Culture

Would You Hire a Person With a Mental Health Disorder?

One HR practitioner says no.
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It's easy to be emotionally caught up when the argument is about mental health. There tends to be bias for empathy, equality, and charity. And when question of employability is mixed, it becomes a much more volatile argument.

The central question is: Should mental illness be a factor in employment or should an applicant’s qualifications be based on merit and relevant experience?

As a law-abiding citizen, I agree that there shouldn’t be discrimination for as long as the person is qualified for the role. However, as an HR practitioner and human being, I’d rather not hire a person who openly confirms that he/she has mental health concerns.

First of all, think of how working conditions come into play. In IT, Business Process Outsourcing, and Retail, for example—which count among the biggest hirers in the country—employees will be asked for quick results based on key performance indicators. Companies may require long or unusual work hours and they foster a competitive culture that can lead to high stress levels.

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Not to stereotype, but cubicle-dwellers (even beyond these industries) are known to sit for hours, consume easy but oily and fatty meals, drink, and smoke—not exactly living the life of relaxation. These are today’s working conditions (which in no way should be attributed or blamed on any industry). It's the reality we live in.

Enter a person with mental illness who probably has occasional mood swings, tendencies towards social withdrawal, and depression. Even with proper medication, exposing a person with mental illness to these working conditions would not just be risky but also inhumane.

A person with mental illness requires a different environment, one that's more nurturing, flexible, and fosters creativity. As of the moment, only a few companies have made a conscious effort to build such an environment but these changes weren't done to benefit the employee.

A person with mental illness requires a different environment, one that's more nurturing, flexible, and fosters creativity. 

For the past years, companies and business organizations have been focused on anticipating various changes in the economic landscape. These include constant discussions on strategy, changes in relation to diverse shifts such as the integration of labor markers and currency, catching up to the fast paced ever-changing technology, branding and value propositions, flexible or shortened work arrangements, changes in education systems, and gender diversity to name a few. Given these anticipated changes, companies have been constantly revising their strategies and culture to adapt.

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However, the issue of mental illness has not been given a priority within the corporate agenda. I believe it will remain the same in the next years or so unless an incident triggers the need to bring the topic to the respective boardrooms.

The same goes for culture. Yes, we Filipinos are friendly and family-oriented but we are admittedly not yet ready to deal with the challenges of mental health in the workplace. Given that it is not part of the larger agenda of business leaders, this is not something that is emphasized and openly discussed in the workplace.

While there is acknowledgement, there are no conscious and proactive effort to train people on how to manage such occurrences. This is true for both the family and the workplace. There is still the prevalent stigma that people with mental illness are weird, unusual, peculiar or abnormal. (These perceptions lead people suffering with mental illness to isolation. Sadly, the isolation makes it worse for someone who is suffering from mental illness—and so people do not openly discuss their concerns. It's a tragic cycle.) I’d rather not hire someone with mental illness because I believe we are not yet ready for them.

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However, the issue of mental illness has not been given a priority within the corporate agenda.

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Despite ongoing awareness campaigns on the topic of mental illness, most of the companies in the country, both multinational and local, aren’t fully capable of accommodating a person with such conditions. Health and wellness programs are predominantly focused on physical medical concerns and disabilities, from ergonomic work stations to Zumba classes and fun runs to surgeries and post-accident rehabilitation.

Some may argue that some wellness programs especially those geared towards physical wellness could help alleviate mental illness, those aren’t enough. We always hear about high blood and diabetes during health week but we don’t often hear of sessions conducted to discuss depression and bipolar disorder, right?

When it comes to patient care there are only a handful practitioners that are covered by the health partners of companies and even our labor law only requires a nurse or physician and a dentist to be readily available either on-site or within 25 minutes from the office premises (depending on number of workforce). There's no clamor to have a counselor on hand.

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Currently, even reimbursable medicines are limited to manage physical pain. Despite the fact that medication prescribed for mental illness are relatively more expensive, they're usually exempted from office health plans. When it comes to establishing employment accommodations for people with psychiatric disability, progress is slow. It's not as easy as construction a ramp to make things more manageable. I’d rather not hire a person with mental health because without the proper accommodations in place I’m risking that rather than helping him/her.

I’d rather not hire a person with mental health because without the proper accommodations in place I’m risking that rather than helping him/her.

In my job, it is my duty to help the business reach its goals and to effectively do that I have to take care of the people not just financially but emotionally as well. Aside from development and recognition programs, we also need to provide a safe and secure workplace. All the abovementioned programs including the compensation and benefits programs would be useless if the employees in the workplace don’t feel safe and secure. As Simon Sinek said, people who don’t feel safe and secure in their work will eventually lose their trust in the organization and its leaders and their affinity to the company’s goals.

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Given the potential risks and documented averse actions of a person with mental illness including mania, suicidal thoughts, strong feeling of anger, anxiety attacks, and substance abuse we do have to admit, just a single episode would alarm the larger population. And when a person or group of people are threatened or exposed to danger, there is a high likelihood that the panic button will be pressed and the company may see either an increase in attrition or a decrease in productivity due to absenteeism and presentism (common manifestations of disengagement).

I rather not hire a person with mental health because doing so exposes the larger employee population to potential safety and security risks given there are no accommodations immediately available (or practiced) to help such people adapt to the present working conditions and to sustain their assimilation to the larger workforce. 

I’ll probably reconsider my opinion when the difficult conversation of mental health is finally acknowledged and openly discussed in the boardroom then translated into feasible programs. For now, I’d rather be honest to an applicant about his/her prospects and how we aren’t prepared for people with his/her conditions.

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The Unpopular Opinion is Esquire’s space to provide additional insight and introduce new perspectives to issues that we may think have foregone conclusions. These articles don't always reflect our editorial stance, but we publish them here to continue the discourse. The opinions expressed by the author do not represent the views of his company.

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About The Author
Ninoy Julongbayan
Julio Benigno "Ninoy" Julongbayan is an HR practitioner with six years of diverse experience with various industries including Energy, Direct Selling, and Finance Shared Services. Outside the office he takes long walks to the fridge or to the next hip Mexican restaurant.
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