As a contractor for the past 8 years, I’ve had my share of interviews for short to medium term, and occasionally permanent roles.

The inevitable question always comes up: “Why do you prefer contracting to permanent roles?”

Oh, I have a raft of reasons ready for this one.

“My family are based in Ballarat; this job is in Melbourne. I need more than 4 weeks off a year to get enough time with my children”. True.

“I like change. I get bored with routine”. True.”

“I have my own client base that like me to work for them. I don’t want to lose that client base”. True.

But the true-est one of all…that one I don’t say.

“I have a pre-disposition to depression. I need a lot more than 4 weeks off a year if I’m going to stay well. More like 10 weeks”.

27 little words. Not so hard, I guess. Why don’t I just say it?

Because as a HR practitioner myself, I know that the honesty of hearing a candidate tell you they manage a mental health issue is…well…shocking.

Did they just say that? Did they just admit that?

You see, once I’m “in the door”…once I have proven my competence and talent, I’ve found employers will literally bend over backwards to accommodate my needs when I disclose my issue.

But during interview stage it’s a case of…well this is a bit awkward. Let’s start talking about our diversity policy or our flexible work policy to reinforce that we’re open to this. Then once the candidate has left, let’s turn to each other and say “Hmmm…I don’t think this role can be done 42 weeks a year”. Or “Hmmm….I’m not sure that was appropriate to disclose at this point”. Or “Hmmm…. I’m not sure she’s resilient enough for this role”. Although we’re open to diversity, let’s come up with a whole lot of obstacles that mean we can’t accommodate diversity in this particular instance.

And here’s the thing… I’m not saying this from the point of view of the interviewee, because as the interviewee I’ve never had the guts to say those 27 little words. This is me as the interviewer! As the hiring manager, I myself – me of all people! – find myself backing away from a candidate when they’ve admitted that. Discrimination or not, it’s true. And if you ask yourself the same question, you’ll probably find you’ve done it too.

So why do we do that?

For me, as a HR Manager, I think it’s because I hear someone has a mental health issue, and the doubts that come to mind…in one big jumble.. are…

Unreliable? Will they take loads of leave? Will they put in a work-cover claim if it’s stressful? Will they be resilient enough? Will they cry at the drop of a hat? Will they be more trouble than they’re worth?

To further complicate things, discrimination law means having open conversations about these topics in an interview feels like walking through a paddock riddled with land mines…so instead of delving into the topic, we sprout off our diversity policy and move on.

But here is the reality…for employers and employees. If we’re going to get genuinely better at embracing diversity, we need to have the guts – and the safety – to have these conversations at interview stage. Employers need to know they can ask interviewees more about their needs without fear of being cast as discriminatory – remembering that employers actually are ‘allowed’ to ask questions if it’s relevant to the role at hand. (And you may not agree with me, but actually I think my need for flexibility due to my mental health challenges IS relevant to any role I go for). Equally, employees need to know that they can disclose this information without being judged.

So … where do we start? As the employer, what could you say if someone admits to a experiencing mental health challenges during an interview?

Well, I guess its bit like having a great candidate in front of you who discloses that they have difficulty getting up and down too many stairs. What would you do? You’d try to find out more so that you could see how you could accommodate them.

The same is true if someone admits to managing mental health issues. Learn more.
Questions like:

“Thanks for sharing that. What could we do as an employer that would help you stay well?”

“If you go through a difficult period, what do you need from us to help you get through it?”

“What have employers done to support you in the past that has really worked?”
Another option is to share some of the arrangements existing employees have in place.

“We have several employees that purchase extra leave. Would that be helpful to you?”

“We have several roles that we’ve split into two, job share roles. Would that help if you went through a difficult spell?”.

“We have several people who work from home one day a week. Would that work for you?”

Let me be clear: it takes skill to have these conversations ‘lawfully’. A skilled HR professional is definitely the best person to navigate the discussion. Yes, it takes trust from both sides, to know that to create diversity in the workplace, we have to be free to explore what the needs of individuals actually are.

And yes, let’s just talk about the elephant in the room – it is a pain in the backside, having to accommodate all these ‘individual needs’. If only humans weren’t so….human, managing them would be so much easier.

But personally, I believe the initial adjustment and inconvenience is totally worth it. In my humble, totally bias opinion, people who have had to navigate mental health challenges are some of the most interesting, self-aware, open minded individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Furthermore, research is clear – DIVERSE TEAMS PERFORM BETTER.

So back to me. Guess what?

I have an interview this week. And I’m going to say those 27 words. “I have a pre-disposition to depression. I need a lot more than 4 weeks off a year if I’m going to stay well. More like 10 weeks”.

It will be a first for me. I’ll let you know how I go.

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