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Workplace Mental Health for LGBTQ+ Professionals Featuring Insights from Employees at Etsy, Intel, and OpenTable.

June is Pride month. With a growing number of companies publicly stating support for the group, how do organizational practices translate to the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ professionals?

June is Pride Month, and many companies have taken to social media and other platforms to celebrate this community of diverse peoples. The U.S. has made great strides in creating supportive spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. The percentage of Fortune 500 companies with policies protecting LGBTQ+ discrimination grew from 4% in 1996 to 91% in 2019 and gender identity discrimination grew from 3% in 2002 to 83% in 2019. What’s more, leading companies have begun creating employee resource groups (ERGs) for LGBTQ+ employees, explicitly encouraging diverse applicants in recruitment, and supporting LBGTQ+ causes and organizations through donations and matching employee contributions.

Despite a number of supportive companies and industries leading the way for LGBTQ+ inclusion in workplaces, there is significant progress to be made. Only half of U.S. states have formal laws providing the same LGBTQ+ and gender identity protections in workplaces. And while some change is happening at the policy level, the experience of a safe and supportive environment hasn’t changed as quickly. Half of LGBTQ+ employees stay closeted at work, and nearly 43% of gay individuals and 90% of transgender individuals have faced harassment or mistreatment on the job. In fact, job applicants affiliated with LGBTQ+ organizations were 40% less likely to be called back for an interview, and LGBTQ+ people of color continue to face added challenges in discrimination, representation, and economic opportunity.

These experiences have direct impacts not only on the financial and occupational health of LGBTQ+ individuals but their mental health as well. LGBTQ+ individuals are three times more likely to experience a mental health condition than non-LGBTQ+ individuals, and in Mind Share Partners’ 2019 Mental Health at Work report, they were more likely to experience every mental health symptom listed across anxiety, depression, and more, and nearly three-quarters report experiencing mental health challenges because of work itself.

Change is happening. In fact, from our report, LGBTQ+ employees were more open to talking about mental health at work than non-LGBTQ+ respondents. As conversations about mental health in the workplace continue, they must include the voices of those underrepresented. This month, I reached out to a few LGBTQ+ professionals to hear their take on workplace mental health.

In this article, we hear from:

  • Maria Hernandez, Senior Software Engineer at Etsy
  • Miki Demeter, Security Researcher at Intel
  • Dominic Pedruco, Product Designer at OpenTable

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and contributors, and not necessarily to their affiliated employers, organizations, committees, or other group or individual.

wirednerd, Flickr

What unique challenges does the LGBTQ+ community face in regards to mental health and stigma, particularly in the workplace setting?

Maria (Etsy): As a transgender woman, it can be hard to shake the stigma that I’m mentally ill, simply by nature of being who I am. Even with institutions such as WHO publicly stating that it’s not a mental illness, it seems some people refuse to believe that a transgender person is not “crazy.” I can see some parallels with how women in general were considered “hysterical” for so many years. All that being said, although my identity as a transgender woman does not automatically define me as someone with mental health issues, that doesn’t mean I’m not facing my own mental health issues that have little to do with my gender identity.

As a software engineer with a leadership role, I find myself splitting time between writing code, attending meetings, mentoring, giving presentations, and more. This is very taxing work, and after 8 years, I can honestly say that burnout feels likely to occur if I’m not careful. Burnout is a serious mental health issue that has nothing to do with my trans identity—the unique challenge here for me is that I need to address my total mental health, and it’s not always easy to find understanding from others, including some mental health professionals.

It seems too easy for some to essentially pin all my problems on the fact that I’m a trans woman.

In short, yes, my mental health is put to the test every day because I’m trans, but I’ve also got other things taking their toll, regardless of my gender identity or sexual orientation.

Dominic (OpenTable): Not all LGBTQ+ folks have the same experience or the same open safe space in their respective workplace setting. 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.

Miki (Intel): The challenges to managing mental health for LGBTQ+ professionals is compounded by the fact that they are often already stigmatized for their identity and can be viewed differently than cisgender folks as a result. The acceptance or rejection that is displayed by those around us is amplified tenfold in the workplace, which adds additional stress for those trying to work within the confines of a society that, in some places, see us as defective, broken, or mentally ill. I am privileged to live in a small microcosm where people are very accepting. But, there are so many that do not have the luxury of living in acceptance. What’s more, I have seen so many employers that provide mental health resources and services, but because of cost, employees are limited to 12 or less visits a year or even require up to or greater than 50% co-pay. Access to mental health care is huge in the workplace. The high cost of care is wrong and needs to be addressed.

How have you personally experienced mental health in the workplace as an LGBTQ+ professional?

Maria (Etsy): I’ve found that my colleagues at work have been very understanding, in general. My manager has never treated me any differently, and she’s checked in with me to see how I’m doing. She’s made it clear that there are resources available should I need them, and has been more than willing to help connect me to whatever services I’d need. I’ve never felt like I couldn’t bring my whole self to work—although I was nervous about coming out as transgender for obvious reasons. I can say yes, I’ve experienced challenges related to my mental health, and I’ve also found a great deal of support.

Miki (Intel): The stress and isolation of being a transgender person, that while already transitioning but not being out at work, meant my self-esteem and my own sense of self were drastically affected. I am positive that my productivity was affected. If you look at statistics, many LGBTQ+ youth suffer from isolation and disparagement. Regardless of how we feel as adults, we all carry scars from our childhood that affect us to this day. Early in my career, I was not able to afford the kind of mental health services that I needed. This is still an issue in today’s paradigm of health insurance.

