• Alex Davies
  • 26 July 2012

The world’s maddest job interview

As part of Channel 4’s ‘Mad World’ season, last night an extremely interesting programme was aired, in which eight volunteers put themselves through a gruelling job interview (think The Apprentice, but with the added pressure of psychoanalysis) in order to demonstrate that people suffering from mental health issues are just as able to hold down or apply for a job as those without.

After what was probably the world’s most terrifying, bizarre – and short – job interview, the candidates were then challenged with various other tasks to demonstrate their creativity, ability to take risks, their initiative, and how they worked under pressure.

The results were surprising. Those who performed well on tasks, and consistently impressed the ‘bosses’, were later revealed to be those suffering from mental health issues.

A candidate who impressed in the creativity task was later revealed to have suffered from bulimia for 32 years.

A candidate who took care not to shred important information, later told the stunned employers he had OCD, which in the past had got to such a debilitating state that he was hospitalised for four months.

Another, who showed consistent diligence and practicality, was revealed to have suffered clinical depression, and was on the verge of suicide before seeking help.

At the end of the interview, the employers were asked to pick their top three candidates, and all three had mental health issues. None of the ‘normal’ people were chosen. The one who had impressed them the most was later revealed to have suffered from OCD since she was five years old, to the extent that she had spent seven months unable to leave her house.

It was interesting to hear the employers’ perspectives change as the process continued. At the start, all three were emphatic in their view of candidates with mental health issues – it was something they would steer clear of if given the choice.

“From a small business perspective, I just can’t take that responsibility on myself,” said Austin Gayer, a small business owner, upon being told that one of the volunteers had been sectioned and sedated in a mental health institution. Claude Littner was even more pragmatic and honest: “I wouldn’t employ them.”

Gayer said he would rather not know about a prospective employee’s mental health issues because he wouldn’t employ them if he knew.

Indeed, as the programme revealed, one in four people think those with a mental health disorder are unreliable, and 40% view them as a significant risk.

At the end of the process, all three employers were in agreement that their perceptions of mental health had changed, and that people’s personalities and competence speak for themselves over and above whatever condition they may be suffering from. However, the issue of stigma is still there, with the bosses expressing shock and disbelief at some of the candidates’ personal histories, and even when Claude Littner summed up, you can’t help but wonder whether his attitude had really changed. He said:

“From where I was just a few days ago to where I am now, having seen these people, understood what they’ve gone through, seen them come out the other end, this has given me a new insight and a deeper understanding, and also a realisation that somebody who has mental health issues can overcome them and can therefore become a valuable member of an employment situation.”

He talks about people overcoming their issues, and being able to cope once on the ‘other side’, but makes no reference (neither indeed did the programme) to those employees suffering now, and struggling to hold down their job and perform well. No mention was made of how people currently suffering can seek help, or how employers can or should communicate with employees who they feel might need it.

“Work is fundamental to mental health,” claimed Professor Alessandra Lemma, one of the psychoanalysts, and added “If you think employment is stressful, try unemployment”. This is backed up by a recent study that has found that mental ill health can led to long-term unemployment, and is endorsed by Dr Gareth Smith, who said that mostly, when his patients got a job, they started to get better. But this didn’t appear to be a theme of the programme.

Instead, it was more of a ‘spot the nutter’, and the fact that all of the candidates had also appeared on our TV screens in the previous week on shows such as Come dine with me, Countdown, Million pound drop, and others, added an additional, interesting perspective. As viewers, we could judge them on their behaviour outside of a working environment, and observe them when they weren’t necessarily trying to impress an employer. Some of the more extroverted volunteers made quite a distinctive impression, and the programme made the point that we DO judge others on their behaviour, even if we don’t know them or have only seen one aspect of their personality. It makes it very difficult to remain objective when deciding if someone is suitable for a job.

A great programme, and one that employers should watch, but I think perhaps it’s skirted around the real burning issue – ensuring those who are currently suffering from mental health issues feel they can speak up, and not be penalised or judged for doing so.

Today, Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and Care Services Minister, Paul Burstow, have called upon employers to take three simple steps to improve the mental health of their staff, and address the 70 million working days lost as a result of mental health issues every year. They are promoting a ‘three-step’ approach towards looking after the mental health of the workforce, all of which focus on the issue of communication. Only when people begin to understand the issues, and know they are nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed by, will the stigma of mental health be erased.