Managing a Career with a Mental Illness

December 19, 2023 Michaela Jarvis

Career development is a priority for me, and while navigating the professional world is tricky enough, throwing in the challenges that come with managing a mental illness with a career makes the situation even more difficult. As someone who struggles with focus and drastically fluctuating energy levels, work can feel impossible, leaving me emotionally and mentally drained. The desire to succeed professionally can be much more difficult when there are extra mental obstacles, but there are ways to make the process easier. Having a mental illness and a career is possible.

A Career with Mental Illness Has Intense Challenges

One of my biggest struggles in my career with mental illness is productivity guilt. I find myself struggling to pay attention to tasks, hopping from one thing to the next, often leaving me asking myself, “Wait, what did I even get done today?”

Another issue is my varying energy levels. In a depressive episode, I may spend 20 minutes trying to muster up the energy for even a short meeting. My memory isn’t as sharp, my creative side is burned out, and I feel like I’m dragging the team’s mood down, leaving me wondering why I can’t be “better."

Ways to Manage a Career When You Have a Mental Illness

Keeping Open Communication with Your Workplace

Sharing a mental illness diagnosis with a manager or boss is scary. “Will they fire me?”, “What if they just think I’m lazy,” or “Will they think less of me?” are questions that fill my head.

With every position I’ve had, I’ve been open about my mental health background, sharing my situation and how it impacts my day-to-day work. I’ve explained that sometimes I will find the energy to go above and beyond my duties, and other times, I may perform at a level that isn’t always consistent. I may even seem disengaged or upset.

Each time I’ve had this conversation, it’s been positive. My managers have been able to understand me better, and I’m released from a fear of being seen as “lazy” or “inconsistent” when I am truly trying my best. 

It’s scary, but employers are humans, too; they’ve had their fair share of bad and good days as well. And if they’re not supportive, what do you do? You might consider that the company may not be a good fit, and prioritizing a role that doesn’t hurt your mental health is important.

Workplace Accommodations and Self-Care

Sharing your situation opens a bridge to asking for helpful accommodations. For example, I had a job where there was a rule against listening to music at your desk. I mentioned my struggles with focusing because of the constant phone calls around me. My manager had no idea how much the distraction was hurting my work and encouraged me to use my music as a way to block it out. I was able to be more productive, which pleased both my manager and myself.

I’ve also created self-care strategies for when I’m feeling overwhelmed at work. That includes stepping away from my desk to go on a walk, finding a quite empty room, or finding something that will distract me for a while, like a book. It gives me some time to reset and fuel my internal battery. 

Having a career when you have a mental illness is a challenge I continue to struggle with. It can be guilt-inducing, draining, and scary. But prioritizing self-care breaks, communicating needs, and giving yourself grace are great steps in the right direction.

APA Reference
Jarvis, M. (2023, December 19). Managing a Career with a Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, April 13 from

Author: Michaela Jarvis

Michaela Jarvis is continuously on her road to self-improvement while managing bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and the life challenges that come with being in your 20s. Find Michaela on Instagram, LinkedIn, and her website.

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