Breaking the Stigma on Hiring the Mentally Ill

Less than 20% of the 250,000 mental health challenged in Israel are employed. Many employers are wary of hiring them because of the stigma, but ‘if they are placed in the appropriate jobs for them - their contribution is equal to that of any other employee’

Eyal Toueg

Sahar Weizer, 35, has worked for 13 years in a sporting goods store in Tel Aviv. It is quite an achievement for someone who is managing schizophrenia.

“For years I worked in unstable jobs and for very short periods, such as delivering newspapers and [at a gas station],” explains Weizer. “With the help of professionals, I understood I must stop living inside a shell, and if I want to contribute and make a living, I must open up to the world, to tell about my condition and feelings, to come in close contact with people, to talk and listen to them. So I found work in a sporting goods store, and I felt I was starting to become rehabilitated. I don’t hide anything,” he said.

Weizer also leads cooking seminars held at a life skills center in Holon for those dealing with mental illness. “In these seminars I express myself, and my self confidence is growing,” he says. “The seminars are intended to sharpen the imagination and the creative sense of the participants, and they have joint experiences and learn to work in cooperation. The goal is that through the experience of cooking they will also get encouragement to go out to work, since this is also harder for those dealing with mental illness.”

How does someone coping with mental illness succeed in the job market?

“By working only in the area they are good at, and by accepting professional advice or accompaniment,” said Weizer.

Shula, who prefers not to give her full name, is also dealing with schizophrenia, and seems to agree with Weizer. For years she worked in management positions in marketing and earned high salaries, but six years ago she had a conflict with two other workers, which worsened her mental condition.

She was under terrible pressure and lost her motivation. “I decided to leave the company,” says Shula. “I don’t know if I would have overcome the crisis if not for my attentive and supportive family environment. My husband took care of me all the time. He made sure I ate and showered. I recommend to everyone who falls into such a situation, certainly if they are dealing with mental illness, to share with family members, partners or close friends. You must not hide the crisis.”

Today Shula works in a company that supplies telephone call center services, and deals with customer satisfaction surveys, a low-stress area without much potential for high pressure incidents. The salary reflects that, she says: “It does not come to a fifth of what I earned in the past.”

Shula and Weizer are mentally ill people who have managed to succeed in the job market, but most people with their condition are not so fortunate. There are 250,000 Israelis beset with mental illness, and only 10% to 20% of them are employed, says the NGO Enosh – Israeli Association for Mental Health. Most of those with jobs work in relatively low-pressure jobs. This is usually because of the stigma attached to them.

Recently the Histadrut labor federation helped pass a regulation, together with employers organizations, requiring companies with at least 100 employees to fill at least 3% of jobs with disabled people. This also includes those with mental health disabilities, and is intended to help them find jobs too.

Nonetheless, Weizer supports the various reservations Economy Minister Naftali Bennett expressed about the new regulation – and the government, which is in no hurry to adopt the new rules for itself. While the decision was based on good intentions, he says, it may very well do damage and not work in practice. “Employers don’t like when you force decisions on them. If you want to increase the employment of people with disabilities, it must be done through persuasion,” he says.

Shraga Lubinsky, an importer of cutting tools, does not need any persuasion. For years he has regularly employed two workers with mental health disabilities, out of the 25 employees in his business. Before putting the new hires with disabilities to work, he usually gathers all the other employees to explain to them that the new workers do not contribute any less to the company than anyone else.

The employees with mental health disabilities work only six hours a day and do their jobs more slowly sometimes, but when they are given special tasks, or are asked to stay late to finish something, for example taking inventory, they do it happily, said Lubinsky. “There main fear is of change – that I won’t move them suddenly to another position. True, acquaintances have warned me that the contact of mental illness challenged people with knives and the rest of the cutting tools is really dangerous, but it seems to me this is a stereotype, and this is more dangerous. There is no fear at all of violence on their part, no more than with other employees,” said Lubinsky.

Do they stay with you for a long time?

“The workers now are employed for their second year, but there were those who worked here for over 10 years, which says there is no hard rule in this matter,” said Lubinsky.

There other employers who are not afraid to hire employees with mental health challenges. Teleall Contact Center employs 1,800 people, 80 of whom have disabilities, 10 of them mental health problems. They earn the minimum wage – but the regular one, not the lower minimum wage that companies are allowed to pay the disabled in certain circumstances, based on the severity of their condition.

The mentally ill employees are usually given jobs that carry less risk of clashes with customers, and that are less complex. “The fact that we are employing these people helps to break the stereotypes,” said Meital Natziri, hiring coordinator at Teleall. If they are placed in the proper jobs, their contribution is the same as that of any other worker - even if it sometimes takes them longer, she said. Their training takes longer and their productivity is lower during the first few months, but on average they stay with the company for two to three years, she said. Teleall now wants to increase their number to 100.