Should You Ask About Mental Health When Hiring?

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In 2017, the World Health Organization recorded more than 300 million people suffer from depression. Depression and mental health have been recognized as one of the leading causes of disability.

In 2016, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) showed an estimated 16.2 million or 6.7 percent of adults in the US have dealt with major depression at least once in their lives. The study defined a major depressive episode as a period of depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure for two weeks or longer.

A major depressive disorder also has at least four other symptoms that show a change in the individual’s function including recurrent thoughts of suicide or death, and problems in eating, sleep, and concentration.

Depression impairs an individual’s capacity to carry out tasks and responsibilities whether in his family or at work. When depression hits the workforce, the economy is affected. In workplaces, an employee suffering from anxiety disorders, or a mental health disorder in general, is also a concern of employers. The physical and emotional limitations caused by depression affects the business.

An employee who suffers from a mental health disorder may incur frequent absences affecting his or her productivity. Anxiety problems may also affect the worker’s relationships with his or her colleagues, supervisors, or clients. A study led by the WHO estimates that depression and anxiety cost the US $1 trillion in annual losses in productivity. This is one reason why workplaces are creating office programs and changing policies to promote mental health in offices. 

Even before a person joins an organization or a company hires them, he or she could be suffering from anxiety, depression or mental health disorder. Is it okay for hiring managers to ask the applicant about his or her mental status? Will it violate the rights of the job applicant?

Discrimination vs. people with a mental health condition

The status of mental health remains a private topic for most people as it carries the fear of being discriminated against by the public. It will take a person great courage to talk about their mental health status to other people, and more so, to their prospective supervisors.

Based on the data of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) data, charges of discrimination based on a person’s mental health condition are increasing. In 2016, the EEOC resolved almost 5,000 charges of discrimination based on mental health conditions. The EEOC said the resolved cases collected some US $20 million for those individuals with mental health conditions who complained of unlawful denial of employment and reasonable accommodations.

Based on a survey by Rethink Mental Illness, a mental health charity, 83 percent of hiring managers who were among the respondents of a survey view people with a mental health condition as unable to cope with the demands of work.

The group surveyed 500 decision makers or hiring influencers. Two-thirds or 68 percent of the respondents were found to worry that a person with a severe mental health disorder may not work well with their team. Meanwhile, 74 percent believes that a person with a severe mental illness needs a long break from work. This view strengthens the barriers that keep individuals with mental conditions outside of the workplace.

The rights of a person with a disability, including a psychosocial or mental disability, are guaranteed under Article 27 of The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The agreement provides a guideline for member countries to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities, particularly on their right to hold a job. They should also be protected from harassment and discrimination in the workplace, as well as given ample support to be a productive member of society. 

Is It Okay To Ask Job Applicants About Their Mental Health?

Two years ago, the EEOC issued a document explaining the rights of people with mental health conditions. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, persons with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other mental health disorders are protected from discrimination and harassment. Job applicants who have mental health disorders may also keep their condition private.

According to EEOC Chair Jenny Yang, all employers, job applicants, and workers “should know that mental health conditions are no different than physical health conditions under the law.”

When can an employer ask about questions regarding mental health?

Under the law, a hiring manager or employer may ask questions on the medical, including the mental condition of the individual in the following situations:

  1. When an individual asks for a reasonable accommodation at work.
  2. After the individual was offered the job, but before the actual employment, so long as other candidates or applicants in the same job category gets asked the similar questions.
  3. When the employer is engaging in affirmative action for persons with disabilities; in which case, the individual has a choice whether to respond to the question.
  4. When the employee on the job poses a safety risk because of his or her condition or when there is an objective basis that the employee may be unable to do the job.

What is a reasonable accommodation?

If a person’s mental health condition could affect his job performance, he or she has the right to reasonable accommodations at work. The reasonable accommodations include adjustments in work that helps the employee to perform his or her job and remain employed in the company.

Reasonable accommodations may include:

  • Altered break and work schedules that will allow the employee to work around therapy appointments
  • Quiet work environment
  • Adjustments in supervisory methods
  • Specific shift assignments
  • Permission to work from home

The employee with a mental condition should not be harassed based on his or her disability. If such an incident occurs, the employee should immediately report any harassment to his or her employer to address the problem. The employee may also file charges before the EEOC within 180 days of the alleged violation. The EEOC will then conduct an investigation.

When can an employee ask for a reasonable accommodation?

Under the law, if an employee suffers from a mental health disorder, which when left untreated, will “substantially limit” his ability to perform his or her job due to lack of concentration, lack of sleep and/or limitation to interact and communicate with others, he or she can get a reasonable accommodation from the employer.

A condition that is “substantially limiting” is defined as that which makes activities more difficult, uncomfortable and time-consuming for an employee with a mental health condition. The mental health condition need not be permanent or severe before an employer accommodates a worker’s request for an adjusted work arrangement.

As long as the symptoms limit the employee, the request for reasonable accommodation is justified, and the employer can make arrangements to support the employee with a mental health condition.

How can an employee get a reasonable accommodation?

An employee may tell the hiring manager or the supervisor that he or she needs a change at work because of a medical condition. After a request is made in writing, the employer may request the worker to submit a letter from the health care provider which documents the mental health condition and that the request for a reasonable accommodation is justified.

If the worker wishes to keep the specific diagnosis private, the documentation may use general descriptions such as “anxiety disorder.” The employer may contact the health care provider if the requested accommodation of the employee would be helpful for the person’s condition or not.

The benefits of creating a mentally healthy workplace

In 2014, PwC, a network of firms that helps businesses in Australia, published a study which highlights the benefits of promoting a mentally healthy workplace. It found out that for a dollar spent on a successful action promoting mental health, the company gains $2.30. A mentally healthy workplace has reduced rates of workers absenteeism, lower compensation claims, and higher productivity performance.

How can companies create a healthier workplace?

A healthier workplace contributes to the workers’ increased productivity, and in turn, it boosts the company’s performance. The World Economic Forum said companies could use a three-pronged approach to achieve a healthier and safer workplace. These include:

  1. Protecting the employees’ mental health by reducing work-related risk factors;
  2. Promoting mental health through the development of positive work aspects and strengths of employees;
  3. Address mental health problems of employees.

To protect the employees’ mental health, companies should implement and enforce policies and practices related to health and safety. The heads of organizations should have put in place interventions that could quickly identify distress, abuse of substances and mental health condition among employees and provide them with resources for proper management. All workers should also be informed that support is available to them.

Healthy organizations also encourage the active involvement of employees in decision-making and allow them to freely participate in the company’s healthy work-life balance programs and policies. Companies should also provide plans for the employees’ career development and recognize their contributions.  

Written By
Human Resources Today