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How to Cope With a Bipolar Boss or Coworker

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Working with a boss or coworker who has bipolar disorder can be challenging, particularly if the disorder is uncontrolled or poorly controlled, or when the person isn't aware of a problem. Make an effort to understand the disorder and make accommodations as needed, but don't tolerate disrespectful behavior. Set limits and devise a coping strategy to help you handle your colleague’s behavior.

About the Disease

Bipolar disorder is characterized by alternating periods of depression and mania, although some people with bipolar disorder experience both mania and depression during one episode, reports the National Institute of Mental Health. During the manic phase, people become overly excited and energetic, and may have a tendency to make plans that are unattainable. When your colleague is depressed, he may find it difficult to complete projects or finish simple tasks. He may miss work or fail to respond to your requests for assistance or guidance. During the manic phase, he might have so much energy that he rarely sleeps, which can be a problem when he expects his employees or coworkers to follow the same schedule. Your usually mild-mannered colleague can become irritable or aggressive during the manic phase.

Set Limits

Decide what types of behavior you will not tolerate. For example, you may tell your boss or coworker that he may call you at 2 a.m. only when there is an emergency, not to discuss a great idea. Irritability can be a problem during both the depressive and manic phases. When your colleague isn’t experiencing symptoms, initiate a discussion about what you will do if he is rude, argumentative or verbally abusive. You might leave the room when he starts the behavior and only return when he has regained control of his emotions. Explain that although you understand that he has difficulty controlling his emotions at times, you will not tolerate his behavior because it increases your stress level.

Avoid Problems

If you’ve worked with your colleague for some time, you can probably spot signs of impending trouble. A few coping strategies can help you avoid being caught up in your colleague’s problems. For example, if you work on a joint problem and you notice that your coworker is lethargic and has missed deadlines, you might check in with him every day and remind him of the next steps. If your boss frequently misses work when depressed and isn’t available to discuss or approve time-sensitive projects, ask for permission to make decisions when he is unavailable and clarify which tasks you can perform without his permission.

Get Help

When your work or mental health suffers because of the stress of working with your colleague, it’s time to seek help -- for both you and your colleague. Talk to your supervisor about your concerns regarding a coworker and explain how his actions affect your performance. If your boss is the problem, talk to his boss or the human resources department. Although it’s usually not a good idea to go above your supervisor’s head, the action is warranted if his illness makes him unable to provide adequate, respectful supervision to you and your colleagues. Your supervisor’s boss might refer him to the company’s employee assistance program or persuade him to talk to his doctor or psychiatrist.