Job applicants with a history of mental illness suffer in the labor market


by Crosby Hipes

Approximately one quarter of Americans suffer from a mental illness at any given time, with half of the country experiencing mental illness over the course of their lifetimes. People with mental illness can face devaluation and discrimination simply for having an illness with a negative label, which is known as the stigma of mental illness. Although some might assume that a person’s education, skills, and training are the primary factors determining their employment success, our study suggests otherwise.

In a recently published study, we found that even for job applicants with competitive resumes, having a mental illness label lowered employment chances relative to job applicants with a past physical injury.

Labor market discrimination against people with mental illness

Persons with mental illness labels have higher unemployment and underemployment than the general population. They report being passed over for jobs, demoted, or fired as a result of a mental illness. Employers explicitly express negative attitudes regarding workers with mental illness and may be hesitant to hire them. All of these examples are suggestive of discrimination toward people with mental illness but until now, this from of discrimination has not been tested in today’s labor market.

A comparison of people with mental illness to people who have suffered a physical injury provided insight into employers’ perceptions of the permanence of mental illness labels, despite the often transient nature of many mental health symptoms.

Another factor affecting people with mental illness in the labor market is the perception of potential awkwardness in interacting with them. This awkwardness could arise, for example, from anxiety caused by believing they are dangerous or an uncertainty of interacting with them.  Some employers may not contact applicants who indicate a history of mental illness, especially if they have to interact with the person on a regular basis at work.

We made two predictions: (1) applicants with a history of mental illness would receive fewer callbacks than applicants with a history of physical injury, and (2) employers’ level of discrimination against candidates with mental illness would be stronger if they were applying to a job performed in person rather than from home (telecommuting).

Our study

With Jeffrey Lucas (University of Maryland), Jo C. Phelan (Columbia University), and Richard C. White (University of Maryland), I designed a field experiment to test the effect of a mental illness label on the chances of being called back by an employer.

We sent applications to software jobs—a job with some on-site and some telecommuting positions—posted on Craigslist that differed on the explanation the applicant used for why he had been absent from work for six months and whether the job could be performed mostly away from an office.

The fictitious applicant was a man with an ambiguous ethnic background who was well-qualified for both software engineering and software design positions. His resume listed highly-valued computer skills. Two computer specialists assisted in crafting the resume, and made the candidate a graduate of a prestigious computer science program with honors, and with past experience as a software engineer and developer at competitive employers.

We had, presumably, created a candidate who was ideal for a wide range of jobs unless employers viewed a mental illness as indicative of lesser employability.

The experimental conditions varied whether the candidate had a history of mental illness OR physical injury and whether the job was done on site OR could be performed mostly from home (telecommuting). We analyzed callbacks from employers via phone calls or emails, either asking for more information (seen as a sign of interest) or asking to set up an interview.

Hiring discrimination toward people with mental illness

We accounted for the location in which the job was posted, whether it was a telecommuting job or not, and how many days had passed in between the posting and our application. Candidates with a history of mental illness received fewer callbacks than conditions in which the candidate had a physical injury.  Overall, about 15% of our fictitious candidates with a history of mental illness received callbacks compared to about 22% of candidates with a history of physical injury. We found no effect of job location (on-site or telecommuting) on callback rates.

To disclose or not disclose?

By evoking negative stereotypes and diminished expectations, mental illness labels may be detrimental to labeled individuals’ life chances.  Our research shows that the stigma of mental illness operates in the labor market.

So the question arises: should a job applicant ever disclose a mental illness? Unfortunately, it is not always up to the applicant. A mental illness might be discovered in any number of ways by an employer, such as (in our study) via needing to explain a long work absence on a resume, or by disclosing a condition in an electronic application form.

And although certain protections are afforded under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it can be difficult if not impossible to punish an employer for discrimination that, although it may be systematic, might not be intentional.

Crosby Hipes is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at West Virginia Wesleyan College. This article summarizes findings from “The Stigma of Mental Illness in the Labor Market” in Social Science Research.

Image: geralt (CC0).


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