Around 1.5 million people turned out to support London Pride and UK Black Pride this year. It is encouraging to see an increasing number of organisations from PwC to Tesco and Barclays join the parade and fly the rainbow flag in support of the LGBT+ community.
As a society, we have made great progress on both mental health and LGBT+ issues over the past decade or so. But we cannot be blind to the fact that LGBT+ people still continue to face barriers to full participation in the workplace and public life. LGBT+ people are less satisfied with their life than the general UK population, scoring 6.5 out of 10 for satisfaction, compared with the average of 7.7 in the government’s National LGBT+ Survey.
Research published by LinkedIn revealed that a quarter of LGBT+ workers would not reveal their sexuality in the workplace and there is a 16% pay gap between LGBT+ employees and their straight counterparts. The workplace is sadly still one space where many people feel they cannot be their whole self.
I know from personal experience that it is by no means easy to make the decision to first discuss your sexuality at work. Although I had come out to many of my friends, at first I was reticent to talk about it 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.
Sadly I know this is not the experience of everyone and many LGBT+ employees experiencing mental health issues will carry the burden of feeling they must hide two areas of their life. So what happens when these two experiences come together? What can we do to ensure we create healthier, more supportive working environments that enable everyone to thrive?
At MHFA England, we want mentally healthy workplaces for all. We know people perform better when they are happier at work, it benefits everyone. It is crucial we create welcoming, safe, and supportive environments so people can bring their whole selves to work. How can we take practical steps to improve the working environment?
The importance of diversity and inclusion
We know that LGBT+ people are more likely to experience a mental health issue. A Stonewall report revealed that over half of LGBT+ people say they have experienced depression in the last year. And 1 in 8 LGBT+ young people (aged 18-24) say they have attempted to take their own life in the past 12 months. Although we are doing better on mental health, and many companies are ‘waking up’ to the issue, the stigma in the workplace still remains.
Companies can show their support for LGBT+ employees by supporting the creation of an LGBT+ group for colleagues to get together and support one another. If employers encourage allies to also join the group it helps demonstrate the open and accepting culture in a workplace. Stonewall has more information about effective networks on their website.
Hosting local events and groups gets the conversation going. At MHFA England we run regular ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, inviting speakers with different lived experiences to share their stories. In the lead up to Black Pride, we invited Ferhan Khan to speak to our team in a lunch and 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. We also recently hosted Chris Murray, an MHFA England Instructor, who held a session to discuss his lived experience of depression, anxiety and OCD as a member of the LGBT+ community.
Further research by LinkedIn found that 35% of LGBT+ respondents have heard or experienced comments that were homophobic at work. This is why having sessions like this are so important to educate and empower employees on sexuality and gender, helping to foster an inclusive and accepting workplace culture.
A truly inclusive workplace happens over time but small steps make a world of difference. For example, we encourage staff to include their preferred pronouns, e.g. she/her, or they/their, on their email signatures.
A whole company approach
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, and 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.
There are some simple steps organisations can take to go beyond paying lip service to Pride and mental health campaigns. Practical action to strengthen support for LGBT+ employees experiencing mental ill health is within every employer’s reach. Good training for line managers in diversity and inclusion as well as mental health awareness and skills training can tackle the double stigma.
Thinking about these three areas together is so important. And that is why I am particularly pleased we have included new statistics on the prevalence of mental ill health among LGBT+ people across all our courses. This ensures MHFA England training is an even stronger tool for improving employee’s ability to understand and empathise with one another.
Transformative change starts with good leadership. Encouraging those at the top to lead the way in creating and championing an inclusive culture is vital. We want businesses to prioritise mental health and wellbeing in their management and workplace culture. When openness and attitude comes from senior leadership, it sets an example to the whole company that it is ok to talk about mental health, sexuality or gender issues.
This year we have seen Pride marches across the country where hundreds of thousands of LGBT+ people, and their allies, used Pride Month as a springboard for companies to announce a renewed commitment to eradicating stigma and the ‘double stigma’. Now is the time for all organisations to step up and deliver healthier more inclusive workplaces for all. The results will speak for themselves.
Simon Blake is the Chief Executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England which offers expert workplace guidance and training to support people’s mental health – giving people the tools to better support themselves and each other. Please visit https://mhfaengland.org/ to find out more. Simon is also deputy chair of Stonewall.