If you found out during the interviewing stage that one of your candidates has a mental illness, would you be wary of offering them the job? Of course you’d never admit it out loud — but deep down, would you be concerned their illness would lead to excessive absences? Of might you fear they’d have a hard time fitting in or getting along with their co-workers? Be honest.
If you’ve never experienced mental illness yourself or seen friends, family, or co-workers deal with it in the past, you may worry about these things. Film and television do a great job of dramatizing and demonizing mental illness. In reality, however, hiring employees with mental illness probably won’t ever cause an issue in your workplace.
Mental illness is everywhere
You’re probably already working with someone who has a mental illness. We have interactions with people who have mental illnesses all the time, at the office and elsewhere, says Shivangee Thorne, a medical social worker in Georgia. Many people “have treated, controlled mental illness that no one would know about, just as an employer wouldn’t know a candidate is a diabetic or epileptic,” she explains.
Unless the job has a specific mental health requirement or screening, such as in the case of a law enforcement position, the employer may never know. This could include situational depression, anxiety, ADHD, or even schizophrenia.
There are many talented professionals who carry psychiatric diagnoses, including those in the medical profession, says Kelly Rhodes, an urgent care doctor in the Washington, D.C., area. Rhodes agrees that with proper treatment, the illness is often undetectable by employers. “Untreated mental illness, on the other hand, takes a huge toll on patients’ productivity at work and in their personal lives. The stigmatization of psychiatric conditions makes it less likely for patients to admit that they are having trouble and to seek help, and is therefore counterproductive in business and in society.”
Mental illness may be undetectable, but what if a candidate tells you about one outright? For starters, if “someone tells you something about themselves, that’s not a medical record and they have disclosed it directly. If they told you, it’s okay for you to know it,” says Heather Bussing, employment attorney and blogger at HRExaminer.
She adds that no matter how you find out, you still can’t discriminate based on this information. “If the disability is obvious or an applicant mentions a disability, then an employer can ask about whether the employee would require any accommodation to perform the work.” Mental illness usually doesn’t come up during an interview, so accommodations usually come up after the employee is hired.
If the illness is such that affects a major life activity, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will most likely apply. If it does, the employer cannot exclude anyone from a job based on mental illness provided the person is qualified and can do the work with or without accommodation, says Bussing. Accommodation would usually be time off work to seek treatment.
If significant time off is required, the Family Medical Leave Act may apply, just as for an employee with any other chronic illness, Bussing says. “If you need a longer time to recover, then the ADA may or may not protect your job depending on whether it is a hardship for the employer to hold your job for you. An employer is free to hire someone to cover your duties while you are on ADA or FMLA leave, and doesn’t always have to put you back in your exact same position.” The job just has to be at the same level of pay and substantially equivalent.
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