A CEO Asked About My Mental Health at a Job Interview


The Interview

In January 2020, I had an interview at a health organization for a job that I was more than qualified for. I say that not because I’m narcissistic, but because it was essentially the job I had been doing for the last two years in London — right down to the type of organization (a membership-based health organization).

The interview was going well until the CEO pulled out a printed copy of a blog I had written a few months earlier. The position involved writing, so I had sent through my blog as a sample of my passion for words. The post that piqued the CEO’s attention was one where I had reflected on my personal experiences with depression and anxiety for Mental Health Awareness Week, using the Māori health model Te Whare Tapa Whā.

The CEO had printed out this blog to ask me about my mental health and whether I had needed to take “many” sick days at previous jobs as a result. There were no follow-up questions or statements about any policies or systems the company had in place to support employees with mental or physical disabilities. The CEO said, “We have to ask you about this.”

Now, let me make one thing clear: Asking this question was unethical at best and illegal at worst. Under the Human Rights Act (1993), it is illegal for employers and potential employers in New Zealand to discriminate against employees or applicants based on mental health.

I can’t say for sure that this was a factor in their decision-making process. What I can say is that the way the question was framed gave me the impression that the organization was not interested in supporting employees with mental illnesses. After all, if they had a robust support system in place, why would they need to question my history at all — especially when that is illegal?

For the record, I have taken sick days because of my depression and anxiety. I’ve been upfront with employers about this, and have been fortunate to have managers and colleagues who supported me when I needed time off, just as they supported me when I took time off for physical illnesses.

On this occasion, I answered the CEO’s questions politely, assuring her that my depression and anxiety were under control. I needed the job. What I wanted to say and what I should have said was, “You’re not allowed to ask me that in a job interview.”

Either way, I didn’t get the job.

And I am eternally grateful for that.

The Pandemic

Two months later, New Zealand — and the rest of the world — went into lockdown in response to COVID-19. I was three weeks into a new job (yes, I sent the CEO a copy of the same blog posts; no, she didn’t ask me about my mental health at any point in the recruitment process).

Suddenly, the world was a different place — and it kept getting worse. Deaths. Isolation. Protests. Uncertainty. Looming elections. Isolation. Boredom. Deaths. Protests. Murders. Violence. Fires. Corruption. The constant battle of fighting for Black and Trans people’s right to live and breathe.

Oh, and the pandemic is still going strong.

This year has had an enormous toll on people’s mental health — even people who have never been diagnosed with a mental illness in the past.

That’s because mental health is constantly evolving. It’s not merely the existence of a mental illness or disability. We are impacted by external forces for better or worse every day: physical surroundings, life events, people, nature, weather, world news, physical health, media, and the list goes on. To think that something as vast and complicated as mental health can be covered by a couple of questions in a job interview completely misses the point.

I could have had no history with mental illness, only to develop one during those weeks of isolation. And then where would the company be?

The Bottom Line

So, why write about mental health again if a future employer or client could use it against me at any time?

Well, apart from knowing that it’s illegal to ask potential employees about their mental health, I want people to realize that it’s not only possible — but actually common — for people to work and have a mental (or physical) illness at the same time.

Of course, mental illness affects every person differently, so this isn’t possible for everyone, but a disability should not be a red flag for employers. In fact, many people with disabilities choose not to disclose them in the workplace, in large part due to fear of discrimination, so you’ve more than likely hired someone with a mental illness without realizing it.

Employers should hire based on a person’s ability to do the job, and if the illness or disability does not hinder an applicant’s ability to do the job then it has no place in the decision-making process.

As it happened, my current employer made the shift to working from home full-time during the lockdown. It’s given me time to reflect even further on my mental wellbeing and discover what’s truly important to me. To borrow from Te Whare Tapa Whā again, here are my takeaways:

  • Taha Whānau (family and social wellbeing): Taking the time to whiria te muka tangata / recharge with others has been vital, even for my introverted self. I find myself scheduling more social time on weekends and prioritizing the social connections I have, even when I can’t see people in person.
  • Taha Wairua (spiritual wellbeing): Looking for ways to whāia ngā mīharotanga o ia rā / rediscover everyday wonder is a great way to appreciate the little things. I’ve been learning to slow down and connect with smaller moments like that first cup of tea in the morning or getting outside for some fresh air.
  • Whenua (connection to the land and roots): Speaking of fresh air, making time to hono ki te taiao / return to nature has probably made the most difference in my mental wellbeing this year. Going for a walk outside energizes me, especially when I take myself to the local gardens to visit the ducks or walk amongst the trees.
  • Taha Tinana (physical wellbeing): Working from home has given me the time and energy to learn how to whakamarohi i tō tinana / refuel [my] body in a way that I had never bothered to before. Without a commute, I’m more motivated to cook a balanced dinner in the evenings and do a yoga routine at lunchtime. I listen to my body now and try to recognise and give it what it needs (sometimes that’s a big bowl of cheesy pasta).
  • Taha Hinengaro (mental and emotional wellbeing): I’ve focused on nurturing my mind this year by taking the time to whāngaia tō hinengaro /
    refresh [my] mind with online courses and webinars. I’ve also been building my own copywriting business because I’ve discovered that writing still fuels and stimulates me all these years later.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, why not take some time to reflect on your own mental wellbeing? Even if you’re in a dark place this year, taking time to discover the little (and big) things that fuel you can make a huge difference.

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