Creating a Comfortable Work Environment with Bipolar
I’ve always been a hypersensitive person. I don’t process sudden loud noises very well, and too much background chatter can completely overwhelm me. Fluorescent lighting hurts my eyes, and I can’t concentrate if I’m too cold or if my immediate environment isn’t’ colorful and inviting. For a long time, I thought that I simply had a self-discipline problem and that I needed to just grin and bear it if I wanted to get anywhere in life. But after my bipolar diagnosis, I learned that many people with the disorder also experience sensory processing issues. While it was a relief to know that I wasn’t simply undisciplined or melodramatic, it also gave me a blueprint for navigating a world — and workplace — that isn’t always accommodating for people with bipolar.
A Winning (Sort Of) Combination
According to a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, it is not at all uncommon for people with bipolar disorder to experience sensory input differently from the average neurotypical person.1 I’ve noticed that when I’m manic, colors seem brighter, and my senses of smell and taste are heightened. When I’m depressed, my sense of touch is extra sensitive — sometimes I can’t stand to wear clothes that I normally love because the texture or fitting irritates my skin. Even when I’m at baseline, noisy environments can easily send me into sensory overload. Working around the mood swings of bipolar disorder is already an art in itself; add in sensory overload, and it’s easy to see why people with bipolar often have difficulties at work.
It helps to think of my bipolar brain as an operating system: I’m a Mac, and neurotypical folks are PCs. Different systems that serve different functions, but each with their own purpose. I face a lot of challenges at work because of bipolar, but knowing my limitations and triggers allows me to get creative as I work around them.
How I Make Work Work for My Bipolar Brain
I am very fortunate that I am able to work mostly from home, although I currently have a part-time retail job at a local pet store. When I decided to take a part-time job, I specifically applied to small businesses in and around my neighborhood: as someone who feels overwhelmed just from shopping at large big-box stores (and goes out of their way to avoid them as much as possible), I know that I could never last working at a massive retailer like Walmart or Target. From the very beginning, I made it clear to my manager that I have a chronic medical condition that requires me to keep a consistent sleep schedule and cannot work evening shifts. I recognize that it’s a privilege to have this kind of accessibility and accommodation, and I’m grateful for the position I currently find myself in. I’m also glad that I’ve learned the importance of advocating for myself and prioritizing my needs and boundaries. These are critical skills for everyone to have, but when you live and work with bipolar, they are absolutely non-negotiable.
At home, I keep my writing desk comfortable with objects that engage my senses in a gentle way: scented candles, an air plant, some of my favorite crystals, and my DIY coloring book planner I usually keep a comfy blanket with me because soft textures help me ground myself and focus. Dealing with noise is a little tricky since my partner and I are both working from home in a small apartment (thanks, COVID-19) but plugging in my earphones and listening to instrumental music usually solves the problem for me. And if my mind starts to wander off course, taking a second to make a cup of tea or nibble on some popcorn helps bring me back into the present moment.
Your environmental needs will look different depending on where you work and what kind of job you perform, but you should never feel ashamed for advocating for yourself with your employer or setting boundaries at home, especially these days when the line between work and home life is blurrier than ever. It’s not frivolous to create a comfortable work environment when you have bipolar disorder. In fact, it’s the only way to sustain yourself — and your career — longterm.
How do you manage your work environment around bipolar? Let me know in the comments.
1. Parker, Gordon et al. Altered Sensory Phenomena Experienced in Bipolar Disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, December 2017.