LGBTQ people can be afraid to be their whole selves at work – here’s how to help

A man is wearing a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbow. He appears stressed as he has his hands in his face.

PinkNews spoke to Mental Health First Aid England’s CEO, Simon Blake OBE, to find out how the “My Whole Self” campaign encourages LGBTQ+ employees to be their authentic selves at work. 

When it comes to work, mental health impacts employees from all walks of life – even more so for the LGBTQ+ community. From battling burnout to experiencing imposter syndrome, the sobering reality is that many LGBTQ+ people struggle and are more likely to confront mental health issues than their cis-het colleagues. A study by McKinsey shows that 30 per cent of LGBTQ employees believe that their sexual identity will harm their career progression.

Simon Blake OBE, CEO of the social enterprise Mental Health First Aid – England (MHFA), believes that discrimination in the workplace can have lasting effects on the mental health of LGBTQ employees.

“I think the reality is that for many LGBTQ people, it does damage their careers,” he says. “They feel and experience either direct discrimination or have reasons to believe either through the way that people joke, misgender, banter or talk without realising in derogatory ways around LGBTQ people.”

Simon Blake is wearing a plaid shirt and is smiling at the camera.
Simon Blake, OBE, is the CEO of the social enterprise Mental Health First Aid – England. (MHFA-England)

“People protect themselves by not talking about their sexual or gender identity in the context of work”

For many LGBTQ+ people, coming out at work can be an exhausting process – one that they may repeat every time they start a new job. To avoid that exhaustion and potential for discrimination, Blake believes that many go back into the closet even though they are out in their social circles. It’s something he’s done in his own career. “Having worked in the voluntary and community sector for most of my career, and each time I’ve started a job, there’s still that moment, I’m gonna have to come out again,” Blake says, “and that can also be tiring.”

It’s self-preservation that can take its toll on LGBTQ+ people’s mental health, and it is a double-edged sword whether or not people decide to come out at work. “People protect themselves by not talking about their sexual or gender identity in the context of work, and that can feel like it’s really hard work,”” he continues, “or they do talk about it, and that can also feel like it’s hard work as well.”

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“If you are not your whole self, then you are probably on high alert”

The effects of discrimination will influence the psychological safety of LGBTQ+ employees at work. “If you are not your whole self, then you are probably on high alert,” Blake says. “And if you’re on high alert or vigilant about what’s said – the pronouns you use, or the pronouns of your partner – that is stressful. That is going to create a challenge.”

Essentially, Blake believes that if people are thinking about what to say or not say, or act, they won’t be able to effectively deliver on their work. “If you’re half concentrating on ‘am I going to be found out’ that’s not going to deliver your best creativity.”

“We change hearts and minds through conversation”

Recent data from MHFA-England suggests that managers feel under-equipped to deal with mental health support in the workplace. The best way for managers to access resources to support their employees is by getting buy-in from senior leaders within the business – which is easier said than done. Twenty-five per cent of managers surveyed said that senior leadership needs a change in attitude. So, how can senior leadership create a positive outlook on mental health in the workplace?

Blake thinks that senior leaders need to lead by example. “We change hearts and minds through conversation,” he says. “We know that some of the most influential change-makers or change mechanisms are when people in senior leadership positions, talk about their lived realities, their experiences of mental health, or of being a lesbian or being trans, because they have a platform.”

Just like how the pandemic changed where and how we work, it has also changed leadership. Today’s successful leaders are transparent about their lives, and Blake believes that is a good thing. “That’s also a really important bit, I think, for senior leaders, to also talk about their experiences to recognise that we’re all human, our mental health is at the heart of our humanity, our identity,” he says, “so that old stoic leader, stiff upper lip is very definitely a thing of the past.”

To help create a positive culture around mental health in the workplace, MHFA-England’s “My Whole Self” campaign offers resources for organisations to empower employees to bring their whole and authentic selves to work. Blake is certain that erasing the stigmas around mental health and putting an end to LGBTQ discrimination will help everyone be more authentic. 

“It’s about creating a culture change where people are authentic, where people are human,” he concludes. “When they don’t believe that stigma will be detrimental to their careers, then they can perform really well. So it works for everyone on all sorts of different levels.”