Noah Nordheimer, Founder & CEO of APN, a mind-body health company.
Roughly 7.2% of the U.S. adult population self-identified as LGBTQIA+ in 2022. Although Americans overwhelmingly support marriage equality and the U.S. federally legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, the government was slower to clarify federal workplace protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s no surprise that members of the LGBTQIA+ community experience higher rates of mental illness: according to 2015 research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, LGB adults were about twice as likely to have had a mental illness in the past year than heterosexual adults, and trans individuals are nearly four times as likely as cisgender individuals to have at least one DSM-5 diagnosis.
Members of the LGBTQIA+ community face discrimination in all areas, particularly in the workplace—an environment that has been historically slow to implement changes and prioritize inclusivity across industries. With nearly half of LGBT individuals experiencing workplace discrimination at some point in their lives, it’s more important than ever for businesses to be aware of how they can support every employee’s mental health journey to ensure an inclusive, effective and safe workplace.
Discrimination is a traumatic experience; whether the act is indirect, subtle or unintentional (like microaggressions) or more explicit, its impact can be particularly damaging for members of a marginalized group such as the LGBTQIA+ community. When handled improperly, the consequences of social stigma and bias can compound the burden faced by people who already bear a disproportionate likelihood of discrimination. Like any other workplace hazard, companies have a duty to protect their employees and create policies that promote safety; workplace discrimination could compromise overall productivity and organizational success and cause long-term consequences for employee mental health.
In a 2022 survey from the Center for American Progress, 50% of LGBTQI+ adults “reported experiencing some form of workplace discrimination or harassment in the past year because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or intersex status, including being fired; being denied a promotion; having their work hours cut; or experiencing verbal, physical or sexual harassment.” This statistic is unacceptable in the modern world, and workplace leaders should take drastic measures to prioritize effective strategies for change.
While fostering a culture of acceptance is a company-wide effort, most of the responsibility to ensure employees feel safe and accepted at work falls on senior management. Leadership should implement a culture that rejects microaggressions and stigmas in the workplace, and I recommend starting with quarterly diversity, equity and inclusion training led by an LGBTQIA+ mental health expert. Frequent company-wide training is essential, but it’s also important to recognize that the skill set required to lead in a way that rejects bias is more complex and requires more involved training. Training that caters specifically to senior leadership can help ensure that DEI initiatives take priority without exception.
Aside from actively participating in training, leading by example is one of the best ways management can support diversity. Even small steps, such as leaders putting their preferred pronouns in their email signatures and sharing pronouns during introductions as a model for safety and inclusivity, can significantly impact day-to-day culture. Still, while proactive measures reduce the potential for workplace discrimination, conflict can happen even in the most supportive environments, and companies need to be prepared.
In my opinion, there is no chance of preventing recurring incidents if there is no trusted and clearly communicated system that individuals can use to report workplace discrimination. Leadership can provide similar internal support by establishing a detailed anonymous online form or directing employees to external processes such as government or privately owned systems. California, for example, has public resources for submitting a discrimination complaint.
Sweeping workplace microaggressions under the rug can negatively impact mental health, no matter how minor an incident may seem. Management should implement a system that includes at least two non-biased sources and optional anonymity to ensure every employee feels safe filing a report. Having these systems in place and handling each incident of discrimination or bias immediately and seriously will help ensure that employees feel supported and heard, which is key to fostering a culture that promotes mental health.
Training and systems that help prevent discrimination in the workplace are the foundation for supporting LGBTQIA+ employees. It’s also crucial to implement initiatives that promote and improve overall mental health rather than just taking preventative measures against negative impacts on well-being. Management can start by taking inventory of existing support systems.
Gym and wellness allowances are good for maintaining mental health but fall short of directly supporting struggling employees. However, a stipend for therapy and other behavioral health treatments can lessen financial barriers to mental health services not covered by insurance. And if your company’s health insurance plan doesn’t cover therapy or other behavioral health services, it may be time to consider a different provider or plan options.
Employers across all industries need to do a much better job of supporting LGBTQIA+ employees and creating an inclusive environment in the workplace. As business leaders, we should focus on creating a continuously evolving culture where everyone strives to celebrate diversity rather than just tolerate it. Companies can work with their employees to develop policies and strategies that recognize and embrace diversity, equity and inclusion and, in the process, create an environment that protects LGBTQIA+ employee safety.
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