Mental health – breaking down stigma within the LGBT+ community

Suki Sandhu, Founder & CEO, INvolve (formerly OUTstanding) writes of the necessity of bringing your whole self to work and of the reasons poor mental health is prevalent in the LGBT+ community 

Image of Suki Sandhu

We all have mental health like we all have physical health. And sadly various studies have shown that members of the LGBT+ community are at a higher risk of experiencing poor mental health. Around 40% of LGBT+ people experience a mental health issue, compared to 25% of the wider population.

As a member of the LGBT+ community myself, and the founder of OUTstanding, a company working with over 80 corporate firms on their LGBT+ inclusion activities, statistics like this worry me but don’t surprise me.
There are a whole host of reasons why members of the LGBT+ community may suffer from poor mental health – and many of these start from a young age. You have to understand that for the majority of people, myself included, coming to terms with your own sexuality or gender identity isn’t something that happens overnight. Once you’ve dealt with the internal conflicts, worries or uncertainties and made peace with them yourself, you then face the challenge of telling your friends and family. And of course, this experience varies wildly from person to person. Whilst I’ve never doubted my parents’ love for me, I know that accepting that I was gay wasn’t easy for them at first. And I’m one of the lucky ones – many LGBT+ people are excluded from family and friendship groups, be that definitely or indefinitely, and this brings with it a number of challenges. And all this is before you even start talking about the workplace.

More than half of LGBT+ employees hide their sexuality in the workplace. If you’re not being open about this, you’re not being your true, authentic self. And like any aspects of our identity – if we’re not being honest and true to ourselves, we’re never going to be able to do our best work. From working with so many corporate firms across a whole range of industries and sectors, we’ve seen that those with more inclusive cultures at attitudes are those where LGBT+ staff are able to flourish. In fact, a study we undertook with the Cebr showed that the most diverse workplaces are 45% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry mean than the least diverse workplaces. It makes sense; if you’re putting a lot of your energy into hiding the real you, you aren’t as productive or as happy. Why wouldn’t a business want their employees to be as productive as possible? 
So what do we mean when we talk about an inclusive culture – what does that look like? Essentially, we mean cultures where everyone is accepted for who they are. Companies have a responsibility to promote this from the top down, and individuals can do so from the bottom up. If you’re working for a company that has openly LGBT+ senior staff, you’ll see them as role models, and will feel reassured that being open about your sexuality won’t hold you back. If your company has benefits which treat same-sex marriages the same as heterosexual ones, you’ll feel on equal footing with your straight peers. And if your company has healthcare benefits that cover processes related to gender reassignment surgery, you’ll know that they’re a forward-thinking organisation that is supportive of transgender colleagues.

But it’s not just inclusive policies that can have a positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of staff, it’s also the attitudes of those around them. 56% of LGBT+ workers have reported being bullied repeatedly at work, which is inevitably going to take its toll on their mental health. If organisations have positive and supportive cultures – with ally networks, vocal role models and a zero-tolerance approach to harassment or bullying in any form, then staff at all levels will feel comfortable being open and honest with their colleagues and clients.

In this day and age, everyone should be able to live their truest and most authentic life. The workplace should be a safe space where we can be ourselves, succeed as ourselves and not be held back by anyone or anything. There is wrongly a lot of stigma around mental health and it’s often brushed under the carpet, but I think it’s important that we bring it out into the open and talk about it. Unless we talk about it, we’ll never see change. And if we don’t see change, we’ll never see progress. The BITC mental health at work survey is a fantastic tool for providing insight into mental health in the workplace, and I cannot wait to see the results. If you haven’t completed it already, please do so. You’ll be playing a part in changing attitudes and approaches towards mental health in the workplaces of the future, and for that, you should be proud.