Working With My Mental Illnesses, Not Against Them
Have you disclosed your disability to your manager or coworkers at work? What has that been like?
I’m very open about being bipolar and having ADHD. It’s a fundamental part of who I am and how I work. When I started at Mixpanel, I was the first person to express interest in the disability employee resource group, Mixability. As a result I now lead it, and we’re picking up steam.
I tapped our VP of Engineering, Neil, to be the executive sponsor, mostly because I already worked with him and knew him. We set up a meeting and I told him about my diagnoses, how they affect my work, and why Mixability was so important to me. It turned out he already knew and had worked with other bipolar people. Walking into that discussion he had a surprising amount of context and awareness of what I face. He’s also really committed to helping challenge the stigma around mental illness and other disabilities in the workplace.
It’s been refreshing to connect with people at Mixpanel and discover how much they really care, even if they don’t have a background in ADHD, bipolar disorder, or disability in general.
One thing about being bipolar: to manage my moods and prevent mood swings, it’s critical for me to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Everyone in our engineering department does week-long on call shifts, which includes the possibility of being paged in the middle of the night. I brought it up with my manager. I told him I could do a couple of late-night pages each week, and after that I would need to get team members to cover or swap nights with me or else my mood would go all wonky. He appreciated that I knew my limits, and agreed that my mental health was the number one priority. I know that the team will be there to cover me if needed.
At this job, there’s genuine belief in the idea that everyone works differently. Everyone faces different challenges. Highlighting that is actually good for the workplace as a whole. We’re still fighting an uphill battle against stigma, but I’m so grateful to work at a company where people are actually willing to be vulnerable and have the hard conversations.
Describe your day-to-day experience managing a disability at work.
I’ve taken a lot of time (and gone through a lot of therapy) to learn how my brain works, and I’ve figured out ways to successfully play to my strengths. I’ve had to learn a lot about prioritizing and organizing in ways that work for me.
There are some unexpected benefits to having ADHD as an engineer — sometimes I can really harness my ability to hyperfocus. If I’m in a really focused state, I’ll go ahead and tackle a larger, longer, more brainpower-intensive task. If I’m feeling scattered, I’ll knock off a series of smaller things. I schedule around my ability to focus.
The key is to work with how I’m currently feeling and the energy I have, rather than trying to force myself into a different headspace to accomplish a certain task. If the open office plan is too distracting or I have an in-depth task that needs to get done, I’ll work from an undisclosed location with as many modes of communication turned off as possible. At my last job, we called this the “secret location treatment”.
As a woman in a technical role, sometimes the bar is set even higher. The constant “prove-it-again” women face is heightened by my anxiety and the variability of my moods and ability to focus. My fidget to be able to focus better is knitting, so I knit in meetings. At first I worried people might think I wasn’t paying attention, but that hasn’t been my experience. So far my coworkers just tend to be interested in what I’m knitting.
For me, it’s critical to work in an inclusive environment where people understand that mental health is a part of health. It doesn’t benefit anyone to minimize my own disability, or to assume I don’t need or deserve or wouldn’t benefit from accommodations.
I made this mistake for years — I assumed that if people knew about my disability, they wouldn’t take me as seriously at work. But I’ve learned that it’s better if they know. If people know I have ADHD, and I lose focus, it looks to others like I’m having trouble focusing, not like I’m losing interest in my job. When I explain how being bipolar can affect my moods and reactions, needing to excuse myself from a heated discussion looks like self care rather than possibly being interpreted as rudeness.
How does your disability impact how you think about your career path?
To me, my career is more about personal fulfillment and belonging rather than advancement or money. I’m an engineer because I love the work. I’m so lucky to be paid well doing something that I love.
There are many layers of my intersectional identity — part-Arab, queer, female, bipolar engineer with ADHD — so I carefully pick and choose where I work based on inclusivity in the workplace. When I land somewhere, I invest in improving and maintaining a sense of belonging for myself and those around me. Instead of chasing new positions with raises and signing bonuses every few years, I focus on investing in a company and doing the best job I can as an engineer. For me, this is a much healthier approach.
I’ve also had to do a lot of thinking about when and whether I’ll be ready to take on a leadership role again. As someone who is bipolar, stress can have a very direct (and amplified) negative impact on my mental health. My day-to-day functioning can vary widely, and I get scared sometimes about how this variability in my output or mood will be perceived by my coworkers. As an individual contributor I think it’s more acceptable, but it’s a challenge for someone in a leadership position.
In order to take on a management position again, I would definitely need to know that I had the right support systems in place, that my team and managers knew me, my work and my disability, and that they would be there to back me up. I’ve had bad experiences in the past and I know it will take time to heal and be confident in my leadership skills again. Someday. But it’s not a ladder I’m actively trying to climb right now, and that’s okay.
Iris McLeary is a software engineer at Mixpanel based in San Francisco, CA. She loves solving hard problems, cackles at dumpster fires, and firmly believes in the power of human connection, empathy, and assuming good intent. Outside of work, you’re most likely to find her at a punk show or curled up somewhere comfortable with her knitting.
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