Will pre-employment health checks be a thing of the past?
Posted Tuesday 19 January 2010
According to psychologist Cliff Arnall, yesterday was the most depressing day of the year. Well may be so, but there was at least one reason to be cheerful: the government tabled an amendment to its Equality Bill which will ban pre-employment health questionnaires.
PEQs are routinely sent out with job application forms, and ask applicants to disclose information about current and previous health conditions, medications they are taking, and so on. Ostensibly employers need this information simply to ensure that the candidate is fit for the role in question, and a quick Google search will tell you that PEQs are a “vital”, “useful” or even “fundamental” part of the recruitment process.
Frankly, I’m not convinced. PEQs give employers an opportunity to ‘weed out’ the applicants that they don’t like the look of, because they have a mental health problem (or indeed any other health condition). And because it’s done at the application stage, this type of discrimination is virtually undetectable – you may strongly suspect that the reason you didn’t get invited to interview is because of your mental health history, but how on earth will you prove it?
Not all discrimination is quite so deliberate of course. Some employers might assume a person with mental health problems is unsuitable not out of malice, but out of ignorance, or misunderstanding. But the consequence for the applicant is the same – soul destroying, confidence-shattering rejection.
PEQs also deter many applicants from applying for jobs in the first place, because they predict that stigma towards mental health will mean their application form is automatically stuck on the ‘no’ pile. No wonder, given fewer than four in ten employers say they would employ anyone with a mental health problem.
There is simply no reason to include a health questionnaire at this stage of the recruitment process. Applicants should be judged on their ability to do the job, not on their medical diagnosis, and the inclusion of a PEQ detracts from this. If an applicant’s health condition means he or she will need extra in-work support to do the job, then so be it – but let’s ask those questions after the interview, not before. After all, employers have a statutory duty to provide reasonable adjustments for employees with mental health problems, to help them fulfill the role, but PEQs enable many to quietly shirk this duty.
The USA and several European countries already have legislation preventing employers from asking about health until after a conditional job offer has been made.
Thankfully, after many meetings and intense pressure, letters, and briefings from Mind and other health charities, the government has decided to address this loophole. The amendment tabled yesterday (69A* if you’re interested) prevents employers from asking questions about health prior to interview (except in very limited circumstances), and gives the Equality and Human Rights Commission powers of enforcement, to ensure employers comply.
We can’t crack open the champagne just yet; the Bill isn’t an Act and there are some who believe it never will be, due to lack of parliamentary time. But if it does go through, it will be a real victory for untold numbers of people with mental health problems who are trying to return to work.
Louise Kirsh, Parliamentary Officer
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