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 have 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 nonexistent. 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 in to 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 straightaway. 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 midafternoon, 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.
I use alarms on my phone these days to make sure I follow my own rules and don’t work too late. I give myself a 15-minute warning that my workday is nearly over and that I need to start wrapping up. Sometimes it takes me a bit longer to finish, but I also have an alarm that goes off 10 minutes after the alarm signaling the end of the workday, so I know when it’s definitely time to stop.
After a while I found that I was feeling irritated and overwhelmed by midday. And I realized it was because my morning commute gave me some downtime and allowed me to slowly prepare for the day. Now I give myself an hour every morning to drink my coffee and walk my dog, Oscar. Sometimes we go out for only 10 minutes, but I’ve realized that I need the fresh air and the feeling of moving around to feel ready for work.
I’ve also started blocking out 30 minutes every day when I’m unavailable for meetings. That way my colleagues know in advance. During my break I’ll sit on my couch, have a cup of tea, read a chapter of a book, or go on a walk. This break helps me feel like I’m a priority and that my life is not just about work.
Now that I’m fully vaccinated against COVID-19, I’ve been thinking about the boundaries I want to set around work trips as traveling becomes an option again. Even though I enjoyed that aspect of my job, I still feel anxious about being in large groups and using mass transit. And I want to respect my own limits on how many days I can comfortably be away from home. I’ve realized that I don’t feel as effective at work or as healthy as possible when I’m away from home for too long.
Before my diagnosis, setting boundaries at work sounded really nice, but I never prioritized it. I thought work was so much more important, and setting boundaries can feel intimidating. I think starting a dialogue with your boss can be valuable—and it doesn’t need to be a dialogue about your mental health—it can just be a conversation about what you need to do your job better. For example, you can say that signing off of work at a certain time helps you be more productive throughout the workday. I think it’s important to remember that you are human and what goes on in your personal life impacts your professional life.
Now my perspective about work is so different than before. I know my mental and physical health is my top priority.