The Workplace Job-Hopping Phenomenon

It is pretty common for people with bipolar disorder to have a long track-record of jobs over a series of several years.

Myself, I’ve had something like 12(?) jobs in the last 5 years. Granted, there were times when I had more than one at the same time, but the longest I’ve been able to stay at any one job is around 14 months, if I’m not mistaken.

For someone who has bipolar disorder, this may seem fairly normal, but for many people who aren’t as familiar with bipolar disorder, I realize this is something that might sound somewhat bizarre.

Yes, this disorder is generally about mood swings, but there is also an element of increased and decreased energy that goes with that. For me, the workplace has always been a breeding ground for stress, and then it is a race between which component of the disorder becomes a problem in the workplace first: the mood swings or the change in energy. Or, for me, one might include anxiety and panic.

People have described to me stories of having agitated or elevated moods that have led to saying inappropriate things at work, or being aggressive enough that they were fired.

I’ve been lucky enough to somehow be continually granted a second chance in those situations, and I have generally been able to focus my increased energy on my work. Enough to stay employed during an upswing. That, and aggression is practically praised in the fashion industry.

In fact, I’ve only been fired from one of those twelve jobs. Though a lot of people find themselves in the pattern of getting a job, getting fired, getting another job, and getting fired, my issue with the workplace is of a slightly different nature.

The trouble for me is more with stress and depression. A typical situation looks like this:

I am working, everything is fine.

Then, some big, extremely stressful situation arises. Instead of moving past it, that stress flings me into depression.

Normally, instead of trying to wait out that depression, my instincts tell me to flee before I am fired (because my lack of energy and demeanor are bound to become a problem) and by getting out of the stressful situation I might also have some chance at bouncing back from the depression I’m in.

Find another job.

So I do, I find a new job… and start the process all over.

Twice now I’ve found myself in jobs that I told myself I would break the cycle by waiting out the depression. With one of them I waited as long as I possibly could through the torture before quitting, but my team was laid off a month later (so I would have been fired anyway). With the second, I landed in the hospital and was fired when I asked for a leave of absence.

The amount of stress it takes for this to transpire is usually pretty big, I mean I was able to keep it together for a year at one of the companies I worked for in the cut-throat fashion industry. Pressure is something I thrive under, stress -however, is something that can make me crack.

The big, triggering stressors I’ve faced at work I can summarize in three simple categories, really.

1. Ongoing harassment by a co-worker
2. Manipulation via money
3. Unrealistic physical demands

That’s it. Seems simple, right? Avoiding these three things? Maybe you’ve never had a job… and maybe that’s why I do so much better in school!

I’ve had 12 jobs and in all of them, at least one of these three things has come up frequently enough to cause my brain to reel in panic and have the overwhelming urge to flee. And it isn’t as though I haven’t tried to solve whatever problem comes up, I’ve spent a ton of time with various HR departments and payroll and managers and their managers to boot.

“But why not just stay until you are fired?” 

That’s the question most sane people ask, when this comes up. Even some medical professionals have told me it could be beneficial to get more instances of being “fired” under my belt in case I want to apply for SSDI.

There is a point I reach where I have to weigh the benefits of the job against how absolutely nightmarish the job is making me feel. If it is enough to keep me from sleeping, from eating, or cause my stomach to feel like I’ve swallowed a bowl full of gravel, that’s usually when it becomes time to move on.

Have you ever volunteered to be jabbed with hot pokers? And then sat there and said, “oh, well this is quite lovely”?

This isn’t just emotional pain, it is physical. I wont give you all the graphic details, but one year when this was going down I was having so much stress a doctor diagnosed me with having severe food allergies. I haven’t got any food allergies at all! But that stress can physically warp me so much it can appear that I have a very serious, physical ailment. Enough for trained medical professionals to literally see it.

Why don’t I wait it out until I’m fired? Because I’m bipolar, not a masochist.


Now why does all this matter?

The stress bomb was dropped on me at work. My current job. A combination of points 2 and 3.

I am attempting to be calm. To be cool. To be collected. Negotiate. You know, business-type stuff. And as much as I keep telling myself things will be fine, I’ve spent the last week feeling like I swapped my oatmeal with a bowl of gravel.

