The LGBTQ+ experience at work can be immensely different—and more stressful—than that of non-LGBTQ+ employees. Half of LGBTQ+ employees choose not to disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity at work, and 13 percent say they worry that being “out” will get them fired. Job applicants who are even just affiliated with LGBTQ+ organizations are 40 percent less likely to be called back for an interview.
Given these statistics, it’s no surprise that LGBTQ+ employees often don’t feel a sense of psychological safety and belonging at work—the necessary elements of bringing your best and whole self to work. And that feeling of constantly hiding who you are and being an outsider, or “the only” person representing your demographic, can be mentally and emotionally heavy in all aspects of life. LGBTQ+ individuals are three times more likely to experience a mental health condition than their cishet peers, and many queer and trans workers report feeling distracted (25 percent), exhausted (17 percent), and depressed (31 percent) at work.
Let’s learn why it’s important to approach LGBTQ+ workers' mental health with more care and take a look at various tips and resources for LGBTQ+ mental health support.
Read more: LGBTQ-Friendly Companies: 11 Key Contributors to Inclusive Cultures
Why it’s important to approach LGBTQ+ employees’ mental health differently
There are many systemic factors in the workplace that isolate and alienate many LGBTQ+ employees.
Psychologist Brittany Bate says cisgender and heteronormative assumptions are made on a daily basis regarding employees’ families, sexual orientations, romantic orientations, and gender identities, taking a toll on LGBTQ+ workers’ mental health. For example, it can be exhausting, anxiety-provoking, and painful to continuously correct a colleague or boss’ incorrect use of pronouns or assumptions about the gender of your partner.
Even though nearly 60 percent of non-LGBTQ+ workers think it’s unprofessional to talk about sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, that fact that cishet workers are regularly able to talk about spouses, families, and life outside of work in casual work conversations, based on their own self-reporting, creates a double standard for LGBTQ+ workers and leads to feelings of exclusion on the job.
Employees belonging to the LGBTQ+ community have to continually assess whether it’s safe to share certain aspects of their identity at work. “A person in a heterosexual relationship rarely, if ever, pauses and assesses if they can share the gender of their partner at the watercooler or at happy hour for fear of potentially being passed over for a promotion, or worse, terminated,” says Bate. “The consideration that goes into ‘coming out’ is different for every person, but usually involves some level of conscious assessment and varying amounts of anxiety.”
Dominic, an employee at OpenTable, says, “From my own experience, before beginning my career, I had some insecurities regarding the perception of my identity affecting potential career opportunities. When interviewing after college, I remember thinking, ‘Will my identity affect my ability to secure a job? How much should I share with coworkers?’ Being cognisant about how our community is perceived can lead to anxiety and isolation in the workplace—a challenge that non-LGBTQ+ individuals might not have to worry about.”
And when employees do choose to share more parts of their identity, they often feel like “the only” or a token in their workplace. DeVan Hankerson Madrigal, a queer woman who works as research manager at the Center for Democracy and Technology, says, “The lone LGBTQIA+ person in an organization is essentially outnumbered by whatever the dominant work culture happens to be. That experience can be one of isolation, intense unease, and emotional stress in the workplace.”
For these reasons, mental health care and support for LGBTQ+ employees has to be approached more comprehensively, inclusively, and intersectionally.
Read more: Tokenism: What It Is & How It Affects Our Workplaces
Tips for taking care of mental health as a LGBTQ+ employee
The onus of improving the workplace experience for employees with marginalized identities belongs to company leadership, and all employees and allies—especially those who belong to the dominant culture—should continually be examining and challenging their biases in order to create a more inclusive space.
Bate says, “the responsibility lies on coworkers, and especially leadership, to practice and self-correct—unlearn gendered language and recognize assumptions being made about gender based on outward appearance, voice, or name. It should not be a person’s responsibility to continue to educate others on the correct use of pronouns, or on the gender or pronouns of their partner.”
While companies continue to strive to improve the workplace for all employees, these tips can help you, if you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community, protect your peace:
1. During your job search
Vet employers’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training and support for LGBTQ+ employees. Bate says that since LGBTQ+ people have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and trauma than their cishet peers, weighing what kinds of mental health benefits are offered is imperative in order to decide if a job is a good fit. What type of health insurance is offered? Is there an employee assistance program? Is it accessible and are there diverse providers? Does the employee health insurance, life insurance, or disability insurance include partners or dependents for LGBTQ+ employees?
