On the heels of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, June commemorating LGBTQ+ Pride Month is a reminder that workplace mental health policies must be cognizant of how different groups are affected by mental health issues. The workplace can be challenging for anyone struggling with their mental health, but research shows it can be an especially unwelcoming place for the LGBTQ+ community. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness notes, LGBTQ+ people must deal not only with the stigma associated with mental health disorders but also the stigma surrounding their sexuality or gender identity. LGBTQ+ individuals experience discrimination and harassment in all spaces in society, and the workplace is no exception.
These experiences directly and negatively impact LGBTQ+ individuals’ mental health. LGBTQ+ adults are more than twice as likely to experience a mental health condition and are at higher risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior. The community has higher rates of unemployment, with rates spiking even higher for trans and nonbinary people. The LGBTQ+ people that are employed enjoy fewer protections than their non-LGBTQ+ colleagues. There is no federal law that prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual or gender identity, and an employee can be fired for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in more than half of U.S. states. LGBTQ+ employees report facing discrimination in the hiring and promoting process, in addition to harassment in the workplace at a higher rate than their straight and cisgender counterparts. A U.K. report, one of the first of its kind, found that 7 in 10 LGBTQ+ people have been sexually harassed at work and two-thirds did not report it to their employer. The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy found 15% to 43% of gay and transgender workers faced some sort of workplace discrimination in the U.S. It is important to note these experiences are not uniform throughout the community, and LBGTQ+ people of color are more than twice as likely to describe discrimination in the workplace as their white peers, LGBTQ+ women experience sexual harassment at higher rates than men and 90% of transgender workers have experienced harassment or mistreatment at work.
That LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to struggle with their mental health and experience harassment and discrimination in the workplace highlights the importance of workplace mental health policies that are designed with LGBTQ+ employees in mind . Creating an inclusive work environment that supports, respects, and protects all employees is an essential component of an LGBTQ+ friendly company culture and results in improved retention rates, job performance and productivity. According to the Out & Equal Workplace Equality Fact Sheet, LGBTQ+ people who are not comfortable openly discussing self-identity at work are 73 times more likely to say they will leave their companies in the next three years. Fifty-three percent of LGBTQ+ workers say their work environment was negatively affected by discrimination and around 10% report leaving a job due to an unwelcoming environment.
Companies have taken steps in recent years to make their policies more inclusive. Fortune 500 companies now overwhelmingly include sexual orientation and gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies. Healthcare coverage for same-sex spouses, protocols for gender transition and paid parental leave for same-sex couples and adoptive parents are steps some, but not all, companies take to support their LGBTQ+ employees’ health the same way they support the health of other workers. However, despite improvements in companies’ mental health policies, simply having a policy in place is not enough to create a welcoming and supportive company culture. To put what they have on paper into practice, companies can:
- Establish diversity and inclusion offices that include LGBTQ+ diversity;
- Have a hiring process that recruits, not deters, LGBTQ+ candidates;
- Provide training on workplace mental health that addresses LGBTQ+ mental health that can take place at orientation for new hires, when someone is promoted and at the management level; and
- Ensure peer support networks, such as mental health ambassadors programs, that are equipped to support LGBTQ+ colleagues.
Achieving a company-wide culture that values all employees’ mental health requires buy-in from everyone in the company. As companies increasingly recognize the importance of supporting workplace mental health, it is critical these improvements are inclusive and aware of how mental health challenges do not affect everyone the same way. This Pride Month, employers should review their policies and determine what further steps they can take to promote a culture that accepts and supports their LGBTQ+ employees’ mental health needs.