Mental Health Interview Questions for Nursing Roles – What Can I Ask?

February 15, 2016
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Nurses have to care for people in their most vulnerable states. Patients can be fearful, distressed, angry and even violent. This kind of daily work — alongside the pressures of budget cuts and staff shortages — creates a volatile mix for creating mental ill-health.

What’s more is that stress costs the NHS £300-400million per year and is thought to account for 30% of ill-health absences. As someone who hires for nursing positions you will be aware of the demands of the job and will want to find someone well equipped to handle these situations.

However, do you know what questions you are legally and ethically allowed to ask?

The Equality Act 2010 states it is unlawful to inquire into someone’s mental health before a job has been offered. The aim of this act is to prevent discriminatory interview practices and provide equal opportunities for all applications.

The Law

Under the act it is unlawful to ask questions about the following protected characteristics:

1. Age.
2. Disability.
3. Gender reassignment.
4. Marriage and civil partnership.
5. Pregnancy and maternity.
6. Race.
7. Religion and belief.
8. Sex.
9. Sexual orientation.

Mental ill-health comes under the protected characteristic of a disability. During the recruitment process you should determine how qualified, experienced and suited a candidate is without asking anything that could unfairly disadvantage them and cause yourself to become prejudiced.


If you need more general information on hiring and the Equality Act 2010, the Hub offers a highly comprehensive break down of what is expected of recruiters under the Equality and Diversity Act.

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Ethical and Lawful Recruiting for Nursing Roles

The following tips should help you think through the qualities that are required for nursing roles as well as helping you to combat any behaviours or questions that would lead to prejudice or discrimination.

Firstly, to ensure your hiring procedure is fair you should assess each candidate in the same way and always use the same questions.

To determine which questions are fair you should consider what skills, experience and qualifications are required for the job and devise questions that will allow candidates to demonstrate how they have these skills.


To gauge how a candidate might handle a particularly difficult scenario you should ask open questions which allow them to expand on their past experiences. This way, the candidate can demonstrate how they are mentally and emotionally equipped to handle the difficulties of a nursing position.

It is useful to use scenarios as the premise for your questions.

For example, nurses who work in A&E have to deal with extremely stressful environments. So to get a feel for how a candidate might react in an everyday but stressful situation you could ask them how they would respond to, or if they have had experience dealing with, violent or inebriated patients.

Open questions like “tell me about a time when you have felt stressed and how you have dealt with this” allow a candidate to demonstrate how they would handle the job.

Crucially, it does not delve into their mental health history by asking if they find themselves getting stressed at work, rather it allows candidates to show how they cope with stressful scenarios. This means that even if a candidate does have an anxiety disorder they can prove how this does not impact their ability to do the job successfully.


Another fair way to ask questions regarding health and support is to ask if there is any way in which they might require support from you. This question is a great way for candidates to discuss any issues or needs that they might have. You should not pressure candidates for an answer, and if you do ask this question you should ask this again post-job offer so that if they do have concerns they can be implemented.

Remember: even if a candidate does have a mental health issue, they might still be fully capable of the position. These open questions allow them to demonstrate that and they prevent you from becoming prejudiced in any way.

Questions You Can’t Ask

The following examples will help you identify what are known as discriminatory questions. This way you’ll be able to analyse your own interview questions to ensure they are fair, legal, and ethical.

You cannot ask a candidate:

  • About the amount of absences due to mental ill-health that they took in their previous role.
  • If they have a history of mental illness.
  • If they have any illnesses that would affect their ability to undertake the role.
  • If they currently take any medication.
  • To fill in a health survey pre-interview.

These types of questions would force candidates to divulge information that could lead to you acting in a discriminatory manner.


Employer Support

As an employer you have a responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of any nurses in your employment who might have mental ill-health and require occupational support.

This could include:

  • Making reasonable adjustments, like flexible shift times.
  • Offering a phased return to work after a period of illness.
  • Occupational health services.
  • Mentoring.
  • Allowing employees to take time off work for treatment, assessment, or rehabilitation.
  • Temporarily re-allocating tasks that are proving too difficult.

Often nurses are so busy putting 100% in to their job and looking after others that they can forget to look after themselves. Late shifts can make healthy and regular eating difficult. And regular sleep or exercise can be extremely hard to do after a long shift and the prospect of coming back to work in nine hours’ time.

If you are in a managerial position you might consider a long-term strategy to combat workplace stress. Creating a supportive workplace atmosphere helps combat stress and mental illness. Implementing a debrief session after stressful shifts or traumatic cases and creating a support network within hospitals and communities for nurses are just two ways to support positive mental well-being.

For such an emotionally and mentally demanding and at times traumatic job, it is essential that you get the balance right between finding the right people for the job and asking questions that are unlawful and prejudicial.

Never presume anything about the skills and abilities of a candidate based upon the presumption of a protected characteristic. Remember that everyone is different and that especially with mental ill-health a candidate might require only a few simple measures to help them do an outstanding job.

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