I genuinely like my job, and I know that I do not want to search out another one. But when getting paid becomes a problem, that problem can bloom into a hundred other problems. Suddenly I can’t afford medication or therapy and my phone is shut off briefly because I can’t afford it without that check. When people live in grand houses and live off a salary, they can’t seem to understand that I literally live from paycheck to paycheck. It evolves into an issue of class, and power, and settles as a reminder that I have nothing.

It is ok. I am quite good at having nothing… it allows me to stretch my problem-solving muscles. Still, it is the principle of the thing, and I let it slide twice already.

I can wait. I can wait… I have to choke down the panic. A new job is not necessary.

But I can always keep one eye on craigslist. 

15 responses to “The Workplace Job-Hopping Phenomenon

  1. I’m most concerned about unrealistic physical demands when it comes to maintaining the career I’ve been working toward for years and years at this point. The big accommodation that I need is to be excused from teaching night classes. It’s not something I’ve had to negotiate yet, but I worry that it will be a problem.

    And that’s setting aside the constant pressure and massive stress of the job itself. I can’t just compromise by working part-time – it doesn’t work that way in my line of work. That’s where it gets into manipulation via money; adjuncts make almost nothing and have very low status, while tenure-track faculty make reasonable salaries and enjoy a relatively high status. That also links back to making sure I can avoid night classes – not an option if I’m an adjunct, but reasonable enough if I’m faculty proper.

    The worst part for me is having to worry about this for years before finding out whether any of it will actually pose a real problem.

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      I was in architecture school for a year before I came to the conclusion that the future I’d set up for myself wasn’t realistic, I’m really glad I thought it through enough in that year to make the decision to change career paths before spending the 8+ years it would take me to actually finish things off for architecture.

      You seem to be someone, to me, that is absolutely capable of rationally thinking things through. I highly doubt that if you have set yourself on this path and stayed on it until this moment (even after thinking through the argument and whatnot you’ve made above) you are making a bad choice, in terms of career.

      That said, I know that doesn’t stop you from worrying about it along the way. I have a terrible time looking into the distant (or not too distant) future without absolutely stressing myself out, but I hope you don’t torture yourself about it too much!

  2. I have a terrible time keeping a job… even one that I love. It is brutal to say the least and seems to contribute to the feelings of “instability” for me. Currently I am on SSDI and it is not enough to live off of but enough to help while i get stable.
    This post really hit home for me… thank you. 🙂

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      I have such a love/hate relationship with work, because there are aspects that definitely seem to help with my stability -until I get one of those big stressful events that throw me off entirely! I am glad to hear SSDI is at least helping in the meantime!

  3. Wow! I think you just described my work history….a lot of the reason why I’m desperately trying to find a way to make money and still stay at home. I need that flexibility. I don’t qualify for SSDI. I haven’t worked in almost 6 years, so I don’t have enough credits….
    I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but have you thought about working through this in therapy? Maybe you could learn some coping skills to get you through the stress until the storm blows over??
    I wish you well and take care of you 🙂

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      Sorry to hear you’ve got a similar work history…

      This is pretty much the number one reason I sought out therapy in the first place, and though I’ve been using many of those coping skills in the last week, it is difficult when my intense anxiety about work is sprinkled periodically with periods of paranoia (which is not being curbed easily with medication). Also, since I haven’t been receiving my pay, I wont be able to go to my therapy appointment next week… which kind of defeats the purpose!

      Whatever happens, I am sure something will work out. I no longer consider employment a life or death situation, so these people don’t hold a huge amount of sway over the ultimate course of my life anymore.

      Thanks, and take care!

  4. Oh Sarah, I hope you can pull through this. The job sounded so good for you. Is the extra day too much? Maybe you can go back to two? If you want to talk and stratagize let me know. Keeping my fingers crossed for you. But of course do what’s best for your health. Your so smart and funny and personable you will always be able to find a job!

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      I hope so too David. I am going back to two days because I had an issue with receiving my paychecks, and I told them I am not willing to take on extra hours if they are going to keep withholding my pay (for no apparent reason). That got their attention, so hopefully things will work out soon.

      Thanks, and though I don’t usually have trouble *getting* jobs, it is keeping them I need to work on!

  5. I went through job after job in the same pattern before I was diagnosed with bipolar. I am still having issues finding and keeping meaningful work. Don’t let yourself get too stressed and run down. This will pass.

