Amy Swain, Research Community member, Money and Mental Health
Depression and memory loss: A hidden barrier to employment
24 August 2021
To perform well in a job interview you usually need to be confident, knowledgeable and coherent, but what if you’re suffering from memory loss? For those with clinical depression, short-term memory loss is a common yet infrequently-discussed symptom that can present a barrier to employment for those with mental health problems.
Memory loss and my first job interview
In January 2021, I graduated from university and was looking for work. A month earlier, I had been diagnosed with moderate to severe clinical depression. For me, an unexpected side effect of depression (and antidepressants) was short-term memory loss. At this time, I couldn’t recall recent memories, and I would often completely lose my train of thought mid-sentence. By the time I had secured my first job interview, panic set in. How could I perform well in an interview if I couldn’t recall basic information easily? I decided to try and predict every possible question I could be asked and attempt to memorise the answers. I was determined not to let memory loss impact my performance.
On the day, it turned out I hadn’t anticipated the questions very well; most of the questions were unexpected, and I had to speak ‘off the cuff’. This was something I had been capable of in the past but could no longer do. For example, the interviewer asked me how I would approach writing a social media post. Despite the fact that I had done this plenty of times before in a professional capacity, I simply couldn’t remember any specifics about it. I ended up fumbling much of the interview. I didn’t get the job.
Of course, there is no guarantee that I would have secured the job if I wasn’t experiencing memory loss, but I felt memory loss was a significant barrier to my performance. This got me thinking, how many other people struggle to articulate themselves in job interviews because of memory loss or other common symptoms of mental health problems?
The mental health income gap
Memory loss during job interviews is just one of many issues that contribute to the mental health income gap. Another common issue for people with mental health problems is having significant ‘gaps’ in their CV due to time taken off work to recover from mental illness. This can lead to a cyclical issue in which income is reduced due to time taken off, but employment is harder to secure due to CV ‘gaps’, mental health issues then worsen due to unemployment stress, more time is taken off, and so on.
For those leaving university, graduate schemes often offer stable employment with very good progression prospects, but they also follow a rigid timeline. For the majority of graduate schemes, candidates must apply in September and go through several assessments in March before beginning their graduate scheme between June and September, if they pass the assessments. The whole process takes an entire year. For many with mental health issues, planning is a luxury because mental stability is far from guaranteed. I graduated six months late due to time taken off as a result of mental health issues. As such, graduate schemes beginning in the Autumn after the academic year were closed off to me. In the long term, these rigid timelines can block people from the financial security and career progression offered by graduate schemes.
We can do better
Under the 2010 Equality Act, employers must provide “reasonable adjustments” for candidates with disabilities, mental health, and physical health conditions to ensure that they are not at a “substantial” disadvantage during recruitment.
However, asking for reasonable adjustments also means signalling to the employer that you have a disability or mental health condition and risking discrimination. A 2016 global study on workplace attitudes to major depressive disorder found that 62.5% of participants had anticipated and/or experienced discrimination at work. Many even stopped themselves applying to jobs because they anticipated discrimination.
It’s clear that “reasonable adjustments” are not enough to support people with mental health problems. Employers need to make a concerted action to support those with mental health conditions to find employment and close the mental health income gap. For example, employers could choose to detail their workplace well-being measures, such as access to flexible working and counselling, within a job advertisement. This simple addition could be the difference between a person with mental health problems choosing to apply or choosing to ask for the “reasonable adjustments” they need. When it comes to reasonable adjustments, employers also need to think about how they can adapt their application process for people with mental health problems, from rethinking strict graduate scheme timelines to improving the interview process. Only this way can we make progress on closing the mental health income gap.