If you discover that someone has a mental illness would you think twice about employing them, even if they are a great fit for the role? It's a tricky topic. Let's talk about it!
Discovering that a potential candidate suffers from a mental illness can throw a spanner in the works when it comes to the employer's decision-making process, let's be honest.
We all know that legally-speaking employers aren't allowed to discriminate, and that morally, they shouldn't; but if a candidate has voluntarily disclosed their mental illness before being hired, or the employer has come across the information, it's difficult to prove that an employer has overlooked an application because of it.
Most people who suffer from a mental illness and who want to be hired know that it's a risky business, and they are more likely to keep this sensitive information under wraps, at least until they have been offered a position.
But is there something to be said for those who are brave enough to make themselves an open book? Or are these people just being naive, fighting for a lost cause, or unnecessarily putting their careers on the line?
The professional risks of coming out about mental illness
I am one of these people. I have presented my professional identity as a writer, alongside my personal identity as someone who is diagnosed with a mental illness, openly online.
I have done this by linking my experience of living with cyclothymia, a mood disorder on the bipolar spectrum, to my writing career, by authoring a blog about my disorder. I talk about it on social media (including more recently, Linkedin, which sadly I feel may be professional suicide), and I aim to be an advocate for mental illness when presented with the opportunity.
I have, on occasion, mentioned it during job interviews, when I thought it was relevant. For example, if a company's website raves about the mental health support they provide. I have also ticked the box on some application forms that state if you disclose a disability and you meet all of the minimum requirements for the job you will be guaranteed an interview.
Is this a mistake? I have yet to find out, but I've not been hired by a company (excluding freelance work) since my diagnosis, despite the fact that I know I have many valuable skills to offer and I've applied for many jobs.
I can't say for sure whether employers have been put off my my mental health status or whether I just haven't yet been considered the right professional fit for any role. Either way, it has been interesting to observe and think about.
Despite conversations about mental ill health opening up, the stigma attached to mental illness is still going strong. Concerns about hiring the wrong person for the job are definitely valid. In fact, I've come across some small business owners who defend the fact that they would prefer to avoid being responsible for duty of care in the case of someone's mental illness affecting the smooth-running of their business, by not hiring them in the first place. I suspect that for a small business hiring the right person is incredibly important, and with smaller teams and higher responsibility on individuals, I guess they can't be too careful.
Don't we all have a responsibility to not make assumptions about an individual's professional capabilities by genuinely offering equal opportunities though?
I suffer from a mental illness, and I take full responsibility for looking after my own mental health and my ability to do my job well. I'd like to think that an employer would also happily embrace a duty of care to provide support where possible, and not hold my disability against me in the hiring process. One can only hope.
Are people who have suffered from mental illness being underestimated?
HR Magazine rightly expresses that "Those who've experienced mental ill health can be the most resilient and creative". And yet, according to the Rethink Mental Health charity, in a survey of 500 responses from hiring decision makers, the percentages of employers' concerns are soaring; with 83% questioning the capabilities of people suffering from mental illness to do their jobs effectively, 74% making assumptions about a lot of time being taken off work, and 68% even expressing concerns about their ability to fit in with the team.
I see a lot of fear in those figures, and I think it is understandable. If I was hiring someone to do a job my main objective would be to ensure that they are the best person for it. It appears there might not be much room for risk when it comes to running a successful business though.
I would like to raise the question then as to what the definition of a successful business is? Is it one in which employees must worry about the security of their job if they don't fit in with the team? Is it one where attendance is prioritised over wellness?
I think that people need to start to understand that underestimating a person's strengths by focussing on their weakness is a big mistake.
There is a difference between a person who continues not to take their own health or career seriously by neglecting their own mental health, and someone who has learned from past experience and now has the knowledge and skills to recognise their own triggers and symptoms, and take the initiative to access the support they need when they need it, so that they can function well in the workplace and thrive.
Should employers be worried that mental illness will affect a candidate's performance at work?
