Social Work faulty look at employee perceptions of coworkers with bipolar disorder

Lisa O'DonnelWorkplace attitudes toward individuals with bipolar disorder are the subject of a University Research Grant funded School of Social Work study designed to better understand how employees perceive the professional and social abilities of coworkers with the condition.

Assistant Social Work Professor Lisa O’Donnell is conducting a quantitative study to examine the perceptions that 600 survey participants have of hypothetical workplace scenarios involving a coworker displaying either hypomanic or depressive-type behaviors. Specifically, respondents are assigned one of 12 vignettes describing a fictitious coworker’s recent change in behavior that is either not explained, explained by a change in romantic relationship status, or explained by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Respondents answer questions about the coworker’s chances of advancement, suitability for the position, reliability, interpersonal skills, social desirability, and overall work competency.

According to O’Donnell, the study elucidates workplace stigma surrounding individuals with bipolar disorder – something she states is critical to improving this population’s quality of life. Up to 65% of individuals with the condition are unemployed, she said, with this lack of employment associated with greater psychopathology, lower rates of self-esteem, and a poorer quality of life. Of those individuals with bipolar disorder who are employed, up to 80% experience significant impairments in their work functioning, including performance.

To date, most studies on workplace attitudes about bipolar disorder have relied on self-reporting by individuals with the condition. O’Donnell’s study is among the first to gather data from individuals who encounter, albeit hypothetically, bipolar disorder in the workplace. This data is important to helping individuals with bipolar disorder decide whether, when, and under what conditions to disclose their condition.

“People with bipolar disorder struggle with the decision to disclose their diagnosis at work because there are potential drawbacks either way,” O’Donnell said. “If they do disclose, they are entitled legally to protections and accommodations that can promote their job success. On the other hand, people with bipolar disorder also report they are treated differently when their condition is known. These individuals say that stigma due to disclosing their illness led to feelings of alienation, job demotions, missed opportunities for promotions, and even job loss. For this reason, some decide it’s not worth the risk and are therefore unable to receive the work accommodations they need.”

O’Donnell, assisted by Center for Social Work Research staff member Caitlin Brown, said the study advances several of the Grand Challenges for Social Work (, most notably eradicating social isolation, promoting long and productive lives, and reducing extreme economic inequality.

“Work brings tremendous benefits to individuals beyond financial gain, and these improve their overall course of illness and quality of life,” O’Donnell said. “We know stigma is related to work outcomes, but we need to better understand what specific negative attitudes exist and how common they are among the general public. This study has the potential to be extremely impactful by informing future interventions specifically targeted to helping individuals with bipolar disorder navigate and succeed in the workplace.”

“Ultimately,” O’Donnell said “we need to create safer and less stigmatizing work environments for people with bipolar disorder and severe mental illness in general.”

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