Not so simple to hire those with mental illness

It is not entirely right for Miss Lee Kay Yan to label employers' attitudes towards those with mental illnesses as "unfair" ("Help those with mental illness to return to work"; June 15).

In the case of physical handicaps or gender/ethnic discrimination, the Government can institute regulations that help people at minimal cost; for instance, in the form of barrier-free access to buildings and anti-discrimination laws. Such practices even allow companies to discover and make better use of talent.

However, mental illness can be costly to employers, especially if conditions relapse.

Mental illness is also costlier to companies because it is unpredictable. It may be costly to a company's reputation to have front-line staff who suffer relapses.

The patients have done nothing wrong, but companies also have their bottom lines to consider; they are not charities.

Planning becomes more difficult and monitoring costs would also rise for staff in positions of greater responsibility. On top of all that, there are also concerns about the impact on staff morale and safety.

Organisations like the Singapore Armed Forces recognise this and consequently avoid delegating too much responsibility to the mentally ill, sometimes even exempting them from national service.

Miss Lee suggests that companies work closely with the Institute of Mental Health to provide training and employment to former patients. This suggestion is already a hint that employing the mentally ill will be costly.

The patients have done nothing wrong, but companies also have their bottom lines to consider; they are not charities.

To draw the analogy of barrier-free access to buildings, if every building were mandated to give access to the physically handicapped, there would be fewer reasons to discriminate against them. Employers' hiring decisions would not depend on whether they happen to rent an office with barrier-free access.

Likewise, to help the mentally ill, one would need to train every employer and every Singaporean to be more aware of how to work with people with such conditions - similar to teaching everyone basic first aid. This is obviously much harder than building ramps and lifts in every building.

Whether this is a workable solution remains to be seen.

Sum Siew Kee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2015, with the headline 'Not so simple to hire those with mental illness'. Print Edition | Subscribe