Roughly once a quarter, the Auckland recruitment community congregates under the #AucklandRec banner to talk, network, hear from recruitment leaders and influencers on the latest tools and trends and share knowledge in the hope we’ll keep getting better at what we do. Last night was #AucklandRec Meetup #13, this time focused on Mental Health, and we were joined by subject matter experts Tyron Pini of Workwise, Vanessa Radich of Timely, and Shaun Robinson from the Mental Health Foundation of NZ, who each delivered warm, honest, pragmatic talks covering their views of mental health in the workplace and its implications within recruitment specifically.

Mental illness, addiction and suicide are topics close to my own heart, and with soaring rates of all nationwide, I’m sure they are pertinent for many. And, why not? Current statistics say one in five Kiwis have mental health issues (or “quirks”, as one beautiful candidate of mine referred to her mental health recently), but that statistic only reports on conditions formally diagnosed. The Mental Health Foundation says really, it’s much higher – they estimate 50-80% of New Zealanders will experience mental health and/or addiction issues in their lifetime. This means, contrary to the current narrative, mental health and addiction issues are the norm.

What does this mean for recruitment? Put simply, the Mental Health Foundation says we cannot avoid or risk manage our way out of dealing with mental health problems. To try and do so would be unrealistic, foolish and ultimately uncompetitive – oh, and illegal. (And immoral.) 20% of us live with diagnosed mental health conditions, and we are all bound to experience mental distress at some point. So let’s be realistic about that, and take a proactive approach to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Robinson spoke about his own “ASK” method for assessing candidates: first look at Attitude, because without that nothing else matters. Next, assess Skills, and then Knowledge. But never, at any point in a recruitment process, should mental health be assessed as a deciding factor.

The fundamental question Robinson believes we need to contemplate is, “What is mental health?” The common bias response is to immediately read mental health as mental illness, and therein lies the problem. When we feel sick, we don’t say we’re experiencing physical health. But when not in a great place mentally, the default label is “mental health”, thereby confusing health with illness and reinforcing the long-standing stigma that anything less than tip-top mental shape is illness. Traditionally, this has certainly been the view – for a long time mental state has been viewed on a spectrum that ranges from maximum mental distress or illness, to minimum. Instead, Robinson suggests we look at a spectrum that ranges from Flourishing to Languishing, a concept that rang far truer with me personally and gently acknowledges we all experience mental distress. Mental health is not mental illness. 20% of us live with a diagnosed mental health condition, but 100% of us are liable to experience life events out of our control that may come up from nowhere and significantly impact our life, circumstances and, in turn, mental wellbeing.

The two could be anecdotally broken down as:

Flourishing: Feeling good, functioning well, socially connected, generally have more positive emotions, more goal-centred, resilient; bounce back from tough times. Able to come back. This flows into all aspects of work and personal life – productivity.

Languishing: ‘Hollow’ or ‘empty’ life. Lack of purpose, low mood, negative emotion; not necessarily a diagnosable mental illness but lack of engagement in general life, emotional instability, pessimistic, fragile, low self-esteem.

Robinson asked, with a wry smile, “Who would you rather manage?”

We wouldn’t expect to go through our lives without being physically unwell, so we ought not to expect the same of mental wellness. Traditionally, the attitude has been to move people from a state of mental distress/illness to a lack of. Now, the focus should be on supporting people from a languishing state to flourishing. Robinson spoke openly about his own journey with bipolar, from diagnosis 25-odd years ago to “coming out” five or so years ago, and how throughout that time his mental health had no detrimental impact on his success, productivity or worth as an employee. A successful exec, Shaun is in his fifth stint as CEO now heading up the Mental Health Foundation, and describes his leadership abilities as “shit hot”. He’s damn good at what he does, and work has always been an important part of him flourishing. A crying shame then that so often that opportunity is taken away, as discrimination is, sadly, still so rampant. 1/3 of Kiwis with mental health problems expect employment discrimination, and indeed, discrimination is very much a thing. As recruiters, we hold significant responsibility in changing this. We must educate, we must lead, and we must model best practice. Let’s remember, the recruitment process is tense, vulnerable and anxiety-wrought enough as it is. We can help to make that better.

Tyron Pini of Workwise, an employment agency that supports people with mental illness or addiction into work and also helps employers to support those people to stay in or return to work, posed a great question: Do we actually need to ask about mental health when we do? More often than not this question is posed at interview stage. If not fully intending to employ somebody, how relevant is it for you, really, to know what conditions they have or medications they are on? Better practice overseas is to wait until you are at offer stage, and actually need that information before asking for it. Otherwise, what truly is the relevance? Why are you requesting that information? Why are you holding it on record? How will it be used in future? Who has access to it? Who might it be shared with, even accidentally, and how might that person use or view it?

Some great food for thought, solemn moments of contemplation and, for many, some significant lightbulb moments last night. There are five simple steps we can all focus on:

MHF 5 Ways to Wellbeing at Work

For anyone seeking further insight, The Mental Health Foundation has some fantastic resources available online, and regularly runs educational seminars.

But, most importantly?

Let’s take down the shame factor, and simply talk. The more we normalise something that is, in fact, totally normal, the better we’ll all be.

Natasha Foster

Natasha Foster

Recruitment Consultant at New Zealand firm Rice Consulting, shaking things up in the HR world. Photographer on the side, Te Reo student, rock climber and learner surfer. Most happy off the grid.

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