Q: I worked in a tension-filled job for several years before the stress to got me. At first, I had trouble getting myself to go to work; eventually I needed to be hospitalized, and my leave of absence turned into a year off. After rest and therapy, I am able to return to work. My former employer said I could use them as a reference, so I applied to jobs and was successful in getting interviews. Once in the interviews, everyone asked me why I took that much time off. I told them about my hospitalization. I thought it was best to be honest and not hide my past. Was I wrong!
The minute I was truthful, more questions shot out about how do I know I am ready to work again, and what makes me think it won't happen again. Again, I was honest and said the obvious — "There are no guarantees in life, but I feel as good as I did before succumbing to stress. I learned ways to handle stress that I hadn't known before."
My answer was realistic and reasonable. I thought the interviewers would value a person's honesty, but I was never called in for second interviews. Apparently, companies don't value an honest approach. What should I have said?
A: It sounds like your "leave of absence" turned into a resignation, since you now have to look for a job at a new company. An approved leave of absence would have allowed you to return to your job after recovering, though you might have required an attorney's representation to secure that opportunity.
Your former company giving you a recommendation doesn't automatically turn you into an asset instead of a liability. If you do not need to request an "accommodation" under the Americans With Disability Act in order to get a new job, your health condition should remain private. Under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, "the Privacy Rule protects all 'individually identifiable health information' held or transmitted by a covered entity or its business associate, in any form or media, whether electronic, paper or oral. Individually identifiable health information is "information, including demographic data that relates to: the individual's past, present or future physical or mental health or condition..."
But as you've already experienced, once you open the door to the mental health issues that forced you to leave work, few explanations will stop their concerns in hiring you, even if interviewers don't pursue further questioning.
Employees have taken sabbaticals from work for many reasons—- for example, a return to school for training, a financial opportunity for extended travel, time off to care for a child or ailing family member or even personal time off to start one's own business on the side, and all of these explanations are acceptable when interviewers ask about long-term employment gaps. But no one should ever reveal information on health problems, as long as the person is capable of handling the job for which he or she is applying. Once that type of information is exposed, it's natural for an interviewer to wonder about the possibility of a recurrence, which is a red flag.
Your explanation sounds reasonable to you, but it reveals a weakness to an employer. Being honest is an admirable character trait in life, but HIPPA laws were created to protect employees from the stereotyping that will hurt one's chances in re-entering the workforce.
Choose an explanation that doesn't show a potential weakness in your character, and pick one most appropriate for your age group. It's acceptable for young workers without family responsibilities to take a break in employment due to travel adventures, thinking it's better to travel before settling into a solid career or building a family. Also, caring full-time for elderly parents can happen randomly to individuals. Yes, it is sad job candidates cannot be open and honest about everything, but you must do what is best for getting a job.
Now that you have exposed your health record to certain employers, try to apply to companies outside of their circle of connections. If you choose to reveal your past health issues, you will need to find a small, privately owned company that promotes family values and understands human frailties, which may not be easy.
Email career and life coach [email protected] with your workplace questions and experiences. For more information, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/At-Work-Lindsey-Novak.