92% of Britons believe admitting mental illness harms career
We must protect employees and job hunters with mental health problems from employers who are prejudiced about their ability to work, says Mohini Bharania
Whether you work in the city, are on the minimum wage, or are the Prime Minister, when it comes to mental health, it is difficult to rebut prejudice about your ability to do the job. The presumption being that you cannot.
Time to Change revealed that a shocking 92% of the British public believes that admitting to having a mental illness would damage someone's career; and that 56% of those questioned would not employ an individual, even if they were the best candidate, if they had a history of mental illness.
Employees suffering from a mental health condition are protected by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) and have the right not to be treated less favourably because of their disability. The DDA can be applied if a person is able to show that they have a mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. A person who has had a disability in the past will also be protected in employment.
For a condition to be \"long-term\" the effect must last 12 months but mental health conditions, such as depression, can be intermittent and therefore can leave the employee vulnerable, often with no protection under the DDA. Intermittent conditions will only be covered if they are likely to recur and proving this can be difficult.
Given the stigma attached to mental health conditions it is no surprise that an individual may feel discouraged from disclosing it to an employer. Many people feel they have to lie on an application form just to get an interview but in doing so risk losing their job or even facing criminal charges. And unless an employer is on notice, or could reasonably have been aware of the disability, they will not be under any legal duty to consider or make reasonable adjustments at the interview stage or in the workplace.
Discrimination legislation in this country has been piecemeal. Although the Equality Bill aims to address this, there are gaps in the Bill when it comes to mental health and employment, particularly at the outset of seeking employment. Putting an end to pre-employment questionnaires requiring disclosure of mental health conditions prior to the offer of employment being made would be a step in the right direction; and any questions thereafter should be limited to conditions which directly affect a candidate's ability to do that particular role.
The definition of disability also needs to be amended to give more protection to people suffering from fluctuating mental health conditions, such as depression; with express provision being made to address an employer's perception of a person's disability. The concept is difficult as these are \"hidden disabilities.\" However, we need to ensure that a disabled person means not only someone who has or is likely to have a disability but also someone who is perceived or is treated as having a disability at a given time. Because of the nature of some mental health conditions, the current definition is not adequate.
It is difficult to achieve a wholesale shift in attitudes. But some small changes could make a difference.
• Mohini Bharania is a solicitor in the Employment Department at Russell Jones & Walker