For the Mentally Ill, the Workplace Can Be a Stepping Stone to Improvement

A new survey shows that only one in three employers will hire mentally disabled workers. But those workers say the opportunity is invaluable to their recovery.

Haim Bior
Haim Bior
Haim Bior
Haim Bior

At age 5, after suffering abuse at home, Tomer Yosef was diagnosed with a personality disorder. He subsequently sank into depression, unable to leave the house or function normally. He grew up in foster homes and boarding schools and didn't receive treatment for his condition. As a result, it deteriorated.

Despite all this, Yosef, now 41, managed to work for ten years at Tnuva, the Israeli dairy company, and another four at the Schindler Nechushtan elevator company. There his condition worsened and he was moved frequently between departments and went on a number of unplanned leaves.

In 2004, with the encouragement of friends, he started a rehabilitation program and was hospitalized for two years. Simultaneously, he contacted Enosh, a non-profit organization that helps the mentally disabled integrate into society and find work. The organization found him accommodations in Kfar Saba and placed him in a labor pool, where he found work in a ceramics studio, earning NIS 500-600 a month.

A few months ago, Yosef went a step further. “I looked for a permanent job in the mental health area, and worked as a counsellor for people undergoing treatment," he says, though he left after a while when he realized the exposure to other mentally ill people had a "bad impact" on him. Now he works at Elite’s Bar Cafe in Ramat Hasharon, a job that Enosh helped him find.

“Only the owner and the shift manager there know I have a disability and customers don’t notice," he says. “I’m treated like any other employee. I’m corrected when it’s required, but also get praised at times. I work with two or three other employees every shift, and I’m very connected to them. In addition, I make NIS 5,000 a month, more than I did previously."

This kind of integration requires an understanding and accommodating employer, which, a new survey by Enosh suggests, is not always easy to find.

The results, which include data from 500 employers, show very poor awareness of the diversity of their employees, and little willingness to employ people with a mental disability. Only 37 percent of respondents said they would employ such a person at their workplace or home and only 41 percent thought that mentally disabled people can integrate into society and live a normal life. Additionally, five percent said that they'd be bothered if a mentally ill person served them in a restaurant or cafe.

“The survey indicates that employers are reluctant to employ the mentally disabled out of concern that they will miss work too often or not be committed enough to their jobs," says Hila Hadas, director of Enosh. “They also worry that these employees may be seriously affected if they're fired, and that they themselves may be subject to harsh public criticism."

Wonderful things in the right places

Nava, 54, had a breakdown at age 22 when her partner left her 2 weeks before their wedding. “I felt like I’d lost everything and I became mentally ill," she recalls. “This may be hereditary, since my mother also suffered from deep depression. My father was my only support for many years. He encouraged me to seek employment."

She worked for three years as a typist at the Tel Aviv District Court but suffered another breakdown when her father was diagnosed with cancer. She contacted Enosh and was employed there as a typist, not as part of a rehabilitation program, earning minimum wages. Several months ago her position was cut and she soon found work at a call center for a private company. Like Yosef, she believes that people with a mental disability can integrate into a workplace with non-disabled people, although she is more reserved about this. “Mentally disabled people can fill any job on the market if they are in remission and remain stable for shorter or longer periods," she says.

Not everyone wants to integrate

Oded Shtuckelman was hospitalized 26 years ago at the Shalvata psychiatric hospital in Hod Hasharon. Ten months later he found work with Enosh and has worked there for years with no desire to branch out into the wider marketplace. For NIS 500-600 a month he supervises a group that prepares cardboard wrappings for mosaic artwork such as napkin holders and trays. He also manufactures wooden containers for teabags.

“I realize the pay is low, but it’s supplemented by a disability pension, which covers rent for an apartment in Kfar Saba," he explains. “The monotonous job suits me, since I daydream a lot. Anyone else would probably be bored to death, but I like it."

Hadas says that unlike employees with physical disabilities who may require physical assistance at work, those with mental disabilities require very few accommodations.

“The only thing they need is the willingness to employ them and the recognition of their abilities," she says. “The reluctance of employers to hire them is based on years of faulty education and on stigmas which have no basis in reality."

She says that the employers she interviewed see no difference in the productivity of mentally disabled employees but points out that one concession required is longer sick leaves. "These are not always needed, but people sinking into a depression slow down," she says. "They need a longer leave to recover."

Avoid perpetuating their situation

There are employers who don’t shy away from the challenge. For example, the Israel Electric Corporation recently widened their pool of prospective employees with special needs, including mentally disabled persons. The company started a course this month in Be'er Sheva to train people with a range of disabilities, including mental ones, to work as customer service representatives.

“The objective is to provide employment opportunities for capable people coming from a population that would usually find it difficult to get a job and integrate into a workplace," says IEC’s CEO Eli Glickman.

Ovad Levy, owner of the telemarketing firm Calls R Us, employs 13 people. Of these, nine have mental disabilities and were recruited only recently.

“This is an area with a very high turnover," he says. "The pay is low and the contact with people who are often not cooperative and rude makes many employees leave after a few months. People don’t view this as a career." Given his challenges in hiring, he decided to recruit mentally disabled employees after a training course in which they participated. Out of 14 who started the course, five dropped out and the rest now work for him.

Levy recommends other employers do the same and says there is no need to be concerned. He also says that it's not just the "drudgery jobs" that employees with mental illness can do but also those with thinking and improvisation. "Otherwise, these people will remain stuck and not advance, either socially or financially," he says.

Yosef also recommends that people like him try to integrate into regular workplaces. “I tell my friends to leave the sheltered environment and find work among non-disabled people," he says. "You will rehabilitate faster and earn better wages."

Tomer Yosef, who has struggled with mental illness, at work in a coffee shop in Ramat Hasharon.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Oded Shtuckelman works with Enosh, a non-profit organization that helps the mentally disabled integrate into society and find work.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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