Posted by: hypomanic | November 27, 2010

Can a person diagnosed with bipolar ever traverse an imposed career glass ceiling?

First of all, the answer isn’t entirely in the containment of your diagnosis because sooner or later you will unfortunately suffer your next episode and in whichever way it returns and then subsides again, you may find you have no options left other than to disclose to your line manager in an attempt to hold on to your job. Your career progression will suffer if you keep moving from job to job. A sad fact is that as soon as you disclose, your boss dictates whether your career in that organisation will progress or not. Unfortunately in their eyes, your ability to cope professionally has been tarnished.
Of course in the corporate scenario, the awareness of your diagnosis is best kept to yourself as much as possible because as soon as your boss, or worse, your colleagues discover you have a mental illness, the odds of any senior responsibility coming your way will be be almost zero. To some people stigma is a massive, accusatory word so let me explain how it is appropriate to describe what is actually happening in terms of an imposed career glass ceiling for an outed bipolar individual.

A lot of bipolar individuals like me do not enjoy the same livelihood capacity as Stephen Fry possessed when he leveraged his career in television as a platform to publicly disclose his diagnosis in the brilliant documentary, Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Don’t get me wrong, he was brave and courageous to attempt it and I can only imagine how tough the british television industry would have become for him, had the documentary not been well received by the british media.
He took a risk and exerted pressure on all barriers, his efforts may not have been welcomed and that hypothetical scenario could have ended with a career downward spiral. That’s his professional risk but that was not all. He took the bravest risk of all. For himself to change things – to transform into something that meant he didn’t have to live a life of bipolar secrecy anymore and I know exactly why he manufactured the step change. I dream of being able to do the same thing.
He was also doing it for his fellow bipolar sufferers – and don’t get me wrong, when I say suffer I’m not just referring to symptoms, I’m trying to explain what stigma is.

Stigma in my world IS an imposed career glass ceiling. Do I feel stigmatised? I personally don’t. I don’t because I understand why my boss cannot trust me professionally enough to promote me. I confessed my diagnosis over a year ago after my latest episode, which in fact was a breakdown. I returned gratefully to my job after seven weeks and have not had a day off sick since then – August 2009.

Unfortunately my boss can never understand what I go through when I’m trying to keep a big part of my life secret and separate from my professional appearance. It’s a day to day secret. A need to know basis only. Other people reading this blog post might think I keep a secret because I’m ashamed of my bipolar but I’m not at all. I’m proud of myself and my biology but I prefer not to be defined by my illness when I’m at work because I can avoid stigma that way. In actual fact I’m so proud of people like Stephen Fry because they are fighting a battle for all of us. I’m trying to step up and raise the same awareness by standing on Stephen’s broad shoulders. I’m trying to assert more pressure by sharing the experience of my life, with you, in relation to the stigma I have to face sometimes.

However, the paradox of a career imposed glass ceiling has not even moved a millimetre for diagnosed bipolar individuals on the ground. The ones who will really pay if they come out at work and cannot afford to take the same risk that Stephen Fry took because there’s no going back. You cannot unring a bell.
If someone has been forced to disclose, for whatever reason, they might feel like they ‘got away with it’ when their working life appears to carry on as it was before. Believe me it hasn’t. Slowly it becomes apparent that their line manager is somehow protecting them by not exposing them to a perceived level of stress they assume a bipolar individual cannot cope with in a professional capacity. This poorly informed stance is based on a line manager’s limited knowledge of a bipolar individual’s determination, ambition or what it means to have and manage a diagnosis of bipolar – which is the biggest personal responsibility of all!

In this situation I have found it helpful to look at it from my line manager’s point of view. They are not a doctor or a psychiatrist. They are in a difficult position so they manage the risk – that’s what they’ve been taught to do as a manager. An outed bipolar individual working in commerce represents a subjective risk and that’s at the discretion of the line manager. They may think they are acting in the bipolar individual’s best interests and that they are somehow protecting them from their own destruction should they promote that bipolar individual and they somehow ‘prove’ they cannot cope with the promotion. It’s emotional for the line manager and they can get it fundamentally wrong so they try to do what is right and when push comes to shove, they certainly won’t risk their own position without warranty.

This situation is stigma but I’m referring to it as a ‘ceiling’ because the stigma is a limitation blocking upward advancement, and ‘glass’ because the stigma is not immediately apparent and is normally an unwritten and unofficial policy. This invisible barrier continues to exist, even though there are no explicit obstacles keeping bipolar individuals from acquiring advanced job positions.

So can a person diagnosed bipolar ever traverse an imposed career glass ceiling?

1) For the record, I think people who believe in limits end up being limited people. So keep asserting pressure.
2) Go stealth. You are not betraying anyone – especially yourself by keeping it secret, you are protecting your progress.
3) Learn to manage your illness as best you possibly can. This is the hardest part, I know. Self-management allows you to stay stealth for longer.
4) Become contextually good at your job, because if you’re not then all the other hard work establishing a foundation for progress, was for nothing.

There is a 60 second video book trailer available to watch at hypomanic.co.uk
Or watch a YouTube version of the Hypomanic video book trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkQbVibNH0o
To follow me on Twitter: @victorjkennedy

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