Winning in the Workplace With Borderline Personality Disorder

Stella had loved animals since before she could walk. Her mother liked to tell the story of how, as a baby, she’d follow the family dog around the house, crawling as quickly as her little knees would carry her. Once, at age 4, she’d rescued a wounded bird and then refused to sleep until she knew it had sipped from the water she’d left for it.

Veterinary school had been more stressful than Stella was prepared for, although she was certainly smart enough to make it through. She’d opted to become a vet tech temporarily and to go back to school when life looked simpler. In the meantime, she had gotten in a job in a clinic near her hometown and everything seemed fit to go as planned. Her father knew the husband and wife team who ran the clinic, which was located in a new building with state-of-the-art equipment and a true focus on pets and their families.

Perhaps it was Stella’s disappointment at not having yet finished her own veterinary degree, or the fact that she believed the other vet techs weren’t as serious about their work, but things at Mills Family Veterinary weren’t exactly wonderful. For one thing, Stella was furious with a technician named Kate, who continually forgot when it was her turn to spray down the kennels. Stella was certain Kate did it deliberately, just so Stella would be forced to attend to the extra work. When she finally went to Kate about it, she was informed she was “yelling” and “starting a fight” which only made her more angry.

Most of the vet techs, like Stella, were young, and when clinic gossip got going, it could get pretty outlandish, even vicious. Stella had seen Dr. Mills leaving in the Volvo of a blond woman on a day when his wife was slated to be working the late night emergency hours. She decided this must mean he was having an affair and saw no reason not to tell the others. Because several clinic employees were quite loyal to the couple, the subject was brought up in a staff meeting. Dr. Mills explained that he had left that afternoon with his sister and—looking right at Stella—told the staff never to make assumptions about others, to remain professional at all times, and to stop behaving like children. Or else.

Can Someone with BPD be an Effective Employee?

While the social aspects of the disorder may at times seem limiting, many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) are intelligent, creative and talented. Still others go on to lead successful careers, even managing teams and projects. Having the diagnosis does not automatically make one an ill fit as a prospective employee. As with anything, it is about managing the illness so that the capabilities of the individual can shine through.

BPD is more common than most people may realize; it affects up to 14 million Americans—more than bipolar disorder and schizophrenia combined. Chances are, you know someone with borderline personality disorder. You may even work alongside someone with BPD.

Making a Successful Workplace

The Employer Perspective

Work environments in which supervisory personnel are educated about how to effectively manage people—with all their various personality styles, idiosyncrasies, and modes of interaction—are among the best and most productive places to work. Millions of people show up to work every day despite mental illness, and still manage to make productive employees of themselves and successful businesses of their workplaces. If your work environment consists of a large group, it is almost assured that some among them will have some form of mental illness—depression, bipolar disorder, or even BPD.

While it is not the responsibility of employers to help their workers manage mental health concerns, it is to everyone’s benefit if employees are treated in some fair and consistent ways in order to ensure that expectations are understood by all. People with BPD are all too often known for being high-conflict, “negativistic,” or divisive. In order to reduce any workplace drama, state clear behavioral expectations (for all employees). If a person with BPD feels singled out for poor behavior, he or she may become defensive. Remind workers that their behavior must always be professional and provide examples. Keep the talk around what you expect, rather than what you don’t like.

If you have an employee or co-worker who you know to have BPD, never focus on this aspect of her identity when addressing behavioral concerns. Again, focus on expectations and ensure that they are similar for all employees.

The Personnel Perspective

If you are a person with BPD, be mindful of whom you talk to at work about your disorder. Consider that it may be best to maintain a division between work life and home life. While having friends at work can be fun and may make going to the office seem less like work, opening up too much to co-workers can leave a person (especially with BPD) feeling vulnerable. Have you told someone about a suicide attempt whom you no longer trust? Do you feel your personal business is now being shared around the office? Even if you have no reason ever to distrust, the nature of BPD may lead you to suddenly regret past friendships. Recognize this about yourself in advance of the issues.

Find someone outside of work with whom you can discuss office relationships, such as a therapist or trusted friend. Whether you are feeling tremendous like for a co-worker or sudden dislike, take your feelings to this outside source, rather than to the person you work with. Remember that extreme feelings about others are common in BPD and that they are fleeting. You are likely to split co-workers, especially in times of stress.

Keep workplace goals for yourself and include in those goals the development of stable, professional relationships. Observe others and read about what these kinds of relationships take, and consider this an important aspect of your job.

Stella, like many people, felt distress over not being as far along on her personal achievement ladder as she wanted to be and in many ways her disappointment affected her happiness; it bled into everything else. She worked hard and was extremely committed but the relationships that were important to a healthy work environment were difficult for her.

Learning to recognize her own emotional reactivity along with ways to help her cope better (rather than simply reacting) would be useful for Stella. BPD had been called the “good prognosis diagnosis”—people can and do get better, especially with age. Waiting a decade for improvements when next week’s team project needs completing, however, is not always an option. Thankfully, there are many ways employers and sufferers can help themselves today.