Jun 1, 2021
By Michael Bettencourt, LCSW
Mental health in the workplace has been a hot topic this year as human resources specialists, managers, and bosses consider how best to support employees dealing with pandemic stress. As you tackle this question in your own workplace, remember that underrepresented employee groups will have unique mental health needs. The LGBTQIA+ community, for one, has faced its own set of challenges throughout the pandemic in addition to struggles with specific workplace stressors pre-Covid-19.
As a licensed clinical social worker, I’ve seen and continue to see the effects of poor mental health at work. And as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I’ve also lived it.
I began my professional career in the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was raging and LGBTQIA+ people faced hate and discrimination in many workplaces. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy passed by President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1993 communicated to all LGBTQIA+ workers–not just enlisted service members–that we had to hide our private lives and true identities, or risk being fired. That message, sent through the new military policy, took a toll on the mental health of the community as a whole.
Luckily, public perception of the LGBTQIA+ community has changed, albeit slowly. Media representation in shows like Will & Grace and The Ellen Show presented our community in a positive light, and high-profile court cases like Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (1996) and United States v. Windsor (2013) brought unjust laws against LGBTQIA+ folks and our struggle for civil rights into the public eye. State and federal laws finally began to chip away at the discrimination we faced.
When I worked in Massachusetts, it was one of the first states to allow gay marriage and pass laws to protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals in the workplace, policies that now extend to reflect members of the larger LGBTQIA+ community. At the time, I felt a weight lifted off of my shoulders. For the first time, I could be honest about my identity at work and not risk being fired. This made a huge difference to both the success of my career and overall well-being.
When I moved to Florida years later, I knew I’d lose those legal protections. This made it crucial for me to work for a company I trusted, with policies centered around inclusion to provide some sense of safety. I am not unique in that sense–in a 2018 Human Rights Campaign survey, 46 percent of respondents said they were not open about their sexual orientation at work. According to The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), this is true both in states with and without protective laws, and is in fact mostly dependent on company culture.
My experience has shown me that clear assurances from your company of their support and protection for the LGBTQIA+ community can vastly affect your LGBTQIA+ employees’ quality of life. This is especially true amid the ongoing pandemic, which has intensified the strain on our community. Statistically, LGBTQIA+ individuals are more likely to:
In fact, according to the Human Rights Campaign, “LGBTQ people are more likely to have experienced a cut in work hours [since the pandemic], are more likely to feel that their personal finances are in worse shape, and are more likely to be taking steps to actively prepare for the virus.”
In short, many of your LGBTQIA+ employees are likely facing unique challenges that require unique support. So how can employers help? What follows are four steps your company can take to ease their stress and increase their well-being at work.
While some employees may be comfortable sharing their LGBTQIA+ identity, others may not. Until very recently, it was still legal in some states to fire workers based on their sexual identity or gender orientation. In fact, 27 states lack laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
So, if an employee prefers not to disclose their identity to peers, respect that boundary–and when they choose to share this information with you, my respectful encouragement is to practice empathetic listening.
A safe space is anywhere your LGBTQIA+ employees can gather to support one another. Safe spaces allow these workers to be themselves without worrying about how others might perceive or judge them. Safe spaces also provide a range of psychological benefits and improve LGBTQIA+ representation within your organization. And they can help employees build a support network on the job if they’ve lost their personal support communities due to social distancing.
Where can you establish a safe space? Some companies choose a comfortable common area or kitchen space. In some schools, special stickers in the classroom indicate to LGBTQIA+ students that that particular classroom and teacher are safe and welcoming to them.
Keep in mind that in this virtual or hybrid work era, a safe space doesn’t have to be physical. It could also be an employee resource group (ERG) that meets online, or even a Slack channel. Just make sure employees can easily get information about how to join.
Some employees may present in ways that don’t fit the traditional mold of your workplace who may be at higher risk of discrimination or harassment at work. Do these employees know that they’re safe at your company regardless of their orientation or identity? Do they know that harassment and discrimination won’t be tolerated? Feeling safe, heard, and respected at work is essential for mental health—and this is especially true for LGBTQIA+ workers.
Post visible signage declaring your workplace a safe space. Establish and communicate clear policies to protect against discrimination. And, of course, create those physical or digital safe spaces where LGBTQIA+ employees can connect.
Your employees want to know you’re looking out for them. They want to know that your company values them as whole people.
If you do learn that employees have experienced harassment at work:
Is the network of mental health care providers available to your workforce as diverse as your employees? If not, your LGBTQIA+ employees may struggle to find care providers they feel comfortable with.
Make sure your mental health benefit includes access to providers who practice culturally responsive care. This approach takes a patient’s cultural and experiential background into account during treatment.
As an employer, you’re in a unique position to help create and shape an inclusive, safe culture. This Pride Month is an opportunity to reflect more deeply on your LGBTQIA+ population’s well-being: What mental health challenges do they face, and how can you support their unique mental health needs? The tips above can serve as a starting point to help you meet your organization’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging goals, and ensure that all employees feel safe, supported, and included at work.
Finally, thank you for taking the time to review this important information. If you have any questions, or I can be of any further assistance, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org directly.
Learn more about the impact of mental health stigma on employee wellbeing in Lyra’s latest report on the severe mental health challenges faced by the health care workforce.
If you want help connecting with a therapist, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.
DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Michael Bettencourt is a Blended Care Therapist at Lyra and has 24 years of clinical experience, including operating a private practice for 18 years, providing clinical supervision and consultation for multiple clinicians across the metro Boston area. In addition, he has worked in telemedicine, hospital settings, and school settings. Michael served as the Clinical Lead for the Resiliency Center in Parkland, FL after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. He specializes in the treatment of PTSD/trauma, working with LGBTQ+ communities, addictions work, and extensive adolescent and family work.
Michael earned his Masters degree in Social Work on the clinical track from the University of Pennsylvania which included clinical consultation training from select staff at the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He completed his MSW internship at the UPENN College Counseling Center providing psychotherapy for undergraduate and graduate students. He is originally from Boston and currently resides in Fort Lauderdale, FL where he enjoys snorkeling, traveling, and cooking for friends.