The impact of bipolar disorder upon work functioning: a qualitative analysis


  • None of the authors report any commercial associations that might pose a conflict of interest in connection with this manuscript.

Erin E Michalak, PhD, Division of Mood, Disorders, Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia, 2255 Wesbrook Mall, Vancouver, BC V6T 2A1, Canada.
Fax: +1 604 822 7792;


Objectives:  One important but sometimes poorly-captured area of functioning concerns an individual's ability to work. Several quantitative studies have now indicated that bipolar disorder (BD) can have a severe, and often enduring, negative impact upon occupational functioning. While this data indicates that employment rates are relatively low in this patient population, it throws little light on the specific ways in which this complex psychiatric condition can affect work, or upon how these effects are subjectively interpreted by individuals with BD. In order to further elucidate the relationship between BD and work, we report here on a series of exploratory qualitative interviews undertaken to develop a disease-specific measure of quality of life in BD.

Methods:  We conducted 52 interviews with people with BD (n = 35), their caregivers (n = 5) and healthcare professionals (n = 12) identified by both convenience and purposive sampling. The affected sample came from a variety of employment situations, ranging between people with no employment history through to those in highly skilled, stable professional positions. Interviews were tape recorded, transcribed verbatim and analysed thematically.

Results:  Respondents described the different ways in which the symptoms of depression and hypo/mania presented in the workplace. Five main themes emerged from the data: lack of continuity in work history, loss, illness management strategies in the workplace, stigma and disclosure in the workplace, and interpersonal problems at work.

Conclusions:  Patient outcome in BD has traditionally been determined by the assessment of clinical characteristics such as rates of relapse, hospitalization, or degree of symptom reduction. More recently, however, there has been increasing interest in expanding the assessment of outcome to include the measurement of indices such as functioning, a key facet of which relates to an individual's ability to work. The qualitative data obtained here highlights the often complex, varied and intermittent effects of an episodic condition such as BD upon work functioning, and points to the importance of developing more sophisticated and precise measures of occupational functioning for this population.