Finding employment, mental health, and the barrier between them.

12.11.2019 | Sarah Murray

Person is climbing a wall

It was mental health awareness week recently, at least in the UK, where people were invited to discuss issues around mental health (or MH) and raise awareness of the problems faced by those who are affected by mental health problems. As far as the world of work goes, much of the focus was how people in work should think about the issues. There was very little in the way of detailed explanations of how we can actually work on the issues, at least in my little window to the world. And we really need to work on these issues. It’s estimated that last week 1 in 6 people would have experienced a mental health problem at some point in their lives. Given this growing demographic, we as HR professionals need to firstly better understand MH and understand how we can address some of the MH issues faced in the workplace.

Here I’ll mostly cover recruitment. How to handle an employee who develops MH problems while already working or how to handle potential adjustments for MH employees you take on are topics in themselves (which I’ll get around to covering at some point if y’all can be patient).

A few will inevitably ask – “Why recruit people with mental health problems at all?”. With rapid advances in technology and artificial intelligence, machines are working and now even thinking more reliably and consistently than humans in many fields, but what machines lack is the ability to be imaginative and creative in response to challenges or mishaps. This means that individualism and diversity of thought are becoming far more valuable resources. We no longer want our human workforce to simply follow instructions like robots, as we have actual robots who can do that better. We want our humans to be human, and different.

We often talk about the need for diversity in our workplaces, and most people think of that as racial diversity, language diversity, gender diversity, religious diversity, and similar forms of diversity. What these ideas of diversity have in common is that they tend to be wrapped up in identity. We rarely, if ever, talk about neurodiversity. Picking people because they think differently or because their ideas of how the world should be are different from ours. Yet this is possibly the one of the most important yet most difficult area of diversity to foster. Many people who have been affected by mental health problems have a knack for approaching problems in a unique way, whether through unorthodox thinking or from having to overcome challenges that their condition has created.

"A barrier is of ideas, not of things" - Marc Caine

So we have good reason to ensure that our workforce is neurodiverse. However, barriers exist for those affected by MH to find employment, barriers created by both employers and MH candidates themselves. MH is still misunderstood and despite protections in relation to disabilities and MH in many countries there is still a huge amount of stigamtisation and bias from employers. This then creates further issues with MH candidates, particularly those who already lack confidence, self-belief or suffer from anxiety, and then have to either try and hide any MH problems or face hiring teams raising the capability bar and expecting them to be something extra special to compensate for their MH problem.

Our drive for workplace efficiency has led us to standardise virtually all aspects of the employee lifecycle, and the folly of this “one size fits all” approach to handling all HR matters is only recently being rectified, but is still very prevalent. The common recruitment and vetting process for candidates is basically a filtration process, excluding candidates at various stages. But like any filtration process, this will only work well for a standard fit, and MH candidates don’t really go into this process very well. If we look at the very start of this filtration, the job advert, they’re frequently written in a uncompromisingly rigid way with a litany of prerequisite demands. Many candidates might simply take a chance and apply for a position if they can do most of what’s required but lack in a few areas. MH candidates are generally far less likely to do so. “You will have a proven track record in…” can sound intimidating to someone who already struggles with their self-confidence. I’d much prefer job adverts to cover the objectives of a given role and expectations in the short to medium term, as opposed to a laundry list of things a candidate can already do. A less inflexible tone might also help, as well making it less buzzwordy and more human.

When it comes to people with issues of confidence, job interviews can be especially arduous. Even people with a decent level of personal morale can find interviews difficult and intimidating. To someone who doubts themselves, having a spotlight focused on them, along with an interrogation about all their weaknesses, can easily make them go into outright panic. This is especially true of those who’s mental health woes involve social anxiety disorders. In such instances it is vital that interviewers keep in mind that any MH candidate might well be a far better candidate than they’ve been able to demonstrate at interview. It could also be worth adjusting the interview process for possible MH candidates to make the atmosphere around them more of a discussion than an interrogation, although I feel this is best for any candidate in general. If your company is using behavioural interviews with standard sets of questions you could disclose the questions to the candidate beforehand, including the expected structure of any answers (for example, the STAR Method).

"Looking back, my life seems like one long obstacle race, with me as the chief obstacle" - Jack Paar

A big barrier for MH people isn’t just the process, it can often be the people. Managers may not want to recruit MH candidates. Mostly due to profound misunderstandings of the nature of mental health issues. Archaic beliefs that MH negatively affects intelligence or ability are still rife. There are also some who might be unwilling to accept a candidate who’s mental health might require workplace adjustments (time off for treatment for example, or allowances for leaving a workplace suddenly in the event of a panic attack). But most boil down to the same ultimate reason – a belief that a mentally ill employee will be less productive than ‘standard’ one. In this case, HR has to be firm and attempt to educate their managers in the errors of their ways. It needs to be made clear to them that MH problems might present challenges but don’t diminish ability. Isaac Newton, Beethoven, Ada Lovelace, Charles Darwin, Buzz Aldrin, and Mary Shelley were all affected with mental illness. There is no good reason to be any more leery of accepting a MH candidate than anyone else. A good way to help both employee and employer overcome potential confidence issues is a paid internship or trial period for a few weeks, though we must be careful that such “work trials” are not used for cheap or free labour.

People with MH problems often find getting a job difficult, and as a result find their problems worsened, which makes things harder, leading to a feedback loop which hurts not only them but society as a whole. Improving our working environments, hiring practices, and attitudes towards those who experience extra or different difficulties than we do will not just benefit those who have mental health problems, but all of us. Enhancing flexibility to allow for a more diverse range of possible vulnerabilities will allow us access to a greater range of potential strengths. In my opinion, it’s something that all HR departments should be doing anyway.

About the author

Sarah Murray
The HR cat has been lurking in various human resources departments for years, and has survived to tell the tale despite her inherent curiosity. HR can be a strange, mysterious and ever changing world full of cryptic lingo, acronyms, and clandestine meetings, sometimes with stern HR mistresses telling you off. The HR cat is here to give you an insight into the HR world, tell you what all the lingo, acronyms, and scary meetings actually mean and how they’re relevant to you, whether you’re an employee, manager, shareholder or CEO, without abusing you with technical details or HR minutiae. Hopefully the HR Cat’s insights will  not deter any budding HR professionals from taking a leap into the fascinating, fun, spooky, dark and sometimes dangerous jungle of human resources.

In her years as a HR professional she has hired and fired countless people, restructured and harmonized many business and workplaces, disciplined and developed hundreds of workers, and given hope to the world that yes, HR departments can be an asset and facilitator, not just a cost and an obstruction.

She knows all about EU employment law, best HR practices, and workplace cultures, so if you need HR advice with a European flavour feel free to get in touch. However, this is a busy cat who doesn’t just bask in the sun all day, so please be patient when awaiting an answer.