resources page of the National Career Development Association is another good source of information.

Consider Your Own Business

Having your own business is a good option for some people with bipolar disorder. It allows flexibility and creativity. The downside is that you have to create your own structure and motivate yourself to get your work done. In the U.S., SCORE is a great organization for helping people start a small business. Many of their services are free.

Consider a Portfolio Career

A “portfolio career” is another option and is gaining popularity. When you have a portfolio career, you combine two or more sources of income – for example, you might have a part-time job as well as a small business that provides a product or service.

Consider Volunteer Work

If you’re not ready for paid work or haven’t been able to find a job that meets your needs, volunteering is a great way to go. I’ve seen many clients start volunteer work, build some confidence and connections, and move on to paid work pretty quickly. VolunteerMatch is a website that matches people with volunteer opportunities near them.

Live to Your Full Potential

I’ve just covered basic information in this article, but I hope it gets people thinking about options they may not have considered. People with bipolar disorder should have the opportunity to live to their full potential, and for many of us that includes enjoyable and meaningful work.

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