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'I had a nervous breakdown, but I was ready to come back to work. The gap on my CV was a big problem'

We are not the ones that employers need to be worried about. They need to be conscious of their existing employees who are struggling with their mental health but are afraid to say so for fear of discrimination, writes Miriam Dowling.

IN FEBRUARY 2003, I had a nervous breakdown. My brain just shut down. I was numb, unable to feel emotion, all that existed was darkness. It took me some years to recover from this experience and in 2007, I readied myself to re-enter the workplace.

I wanted to have a purpose, a reason to get out of bed. I wanted to contribute to society and to the household. Somewhat naively, I thought I just needed to apply for jobs, talk to people I know and see what kind of work was out there.

I wasn’t looking for a high-powered executive position, my experience was in office administration. I didn’t think I’d have a problem picking up even short-term contract work, as I had been in continuous employment since leaving school and never had a problem gaining employment.

I wasn’t prepared for what faced me, a lot of rejection.

The gap on my CV

As I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong, I spoke with a career coach and a couple of people that work in human resources. The feedback was unanimous, the gap in my CV was a big problem. With this in mind, I decided to re-work my CV in an attempt to disguise the obvious gap and also to return to education.

Three years later and having been awarded a First Class Honours Degree in business, I was ready to try again. During the one interview that I was called for, I was asked about the gap in my CV and contrary to advice, I told the truth. I was proud of the fact that I had survived, as many don’t. I was self aware, mentally healthy and happy.

To gain employment would have been a huge achievement for me, but I didn’t want for that to be founded on a lie, so I told the truth. But my advisors were right, as soon as I explained the gap in my CV, the demeanour of my interviewers changed. Although they were polite and sometimes inquisitive about my experience, I knew that I had talked myself out of a job.

The equality legislation exists not only to promote equality, but also to prohibit discrimination in all aspects of employment, including recruitment. The legislation requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities, such as, an adjustment of working hours, installation of a wheelchair ramp or provision of an orthopaedic chair.

It goes without saying that in order for the employer to provide these reasonable accommodations, they must know be aware of the problem.

No obligation to disclose

Somebody applying for a position is under no obligation whatsoever to disclose their mental health issues and it is their personal choice as to whether or not to do so. However, if they do not disclose, and such issues cause future difficulties in employment, understandably the employer would be asking the question, why didn’t you tell us.

Therein lies the problem. One would hope that an employer would wish to know about the disability, so that they may provide reasonable accommodation, in line with the legislation.

However, if told, surely the risk arises as to whether or not an applicant would be discriminated against for having mental health issues. With that in mind, it is clear to see why people are reluctant to tell the truth.

It is of course difficult to prove that somebody has been discriminated against because of their mental health issues as no employer will ever make that admission. The usual response is that a more suitable applicant was found.

I can now fully understand why I was not selected for interview as why would an employer take a risk employing somebody with mental health issues over somebody with apparently none. Well, here’s the thing. An employer doesn’t need to be concerned about somebody who disclosed mental health issues, as they are dealing with it and more than likely they would not have applied for the position unless they were absolutely sure that they were ready to re-enter the workplace.

We are not the ones that employers need to be worried about, they need to be conscious of their existing employees who are struggling with their mental health but are afraid to say so for fear of discrimination.

There is still stigma 

Luckily, things are starting to improve, with more people coming forward to speak about their experiences of discrimination and stigma.

Organisations such as See Change are helping to educate both employees on seeking support and managers in how to provide that support through their Workplace Programme.

I decided that I was not going to let others dictate whether or not I was fit for work and so I embarked on an MBA specialising in human resource management. I am in the process of launching Don’t Mind the Gap, which is a social enterprise that aims to educate employers and those who carrying out recruitment, in how to deal with both candidates and employees with mental health issues.

It is hoped that by challenging perceptions and changing mindsets that this will create a society where honesty really is the best policy.

Social Entrepreneur and See Change Ambassador, Miriam is the founder of Don’t Mind the Gap, an initiative addressing the stigma and discrimination those with mental illness face when trying to gain employment. You can find out more about See Change here, on their Facebook page and Twitter

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