in Work

Recruiting and mental health

At dinner with friends and colleagues a couple of weeks ago we started talking about the risks people take when they go through the process of being hired for a new job. At some point you will get asked questions that can make you vulnerable. This topic had come up at at a seminar I attended last year on Creating a Trans-Inclusive Workplace:

  • There are many points of risk in the processes that we run. If someone who identifies as a different gender to the one they had at birth gets all the way through your interview process, there is a point of vulnerability when they have to hand over a copy of their birth certificate to HR. The HR employee who receives the certificate has a lot of power, and can have a massive impact on the candidate depending on how they handle it.

I was fortunate to go to a university that was a popular recruitment ground for big companies. Not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life, I managed to secure a graduate job offer before my final year began. My application involved tests, interviews and group assessments. I also had to fill out an application form to give to their HR department. I vividly remember that the form had a question on whether I had any history of mental health issues. I ticked the ‘no’ box — and then proceeded to worry about it for weeks.

During the first part of my time at university I struggled with my mental health. Early in my second year this culminated with a late night visit to the Samaritans in Coventry. They were wonderful; the person I met there made me a cup of tea and listened to me for hours. It was a massive turning point; I could glimpse a way back from how I was feeling. I soon sought further help from the University and was fortunate to have free access to on-site counselling, another significant step to getting myself back on track.

Back in January I started thinking about all of this this again, having read Ruth Davidson express her fears about her medical history being revealed to the world if she ran for a political leadership position. I remembered how stressful it was after ticking that ‘no’ box and then hoping that it wouldn’t come back to haunt me. In my early twenties I had no idea about how HR processes and whether the company would be able to find out anything about what I had been through. I worried about what would happen if my mental health issues came back, impacted my work and then someone looked started questioning me further. Almost 25 years later, I can look back and see that these worries were overblown, but they felt very real at the time.

While mental health issues still carry a stigma, I like to think that the consequences of sharing them with others — and in particular, prospective employers — are not as bad as they used to be. Mind have an excellent write-up on discrimination at work, including a section on applying for jobs. It’s interesting to note that “Generally employers can’t ask you questions about your mental health before a job offer is made.” If you are made an offer, and you are then later turned down once you are further along the on-boarding process, you can look at raising whether the decision was discriminatory. I’m not sure whether this is a recent change to the law or something that has always been there, but it is great that organisations like Mind are trying to reduce concerns and anxiety by making more people aware of their rights.

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