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Interviewing Tips/interview question response when it concerns health

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Question
Hello Erin,

Early this year I was involved in a traumatic event which slipped me into a depression where I was just not functional for 6 months, and this was the reason I was unemployed and unable to do anything productive (including job-seeking) during that period.

I've fortunately returned to a highly functioning state again, and started job seeking.  I am anticipating and planning for how to answer any interview questions targeting my period of unemployment and why for many months I still do not have a job nor have engaged in any purposeful activities.  (As a recent grad I feel they'd be interested about the period of unemployment).

What do you think of the response:
"It was due to a health condition where I was not able to work or carry out any significant activities.  This health condition however is near resolved now."
I really hope they won't push any further than that and ask what kind of 'health condition' it was - I'm afraid that if I tell them that might reduce my chances of hire due to its nature.  
What should I say if they do ask further about it??  I know I could politely decline, but I really want to get a job and so would prefer to avoid that sort of response as well.  

Also, do you think they would ever ask for / only consider my 'health condition' legit if backed up by a note from a medical professional?  Like many Americans having mental illness, I did not seek professional help (though I was fortunate enough to turn around).  

Thanks super much in advance!!

Answer
Hi again, M,

I had one other thought that could be helpful, so I wanted to add it to the answer.  If you scroll down toward the end, past the original answer, under the heading One More Thought , you'll find my additional idea.




Hi M,

Lisa here.  You've asked a tough question.  I can't give you a pat answer that will work every time, but I hope some of these tips help.

I used to work with people who were starting new careers after being seriously injured at work, so I have dealt with a lot of clients who have faced the issue of how to handle a gap in employment due to health related issues.  

Just to clarify, I live in Canada, so I can't advise you on the laws that govern what employers can and can't ask about regarding health related issues because I believe they are different here than they are in the U.S., but I can give you some tips for how to handle interviews.

I'm concerned that your suggested response, "It was due to a health condition where I was not able to work or carry out any significant activities. This health condition however is near resolved now." would raise red flags in the minds of many employers.

I believe that response would make many employers worry that your health condition might not be fully resolved and it might prevent you from doing your job well.

Here are some alternative suggestions:

1.  A gap of 6 months is starting to get to a point where employers might ask about it, but it's not an enormous gap, especially for a new graduate in a tough labor market.  Employers might not even ask about the gap.  If they don't, do not bring up the subject.

2. You can reduce the likelihood of employers asking about your gap by minimizing the appearance of gap on your resume.  It's a bit tricky to advise on resumes when I don't have all of your details, but based on your question, I'm assuming you graduated around June 2012, and since then, you have been focused on taking care of your health.  

If that's correct, I'd suggest two things for your resume.  

First, when you put dates on your resume, do not include the months, only put the years.  If you say you graduated in June 2012, the employer will know there is a gap.  If you say you graduated in 2012, you are still being completely honest on your resume, but the gap isn't so obvious.

Second, put the dates on the right side of the page when you structure your resume.  Put the name of your degree or diploma and the name of your school on the left side, and the year you graduated on the right side (Be consistent. Do the same with your work experience).  When people read quickly, they see what's on the left side of a page more than the right side, so this small change will make your degree or diploma stand out more than the dates.


3. If you are asked about the gap, you might try saying something along the lines of, "After I graduated, I took some time to focus on an issue in my personal life that needed my attention.  That issue is fully resolved now, and I am excited about bringing my full focus and attention to a career as a (whatever job you are seeking).  I'm looking forward to working in this field because (say something that truly excites you about the job)."

Breaking Down This Suggested Response

Briefly answer the question honestly but without providing more details than you are comfortable with.

Assure the employer that the issue is fully resolved.

Finish by telling the interviewer why you are excited about the new job.  Sometimes, especially with less experienced interviewers, you can completely redirect the interview and get them to move on to a new topic by finishing your answer with a positive comment that moves away from the difficult subject and redirects the interviewer to something more positive - why you want to work for his or her company.

4. Practice your answer to this question. This question will be tough for you to answer, so you need to practice saying your answer out loud in a mock interview type situation.  Find someone in your life who is supportive and knows what you've been going through, and ask them to help you practice answering this question so you feel prepared with a good answer.

5. If the school you graduated from has an employment services office, contact them.  Many schools offer employment services free or at minimal cost to alumni, especially recent graduates.  If you can access their services, make an appointment to talk to a career counselor there so you can get some more specific suggestions for handling questions about your gap.  

For example, you'll want to decide before you go to a job interview exactly how much detail you are willing to provide if the employer asks follow up questions about the traumatic event. A good, sensitive career counselor will be able to gather more details about the event and what you've been doing in the past six months and help you formulate really good responses depending on how much detail the interviewer pushes for and how much you are comfortable saying.

A good career counselor can also do a mock interview with you so you can practice saying the answer in a supportive setting and help to minimize the appearance of gaps on your resume.

I hope that helps.  All the best with your job search!

One More Thought

Are you able to volunteer in any capacity in the type of work you are seeking?  If you can, it could be extremely beneficial for you.  

If you did some volunteer work:

You would be able to put it on your resume, so you'd have something with a current date on it, which would help minimize the gap.
It would give you a great talking point if you are asked what you've been doing recently.  You can talk about your work-related volunteer work instead of talking about your health concerns.
It would give you an opportunity to meet some new people in your industry who might be able to connect you with unadvertised job opportunities.
It might give you the opportunity to expand your work-related skills so you have even more to offer an employer.
It might even be helpful for your sense of well being.

Some industries are easier (or more have obvious options) than others to find volunteer work.  I don't know what type of work you are seeking.  If you are looking for a job in a helping profession, you should have no problem finding a place where you could volunteer. If you are looking for any other type of work, you might be surprised at the number of community or not-for-profit organizations that could use your skills.  For example, if you were a graphic designer, you could offer your skills to help a community organization develop marketing materials for their programs.  If you were a book keeper, you could find a volunteer organization that needs some help getting their books in order.  Not-for-profits often run on a shoestring budget, and their staff are required to do all kinds of projects that are outside of their expertise.  Your skills could be very welcome by the right organization, and you could benefit immensely as well.

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Lisa McGrimmon

Expertise

I can answer questions about resume and cover letter writing, how to find job leads, and all facets of the interview process including how to prepare for an interview, common techniques used by employers, how to handle specific interview questions, and what to do after an interview. I facilitated a job finding club for five years and have helped approximately 2000 clients find work. I have written almost 1000 resumes and have conducted approximately 2000 mock interviews for clients.

Experience

As a job club facilitator, I ran weekly workshops which covered resume and cover letter writing, maintaining your confidence through the job search process, how find good job leads, and job interview skills. I worked one on one with each participant in my workshops. By the end of the week, each client received an individualized resume written by me, with the client's input, and each client participated in a mock interview that I observed and critiqued.

Education/Credentials
Career and Work Counselor Program, Sir Sandford Fleming College, Bachelor of Education Degree, Queen's University

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