My Job Can Trigger My Manic Episodes—Setting These Boundaries Helps

Managing bipolar disorder and work demands can feel really daunting. In 2018, Emily Washcovick, now 31, really loved her busy marketing job at a tech company. But her work schedule made it hard to have a consistent routine, and Washcovick often missed out on sleep. A lack of sleep turned out to be a big bipolar disorder trigger for her, as it is for many people with the condition. That year, Washcovick was hospitalized after having a manic episode and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder is a condition characterized by intense feelings and moods, which can fluctuate from mania, hypomania (a milder version of mania), and depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. During a manic episode, like in Washcovick’s case, people may feel euphoric or having racing thoughts, among other symptoms, both of which can affect sleep and further heighten their mania.

After her diagnosis, Washcovick took three months off work for treatment. When she returned, with the support of her boss, and along with taking medication for her condition, Washcovick started setting boundaries to help her avoid future triggers while also allowing her to continue working in the job she loved. And when the pandemic hit and changed some of Washcovick’s routines, she developed new boundaries to help her manage her bipolar disorder and work responsibilities. Here’s Washcovick’s story.

Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2018, my work-life balance was non-existent. I often worked late, traveled around the country, and hosted client dinners that ran late into the night. After several years of living like this, I reached a breaking point. I hadn’t slept for three days leading up to the manic episode that led to my bipolar disorder diagnosis. I signed into an inpatient treatment program at a mental health hospital and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After six days I went home but continued on with an outpatient treatment program for the next eight weeks.

At the time, my treatment team was concerned that my job could trigger manic episodes. But seeing how much I loved my work, and knowing how stressful quitting would be, my care team suggested I set some work boundaries first, and then see how the next six months went.

I have a good relationship with my boss, so even though the treatment team reminded me that I didn’t have to say anything about my diagnosis, I told him about my bipolar disorder straight away. He immediately asked what he could do to make sure work was a healthy place for me. Knowing that I could go back to my job and still be respected, valued, and trusted made a big difference to my recovery, and I’m still at the company.

I started putting boundaries in place. For instance, I cut down on multitasking. I used to always read my emails during meetings, but instead of being more productive, I would miss what was said, which made me anxious and led to me having racing thoughts. I also started setting strict work hours for myself. When I get excited about something, I can go, go, go. Because of this, if I don’t set a boundary to end my workday at a specific time, I can keep going and not even realize that it’s 9:30 p.m.

Before the pandemic, I also set strict boundaries for the three days a week that I commuted by train to work in Chicago from my home in Wisconsin. I arrived at the office early, left in the mid-afternoon, and used the commute time to prepare for work or wrap everything up so I could clock off completely in the evening. When the pandemic started, I was instantly stuck at home. And because I was always working from home and not going places, my boundaries started to disintegrate, and work bled into my personal time. I would find myself working late at night again or on the weekends.

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