If you cannot afford to pay someone upfront for services, you will not be able to access those services.

Some companies provide call-in helplines, but this does not take the place of actual therapy from a therapist skilled at working with the special needs of those living and surviving in the LGBTQ+ community. Most insurance plans for mental health coverage limits many people from seeking therapy. The inability to seek therapy and to have it covered can be cost prohibitive for many people, especially for a historically disadvantaged population like the LGBTQ+ community.

Dominic (OpenTable): My work environments have actually been very LGBTQ+ friendly, which has allowed me to express myself openly and focus on my work rather than my sense of safety and identity. I realize how fortunate I am to have worked in welcoming work environments, as others in the LGBTQ+ community may not be as lucky. Some measures that previous employers took to ensure inclusivity and open work cultures were: fostering LGBTQ+ Slack channels, participating in Pride events, and conducting required workplace education regarding discrimination.

These are all important, but perhaps most importantly, are the day-to-day interactions. I remember having a conversation with a heterosexual friend/coworker about the word “partner,” and she told me that she makes it a point to use the word “partner” to describe her husband to be more inclusive and give a sense of allyship to LGBTQ+ colleagues, whether she knows they are LGBTQ+ or not. It was a subtle way of reducing assumptions about a person’s orientation. Personally, I appreciated the effort, as I think it helped build that inclusive environment and a safe mental space.

Creating that safe space allowed me to come into work as my whole self instead of hiding my identity, which can take a mental toll. I’m able to voice my opinions, be more creative, and ultimately do a better job.

How do you take care of your mental health at work?

Dominic (OpenTable): I’ve always been a bit of a workaholic and, frankly, was always at the cusp of burning out at my previous jobs. I’m learning a lot about structure and how to balance a work-life balance at my current job. OpenTable does a phenomenal job of giving autonomy to their employees as there’s trust that we are experts in our fields. Two things that help me have a positive mental space in the workplace are having open communication with my manager and working with peers that are welcoming and encouraging.

Maria (Etsy): The number one thing I can say I’ve done is simply to take time off of work. My company has a generous sick leave policy which gives me the freedom to take the day off for my mental health when it’s required (and it has been). In the past, I’ve worked at places where calling in sick even with the flu was essentially an infraction that might bring some punishment, but that’s never been the case at my current job. As an example, I’ve had to take the day off because I literally couldn’t stop crying, and that’s not something I talk about a lot. Knowing that I could take the day off to take care of myself was such a relief! The result is that my overall level of stress decreases.

It’s hard enough to “feel bad” without the added worry that my “feeling bad” today could lead to being unemployed tomorrow because of it.

I’m fortunate and grateful that my experience is as such. I’m aware that many LGBTQ+ people are not as lucky as I am.

Miki (Intel): Health programs, mindfulness classes, and yoga. I am very lucky to work for an employer that provides a myriad of programs (all free) to help to reduce stress and increase awareness of how you are feeling. It has given me a newfound way of telling myself I need to slow down and say no to some meetings and activities.

Sometimes, I think everyone gets so caught up in the idea they must finish all tasks at hand as quickly as possible. I found life goes on whether you complete them or not and the tasks will still be there no worse for the wear and tear tomorrow.

The awareness of how my body and mind are reacting to things around me has been amazing and helped me enjoy my work. I am also not above taking a self-care day to just get away from the workplace. I never feel guilty when I do this, and no one else should either.

What can employers do to better support LGBTQ+ professionals specifically around their mental health at work?

Maria (Etsy): First and foremost, we need to remove the stigma around mental health. We need to be able to talk about it. Everyone should be able to seek support without being ostracized. I wish that every company could have a sick leave policy that made it easy to take time off as needed, and provide insurance that offers mental health care as well.

Mental health is not something we should consider an afterthought—it’s something we need to take care of daily. Each individual mind is so unique, so each person may need to apply a different strategy for mental health care.

No one should be penalized for needing time off work for a mental health day, or to see a therapist (e.g., many therapists have schedules so full that it’s nearly impossible to book an “off-hours” appointment—my first therapist only had openings for Tuesday at 11AM.) Lastly, I think it should be a policy at every organization to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ employees—and to really effectively implement and enforce them. Everyone should feel comfortable at work.

Miki (Intel): More mental health assistance and access for everyone. This is not limited to just LGBTQ+ professionals but to everyone in the workplace. The stress of not knowing where to seek help or what to do when your child comes out can be difficult for a parent, LGBTQ+ or not, and it will certainly affect them in the workplace. The same goes for exploring your own identity and/or preferences, which can be difficult and will most definitely affect performance at work. In the past, I have relied on my significant other as my therapist, which is not only unfair to ask them to assume your emotional debt as their own but can create animosity to the point the relationship becomes toxic for both partners. More access that is not cost prohibitive is needed to help not only LGBTQ+ professionals but also to help alleviate their significant other from having to bear their partners’ emotional debt along with their own.

Dominic (OpenTable): Every company should have open conversations about diversity and inclusion. What it comes down to is the need for education and creating a safe workplace for all employees to feel included so that they can perform their best. What also helps is supporting LGBTQ+ movements (like Pride) to make employees aware that their company supports them in their efforts.

Overall, I believe that mental health issues are still prominent within the LGBTQ+ because of the stigma that’s lasted for many years. I do believe that we’ve come a long way in terms of lifting the stigma, but there’s still plenty of work that can still be done. Employers can play a large part in making their LGBTQ+ employees feel more welcomed and included by supporting them through company-wide education and participation in local and national movements.

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