I think it is okay to consider that a candidate's mental illness might affect their performance at work, and I think it is the responsibility of both parties to be willing to have an upfront conversation about it so that everyone can be on the same page, put fears to rest, and get on with talking about the job itself. It is not only the candidate that must feel safe, but the employer too.
Alas, it is more difficult for the employer to have these conversations as they are not allowed to ask personal questions during the interview process. Does this make the easier option of overlooking a candidate with a mental health problem more appealing? I think that I would prefer to bring up the topic myself during an interview and give the employer the opportunity to talk to me about their concerns, rather than risk them making assumptions about my professional capabilities.
This is a public conversation that needs to get really loud in order for it to have a positive impact and empower both job seekers and employers, providing everyone with the insight and resources needed to create and take advantage of supportive and inclusive pro-mental illness work opportunities.
When I was younger I had very high expectations of myself. I was a problem solver and an over-achiever, and I had a lot of untapped potential and ambition. Unfortunately I did not know that I was suffering with a mental illness and that it was holding me back in my career. Without the right awareness and support, all of these positive attributes got drowned in a sea of repetitive failure, frustration, and self-sabotage. They sunk to the bottom and dragged me down with them. But today it is a different picture. I own my mental illness. I am self-educated in all aspects of my disorder and my education in ongoing. I work hard to be well, and I would like to have the same opportunities as the next person please.
I can clearly see and appreciate why employers might be cautious when it comes to hiring people who suffer with mental illness. It seems like a gamble, and in some cases it may well be. The question you have to ask though, is why is a person willing to disclose information about their mental illness when they were under no obligation to do so? It's unlikely that they are trying to warn you that they will be a terrible employee. In fact, it is probably quite the opposite.
How to see the positives in someone declaring their mental illness before being hired
My own reasons for being open about my diagnosis is that I want there to be an open dialogue about my capabilities, my limitations, and the support I already receive for my mental illness.
I also value myself and I want to be employed by a company that cares about the people who work hard to allow the business to function.
More importantly, I want more people to learn that mental illness isn't something to be feared. Bad things happen to the best of us, and the best of us grow stronger because of them.
Here are some of the qualities that I can now confidently bring to the table after learning more through my own mental health struggle;
I have a deeper sense of empathy for other people. This makes me a valuable member of the team. Talking openly about my own struggles has opened up the conversation for other people to join it. So many people in my life have randomly opened up to me about their own mental health problems, and it always me feel proud and humbled that my candidness and courage has empowered someone else to be brave too.
I have a stronger desire to prove my worth. This makes me a dedicated worker who is eager to learn and improve my skills so that I can meet and exceed the expectations of my employers, clients, and customers.
I am super-resilient. Despite struggling with my mental health, I know what real suffering is like because I face it in my everyday life. It takes a lot of resilience to fight your way through life like I do, so imagine what I can do for your company if I believe in your vision and you support me!
I am so much more self-aware. This means that I am better equipped to look after my own mental health, recognise when I am struggling, and seek support if I need it.
I am more connected to myself and driven by my beliefs, interests, and personal goals. Having been to hell and back many times over, I now know to prioritise what is most important to me. This includes pursuing work that helps to bring more personal growth and meaning to my life. I carefully assess whether I feel a role is right for me and that it presents me with the opportunity to grow. I also consider whether the company's values are aligned with my own. So if I have applied for a job at your company, you can be assured that I am looking for long-term opportunities.
I am currently volunteering at a charity that supports people who have struggled with their mental health to integrate themselves back into society, both socially and in terms of employment. I am part of a team that will be working to develop the website and social presence of the charity in order to improve its visibility so that more people can access its services, and also extend its reach to attract investors and fundraising.
Most of the people on the team are members of this service, and whilst sitting around a table with them all, brainstorming and developing ideas, it has struck me just how invisible mental illness is. We all look completely normal and healthy! All capable of working well. You wouldn't know the difference between any one of us and a person who has never had to see a doctor or psychiatrist for a mental health condition.
Mental illness, mental health disorders, mental ill health the effects of stress, whatever you want to call it... it's all around us. We need to understand and accept it, not be afraid of it.
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