March 18, 2022

By Joanna Connors

person waiting in lobby for job interview to start

In her autobiography, CBS Sunday Morning anchor Jane Pauley reveals that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her late forties. She also mentions that upon hospitalization for her symptoms, a doctor recommended she tell her employer that she was receiving treatment for a thyroid condition. Pauley goes on to describe the incident as “the only time in my life…that I experienced stigma.” Her comment highlights the pervasive nature of mental health stigma and how it affects individuals’ experience in the workplace.

A brief look at certain public figures suggests that living with mental illness does not have to hinder success and innovation. Famed mathematician and Nobel Prize Winner John Nash lived with schizophrenia. Beloved Hollywood icon and “Star Wars” actress Carrie Fisher had bipolar disorder, and she eventually became an advocate who worked to destigmatize the condition and encourage others to seek help. More recently, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles opened up about her mental health battle while adding yet another medal to her collection.

These stories demonstrate that people with mental illnesses are not only productive contributors, but that they can be leaders in their fields — assets to both society and the workplace. However, people with mental illness continue to face tremendous barriers to employment; namely, discriminatory hiring practices.

The rate of unemployment is higher for people with mental illness than those who do not have a mental health condition (6.4% as compared to 5.1%). Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that people with mental illness want to work, and that working is vital to their recovery, but they struggle to find employment and equitable workplaces.

By adequately addressing the stigma surrounding mental health conditions and reforming hiring practices, employers can create a healthier environment for potential employees and help applicants feel comfortable disclosing their mental health history or asking for appropriate accommodations.


Problematic Hiring Practices

As anyone who has applied for a job may recall, many job applications include a form in which applicants are asked to disclose their disability status (called the Voluntary Self-Identification Disability Form). According to the ADA, the employer cannot legally inquire about the disability during an interview.

The form, in theory, is designed to prevent discrimination; it even states that the employer is required by law to hire qualified applicants with disabilities. However, there are significant problems with this method of disclosure.

In the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability Form, the applicant has three options:

  1. To disclose that they have a disability
  2. To say that they do not have a disability
  3. To decline to answer the question entirely.

The “I don’t wish to answer” option, while theoretically included to imply that disclosure is a choice, arguably puts pressure on the applicant to answer yes or no, fearing that a failure to disclose will be perceived as dishonest or secretive.

As it stands now, this current approach serves as an unfair screening process in which people with mental illness are forced to guess how stigma may or may not impact their hiring process and calculate how much information to share.

Just imagine a person with a mental illness, who already battles self-stigma (an internalized shame that is common), preparing for a job interview with an employer who knows that they have a disability. In this scenario, despite the fact that the employer should not inquire about the details of the disability, the applicant might feel pressure to explain their situation in order to appear accountable and reliable. Thus, employers hold significant power over the applicant before they even walk through the door.

Accordingly, one could say that the Voluntary Self-Identification of Disability Form is discriminatory. It arguably puts individuals with mental illness in a vulnerable position (albeit unintentionally) because many feel pressure to demonstrate that they are “mentally fit” for the job — something a person without a mental illness would not face.

Perhaps most critically, this disclosure process could also impact a potential employee’s experience after taking a job.


Barriers to Accommodation

For employees who may need particular accommodations in the workplace, the best course of action is to request them before performance slides or behavior becomes inappropriate (for example, an employee with a mental illness might ask for time off to attend therapy appointments). Thus, the pressure to disclose one’s needs begins during the hiring process. However, this also puts applicants in a vulnerable position: This time, to gauge whether or asking for accommodations for a mental illness (despite theoretical legal protections) will result in discrimination and reduce the possibility of being hired.

Applicants who state that they do not have a disability on their application, but know they will need accommodations in the future, can also find themselves in a precarious situation. To get an accommodation, they most likely will have to explain to their employer why they need it. The employer can also request medical records, which is legal if the employee asks for an accommodation after being hired. And it may be considered grounds for termination if an employee lied on their job application.

The reason employees feel obligated to explain their disability is because they know that many employers are concerned about the financial responsibility and consideration that an accommodation requires. However, in most cases, accommodations do not cause the employer undue hardship, and it allows the person who needs one to be more productive and comfortable.

Another reason employers would be reluctant to accommodate is due to special treatment stigma where coworkers begin to resent what appears to be favoritism by the employer. Sadly, stigma prevails, and candidates are fearful of resentment.


Fostering a Stigma-Free Environment

Ultimately, applicants will not want to disclose their disabilities until the stigma surrounding disability and mental illness has been reduced. About 18% of workers in the U.S. report having a mental health condition in any given month, so it is imperative that companies pay attention to their employees’ mental health.

If employers want to foster a healthy workplace, they should implement a stigma-free environment, and encourage employees to seek appropriate accommodations. To accomplish any meaningful change in the workplace, employers should educate themselves and their employees about mental health in the workplace and the lived experience of people with mental health conditions. Awareness would help employers have a better understanding of the potential employees' needs and prepare appropriately.

Additionally an employee should not have to disclose their disability, nor should they explain their disability to get an accommodation. Rather, the process should simply require employees to present a doctor’s note that they have a medical condition — or the employer can contact their employee’s provider to confirm that there is a medical issue.

Ultimately, attracting the best talent and maintaining a healthy workplace requires hiring many applicants, including people with mental health conditions. Addressing stigma and better understanding the needs of employees will improve the workplace culture, which in turn, will help create employee loyalty and commitment to the company.


Joanna Connors is a recent graduate with a master’s degree in Management and Leadership, and she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. to study mental illness and unemployment further.

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