People & Human Resources

Two out of five SMEs would not hire someone with a mental illness: Survey

Eloise Keating /

Close to half of Australian SMEs would not consider hiring someone with a mental illness, despite one in five Australians experiencing a mental illness at some point in their lives.

A survey of 256 small and medium-sized Australian businesses, conducted by not-for-profit employment services provider WISE Employment, found 40% of SMEs would not consider hiring someone with a mental illness, with concerns about unpredictable and changeable behaviour (57%), the possibility of a breakdown (54%) and too many sick days (43%) among their biggest worries.

SMEs surveyed in the study said they would prefer to hire someone without TAFE of tertiary qualifications (66%), who is learning English as a second language (43%), or who has a physical disability (50%) ahead of a qualified job seeker with a mental illness.

The release of the survey coincides with Mental Health Week across Australia and follows a campaign by beyondblue earlier this year to highlight the cost to businesses of not acting on mental health in the workplace.

Despite the reluctance to hire workers with a mental illness, the research found 63% of SMEs who have hired someone with a mental illness report positive results. Of the group, 78% reported the employee fitted in well with the team, 67% said they were hard-working and 53% said they were good for the company.

Close to 70% of the businesses that have employed someone with a mental illness reported the worker has remained with the company.

The survey also highlighted a lack of awareness of the resources available to business owners to support employees with mental illnesses, with 22% of SMEs reporting they did not know what kind of support or resources would be available to them in that situation.

WISE Employment chief executive Matthew Lambelle told SmartCompany job seekers with mental illnesses are often deterred from disclosing a mental illness in an interview because of the “fears in the business community around hiring someone with a mental illness”.

But Lambelle says if there is a disclosure, both parties can start a discussion of how the employee’s illness may impact on the requirements of the job and if reasonable adjustments can be made to accommodate the applicant.

Lambelle says it can be “easier to make doors wider or a toilet accessible” for a worker with a physical disability but it may be harder for a small business owner to conceptualise how they may adjust their workplace to support someone with a mental illness.

But he says simple things like creating a quiet space for someone to do their tasks outside of a busy area or creating more flexible working hours could go a long way to supporting an employee with a mental illness.

“The main thing is being really open-minded about the people you employ,” Lambelle says.

“It really is about being inclusive. If there is certain language used in an organisation, terminology like ‘this is nuts’, that can portray people with a mental illness in a negative way and push everything into the shadows.”

Lambelle says employers can also focus on creating a mentally healthy workplace for all employees.

“It’s great for productivity … it sends a signal to employees that mental health is important and if someone falls on tough times, they will be supported.”

“For an individual, work is a massive part of recovery when they are coming back from a mental illness and employers can potentially find workers who are keen to work and very loyal if they are willing to give them a chance.”

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Eloise Keating

Eloise Keating is the editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Eloise was news editor at Books+Publishing, the trade press for the Australian book industry.

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