In many areas we have made a lot of progress on LGBT+ rights. Yet the workplace is still one space where sadly many people feel they cannot be their whole self. This is particularly difficult for LGBT+ employees experiencing mental health issues, many of whom will carry the burden of feeling they must ‘hide’ two areas of their life.
Half a century on from the Stonewall uprising, and ahead of London Pride and UK Black Pride this weekend, we need to ask: how can we create more inclusive and supportive workplaces for LGBT+ employees?
Although I had come out to many of my friends, I was initially reticent to discuss my sexuality with colleagues when I started my first graduate job. After some reassurance from friends I came out to colleagues, who were unsurprisingly very supportive given I was working in the sexual health sector. Since then I haven’t looked back and I have been lucky to have mostly amazing bosses.
It has not always felt easy though, worrying about being asked whether I have a girlfriend, the name of my ‘partner’, or slipping up by saying the name of a pub I was at. That said I am a white gay man who has spent most of his career working in the social sector in organisations fighting for equality. I have had enormous privilege which has made my path easier.
At Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, we want mentally healthy workplaces for all. We know people perform better when they are happier at work; it benefits everyone. Therefore we must create welcoming, safe, and supportive environments so people can bring their whole selves to work.
So how can we take practical steps to improve the working environment?
Creating cultural change
Only when employers pay attention to diversity and inclusion in the workplace are they really addressing mental health. If there is homophobia, racism, gender inequality or other diversity issues then employers are not taking a whole person approach to mental health. Businesses need to operate on the premise that until people feel comfortable being themselves, their mental health is not properly supported.
Transformative change starts with good leadership. Encouraging those at the top to lead the way in creating and championing an inclusive culture is vital. When openness comes from senior leadership, it sets an example to the whole company that it is ok to talk about mental health, sexuality or gender.
Thinking about these three areas together is so important. And that’s why I’m pleased MFHA has now included new statistics on the prevalence of mental ill health among LGBT+ people across all our courses. This ensures a whole-person approach.
Sending clear, positive and open messages about inclusion is important. It should be outlined in recruitment campaigns, welcome letters and induction. The message should also be clear in the posters and content displayed in the office or on the intranet, and in performance reviews and training conversations. A simple way we do this at MHFA England is encouraging all staff to include a note with their preferred pronouns, e.g. she/her, or they/their, on their email signatures.
Embedding a mentally healthy approach
LGBT+ people are statistically more likely to experience mental ill health. This happens due to the discrimination, isolation and homophobia that sadly still exists in 2019.
Mental health support for those from the LGBT+ community can come in many forms. It is vital to take a whole-organisation approach to create the right culture. It is also important that colleagues on the ground, who work with one another day in, day out, feel comfortable supporting a colleague who is experiencing mental ill health. Having line managers trained in mental health and awareness skills is one way to achieve this.
At MHFA England we undertake a range of initiatives to foster this culture. For example, in the lead up to Black Pride we invited activist and broadcaster Ferhan Khan to speak in a Lunch & Learn about their experience as a person of colour in the LGBT+ community, and how their feelings of loneliness and isolation impacted their mental health.
This weekend we are also marching once again in the London Pride parade and taking part in Black Pride, with mental health first aiders on hand to offer support. As hundreds of thousands of LGBT+ people, and their allies, join these demonstrations of support and call for more change, there is no better time to step up and deliver healthier more inclusive workplaces for all.
Simon Blake is chief executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England