Source: The Age, Online
Bernie Mitchell is a small business owner and real estate agent. He says he would have no problem hiring someone with a mental illness in his business Focus Property Management in Sydney.
That’s largely because he knows what it’s like to be in their shoes. Mitchell, 38, suffers from bipolar disorder. He is also author of Bipolar: a path to acceptance, about his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and how he learned to manage his illness. As a father of four, Mitchell wanted to show it’s possible to balance running a business with raising a family, all while managing his condition.
He says he would hire someone with a mental illness “as long as it is managed responsibly”. Mitchell believes: “It’s important for everyone to know that you can get there in the end and triumph over your mental illness.”
When he has previously hired someone with a mental illness, he was proactive in supporting them. “On becoming aware of their illness I mentored them so that they could empower themselves to take the necessary action and ownership of their recovery plan,” he says. “Given that I had suffered from mental illness, I supported them rather like a coach offering encouragement. We would meet up regularly to check in on progress and any issues that presented in the workplace. In one instance, the role was modified to accommodate the sufferer.”
However, is this the responsibility of small business owners?
Melissa Jenkins (not her real name) doesn’t think so. Jenkins, 40, runs a fashion store in Melbourne. “Life as a small business owner already has so many challenges,” she says. “I know it’s not politically correct to say this but I really don’t think I would hire someone with a mental illness. I wouldn’t even put them on a short list of applicants. I don’t have the skills to help someone through their mental illness. I need highly functioning people who aren’t going to give me problems with absenteeism and who can perform their jobs well.
“Of course, I understand that life isn’t always easy. My staff go through difficult times and I try to support them because I care about them. But I don’t want to invite potential issues into the workplace if I don’t have to. I’m already working myself to the bone. I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with more challenges. So if there’s a choice between hiring a quality candidate with a mental illness and a quality candidate who doesn’t, I’m going to pick the latter for sure.”
Susan Bower, 41, owns Dressed for Success, a Brisbane-based property styling business. Like Mitchell, she would hire someone with a mental illness. “As a business owner that suffers from depression myself, I know that with treatment, people with mental illnesses can function just as well as anybody else.
“Mental illness is now emerging as a more common illness, so the likelihood of employing someone with a mental illness is much higher whether they disclose it or not.”
If you’re applying for a job, should you disclose that you have a mental illness?
Says Mitchell: “It’s important for everyone to know that you can get there in the end and triumph over your mental illness.”
Careers counsellor Jane Lowder from Max Coaching says the decision for job candidates regarding whether or not they will disclose a mental illness to a potential employer is one that needs to be carefully considered. “If the mental health condition will not affect their ability to do the role then the candidate is not legally required to disclose it. In this instance, the matter of self-care should come into consideration. A close read of the potential employer’s workplace diversity policy might reveal that support structures and workplace adjustments are available, and therefore an open discussion of any mental health matters upfront may see a new employee receive valued assistance in their role.”
However, this frank discussion does carry some inherent risks. “This potential benefit would need to be weighed against the risk of negative stereotyping or being overlooked for either the role or development opportunities down the track.The ultimate decision about disclosing, when not obligated to do so, will be unique to each individual and role, and so discussing it with a trusted GP, psychologist or career counsellor may help in weighing the options.”
The Fair Work Ombudsman declined to comment on this issue. However, its website states: “Under the Fair Work Act 2009, discrimination is disadvantaging someone in the workplace because of their…physical or mental disability.” It then provides the example of this as “being rejected from a job during the hiring process.”
However, it’s fair to say it would be hard to prove if an employer did not shortlist a candidate during the hiring process because of their mental illness.
Advertisement Meanwhile, small business owners remain divided on the issue. Some are empathetic. But others, like Jenkins, say it’s not a wise decision. “I know I’m not supposed to feel this way. But I have enough on my plate as it is. It’s already a challenge to manage my existing staff. And I know there are enough people in the world without a mental illness who can fill the roles I need. Why would I hire someone who has one?”