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      I am definitely doing my best to keep from getting too stressed and run down, but that has proven to be more difficult than it sounds. Businesses (or at least the ones I am usually involved in) are such unstable creatures themselves that finding something stable and (as you said) meaningful is quite tricky.


  6. Reblogged this on fee de la lune and commented:
    Fantastic article, this is exactly what I have been struggling with for 8 years now. I am now trying to manage this issue as I seek a new job, which I hope to keep for a few years. Thank you for your honesty and share 🙂

  7. I have bounced from job to job and can relate to what is written in the OP. I too get bored in work which is routine. I find that high stress begins to accumulate as tension and anxiety which I know is always going to reach a flashpoint. I leave before things get to that point. It’s a sense of being overwhelmed by this and just getting out. Most people don’t understand this less have any empathy with this.

    I have travelled something like 48,000 air kilometres in the last months to five countries as I hopped three jobs and have not stayed in any of them for more than three months. There is a sense of never being able to be still or not feel agitated. It affects relationships too in that I have not been close to anyone in 5 or 6 years – Sadly I can understand this as who would want someone as ‘nuts’ as me with a track record of never being able to stay still. I just keep moving.

    I laugh but I cry in despair too!

  8. Stephanie Wilson

    Hi Sarah,
    Thank you so much for publishing this article. You have described me to a T. I wanted to tell you that as I read your story, I not only noticed that I have a lot in common with everything you talked about, but I also noticed that you are an excellent writer, and if you haven’t already considered it as a career, you should.
    Good luck to you in all your endeavors.

  9. For those interested, I am the Founder of Bipolar Career Advisors. We are a career coaching and counseling firm focused on the needs of the bipolar community – myself being bipolar II. We have a proven methodology we have used with over 1,000 people, some of whom have been diagnosed bipolar. We have taken this proven methodology and tailored it for the needs of the bipolar community.

    Check us out if interested:

    You deserve a fulfilling career. Bipolar shouldn’t define you professionally.

  10. A lot of people take things for granted like their health and their rights. Unfortunately I don’t think I have equal rights I have an illness that causes me to be hospitalized every 6 months for 1-2 months. It’s pretty much impossible to keep a job without getting fired. It’s not exactly “fair” when I’m being compared to people who don’t have the same problem. In fact the stigma and discrimination is disgusting (no other way to describe it). You are an inspiration to me because you keep moving forward despite hospitalization. I’m not the type of person who needs a house with rooms that are not even being used (when some people are homeless) and a fancy car so I can show off. Having my health and equal rights/ respect would be nice. People take for granted the ability to be able to work for years at a time without being hospitalized. I wish you the best of health, success and happiness because you deserve it. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about bipolar disorder, mine is pretty severe it’s not just about mood swings. I couldn’t care less about the ups and downs it’s the hospital visits that last up to 2 sometimes 3 months that get annoying after the 17th time. I wish it was only about mood swings that would be a treat. No one really knows about the abuse that goes on behind closed doors once your in the hospital (unless they have been there). I was once left face down with my hair in my face in a freezing cold room with no circulation in one wrist for 10 consecutive hours. With my arms and legs stretched out because I was too short for the restraints. All that because I had insulted a nurse (freedom of speech). The abuse / stigma and discrimination that goes on is a complete nightmare. There isn’t much justice for someone with bipolar disorder. Personally I find the more I stay positive and push through these painful experiences, do my best and take care of myself (no alcohol , sleep properly, limit coffee, talk therapy ) good things start happening randomly. Almost like a universal justice or a reward for sticking through hell. Wishing you all the best :). Thank you for sharing I know eventually everything will work out for you because you are very brave, strong and persistent. It’s funny because I’m an artist/ designer, very creative, happy and a mostly cheerful person but this illness has completely destroyed me. For me the worst part of having BPD by far is the discrimination. It’s not even the hospital part which may be surprising ( I always become friends with the other patients). The abuse I can deal with but specifically the discrimination in the work place is what hurts me the most. Generally people work so they can pay for living expenses, food, proper housing, proper medical care, so they won’t end up on the streets wooooh I’m getting fired up lol. What happened to something called human rights…… Anyways may you be blessed 💜.

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