When people ask Ruby Wax whether they should tell their boss about their mental illness, she asks them, ‘Are you crazy?’
Sadly, nine times out of ten, she’s probably right. Mental illness is the stickiest of labels, and any admission of depression or anxiety can instantly put an arm’s length between you and anyone in your professional network. In recruitment it’s a big grey area no one wants to explore: recruiters, employers, candidates – no one. But in order to be sensitive to what is almost always a complex situation, you’ve got to approach it from every angle.
Be honest with yourself
It’s easy to think you won’t perform in a job you won’t enjoy, but at the same time, you never know whether you’ll enjoy a job until you start. Approach the job hunt with openness and shrewdness: the job you take on will reward you for your abilities, and that’s no bad thing if a little self-congratulation is what’s lacking in the first place. Apply for jobs you’re interested in and that fit an overall career progression with confidence, knowing that by law your employee rights are protected. Remember, full time employment could be a great replacement for full time depression. The pay’s better, too.
Sniff out company culture
Your performance as part of a company is in part defined by your ability to gel with other employees. Trying to spot company culture in a job interview can be a challenge. It’s the last thing on your mind when affronted with a barrage of questions probing your professionalism, and is often swallowed with the fear of being thought of as juvenile. Find more creative ways to probe the suitability of office culture, without asking give-aways such as “how much sick pay am I allotted?” or “how would you react if I told you I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder?”
Work on not working
Ultimately, the binding force in most offices is the collective pursuit of cold hard cash. If your colleagues are understanding about your condition one day, they might be cagey the next. There is no real reason for this. A narrow spectrum ranging from social decorum to general awkwardness that defines most office interaction is usually incompatible with the medley of emotions experienced by the mentally unwell. Weave a strong support network outside of work and put your eggs into this basket instead.
What should a recruiter do if they believe they have a candidate that is mentally unwell? Well, the first impulse might be to drop them, but think about it. Why are they here? They must have done something right to get to their current position. Remember your role as a recruitment consultant – not a psychiatrist – and reserve judgement. Professionals should be defined primarily by their achievements, rather than by their “undesirable” traits. A main criticism of recruiters is their penchant to speak with authority on topics they don’t really know much about. The same applies to those candidates: the least you can do is get to know your candidate and step out of the way of their career trajectory.
Apply humane skills
Putting forward a candidate with mental health problems could damage your reputation. Will the client come back to you for another candidates after the first took an emotional tailspin? Perhaps not. Similarly, while you might be tolerant of issues of mental health, your client may not share that view. Carefully judge the tone of the role or you could inadvertently be buckling your candidate in for a bumpy ride. Being able to read avenues of possible behaviours between the candidate and client is a central part of your job. Apply your intuition – your best asset – and leave as little as possible to chance.
Attitudes are changing in the UK. Mental health charities such as Mind are doing their bit to improve the living and working conditions for those who are diagnosed, yet the chasm between employers and employees is closing with regard to mental health issues. As an agent between the two, you need to treat the issue sensitively. The best candidates will encourage their clients to open up, professionally-speaking. An open conversation about what the business expects and how the candidate regards the role should do the trick. Normalcy should reign: any sign of unprofessionalism should be considered within the framework defined by a job description, and shouldn’t question the individual’s personal constitution.
Use your noodle
Could you handle someone diagnosed with mental illness? What does that sentence even mean? There’s always the possibility any candidate could be unwell, and unless it really seems like there’s a problem, until it surfaces, it’s not worth double guessing. Recruitment in Britain is tolerant and more supportive of diversity than many other nations, but has a sting in its tail: most just don’t want to know. However, if the situation does arise that a candidate or employee’s mental health is brought into focus, it is important that the employer is able to respond to the situation with appropriate care and diligence, and not just supply a dismissive pat on the back.
Give them options
Noticing mental illness in an employee shouldn’t necessarily be encouraging them to settle into a normalised office environment. Nobody wants to be stuck in a rut, and a degree of flexibility when it comes to workload and hours enables an employee to work it out for themselves, on their own terms. Only when all reasonable options are exhausted can you be sure your employee isn’t right for the job, and you’re sure they would be better placed elsewhere.
Try a little tenderness
Intervene without being David Brent. The best employees are the ones that care. Without making them feel indebted to you, make them feel included. With a little effort, the situation can be turned on its head. I’ve experienced cases of employees with depression where a single sincere conversation has brought about a committed employee able to produce work of a consistently high quality. Here, both of us were well rewarded by a very simple bridge-building exercise and what began as initial misunderstanding quickly turned into a concerted effort.
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