2. After you’re hired
Once hired, communication becomes a form of taking care of mental health. Bate says that when an assumption is made about a person’s gender or the gender of their partner, using assertive communication to correct others can be helpful. She says, “For example, stating, ‘my pronouns are X’ as often as necessary is one way to lessen misgendering in the workplace—an unfortunate and painful occurrence for transgender, non-binary, and gender diverse people.”
3. When the workplace is stressful or anxiety-inducing
During periods of anxiety, Bate says that the body triggers a set of symptoms called the stress response. “During this time, breathing may become shallow and rapid, your heart rate may increase or feel like it’s beating out of your chest, and muscles may tense,” she says. “[Try] to create, instead, a relaxation response. This can be achieved through deep breathing exercises, which allow our breath to slow and symptoms of anxiety to decrease.”
4. When you need to step away
If you feel triggered by certain language or are starting to feel emotionally exhausted at work, take days off. Prioritize yourself and use your mental health days—you won’t be able to work at your full level of potential if you’re on the edge of burnout. Never feel guilty or ashamed for using paid time off to rest and recharge, taking care of your mental health is more than important—it can be lifesaving.
Read more: 4 Grounding Techniques to Keep You Calm
4 ways employers can help improve the workplace for LGBTQ+ employees
Company leaders can build in benefits, policies, and cultural practices that support LGBTQ+ employees, sending a clear message that they value the safety, happiness, and wellbeing of all of their employees.
1. Offering inclusive benefits
Often, benefit packages need to be structured differently for LGBTQ+ employees in order for them to receive the same care. For example, queer and trans employees may have families that don’t fit the cisgender heteronormative structure or may require medically necessary treatments such as hormone replacement therapy, surgical procedures, or mental health counseling.
Here are some benefit areas where employers can offer more inclusive policies:
Fertility support: to guide LGBTQ+ workers through the process of starting a family, employers should consider offering financial support and assistance to cover adoption, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogacy, egg freezing, and more.
Parental leave: paid time off to care for a new child should extend to any new parent, regardless of whether they carried the child or not, and whether they are married or not.
Health care: employers can extend health benefits to include an employee’s domestic partner and ensure coverage includes transition-related benefits and access to providers who are knowledgeable and competent about trans patients.
Paid time off: unlimited paid time off policies allow workers to leave for any reason, including to care for mental health, eliminating the need for biased, excusable reasons to miss work.
Read more: 48 Companies That Offer Awesome Fertility Benefits
2. Providing ongoing employee education
Companies should engage in regular training on topics of unconscious bias and gender inclusion, and explicitly talk about LGBTQ+ identity. This allows for holistic education without relying on queer and trans employees to feel pressured to do the emotional labor of teaching their coworkers about their identities. Try hosting a webinar, a lunch and learn, or inviting a speaker to come into the office.
Here are some example topics to explore:
Navigating benefits programs as a queer or transgender employee
How to be an ally at work
How to use inclusive, gender-neutral language
Mental health and queerness
3. Creating employee resource groups (ERGs)
ERGs are employer-recognized, employee-led groups that allow people with shared, and often marginalized, identities to build a community to discuss professional goals, share resources, exchange ideas and advice, and show solidarity. Having such a safe space can empower staff to share ideas and anecdotes in order to identify how to raise awareness and overcome cultural, racial, ableist, and gendered challenges in the workplace.
4. Making philanthropy donations
Another meaningful way companies can show solidarity and a commitment to improving the workplace is by making a company donation to an LGBTQ+ philanthropy or supporting an LGBTQ+ business. You can make one large donation to an organization or offer to match individual employee contributions up to a specified amount.
Here are some example charities and organizations:
Consider contributing to a smaller or locally based LGBTQ+ philanthropy as well. You can also ask your staff for suggestions of organizations to support.
About our source
Brittany Bate Ph.D. (she/her) is the owner and founder of Be BOLD Psychology and Consulting, a group mental health practice offering primarily telehealth, and some walk-and-talk, services to clients in North Carolina and up to 30 other states. Be BOLD Psychology and Consulting specializes in working with the queer+, transgender, nonbinary, and gender-diverse communities and enjoys supporting clients on items relating to identity, life transitions, grief and loss, trauma, substance use, anxiety, depression, and relationship challenges. Learn more here.