The LGBTQ+ community is endlessly diverse and intersectional in nature, but many members share a unifying experience of being othered, particularly in workplace settings. Unsurprisingly, Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report in partnership with Qualtrics and ServiceNow found that LGBTQ+ workers were more likely to experience mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and burnout and to say that their work or work environment had a negative impact on their mental health. But the narrative around LGBTQ+ workplace mental health is not defined only by hardship. In that same study, LGBTQ+ workers were more likely to feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work, more likely to have talked about their mental health to someone at work in the past month, and more likely to see mental health as a diversity, equity, and inclusion issue, compared to non-LGBTQ+ workers. Despite the challenges they face, LGBTQ+ workers are well positioned to lead their workplaces as champions for mental health — not only for the LGBTQ+ community but for the organization overall. The authors provide a starting framework that includes tangible actions both big and small, proactive and reactive, that company leaders can employ to support LGBTQ+ mental health at work.
I grew up in a predominantly white, heteronormative town in a household eclipsed by a parent who struggled with alcoholism. As a child of immigrants seeking to understand his own sexual identity, I watched classmates — many of them friends — debate a California proposition that banned same-sex marriage; faced the same jeers at the noodles my mother packed me for lunch that many other Asian American kids face; and returned each day to a home punctuated by silent meals, averted gazes, and long, spiraling lectures lasting well into the night.
I developed chronic depression early on in my childhood. Back then, it was a profound sadness I carried, managed, and hid through these parts of my life that largely felt unsafe to me. I spent much of my life learning how to make myself invisible — to mask my emotions, expressions, the parts of myself that were so commonly othered — and to constantly monitor how I presented myself to the world to preserve a semblance of safety.
When I began my professional career, I carried with me these experiences and beliefs about the world: my perpetual otheredness, the risks of imperfection, and the lack of safety even within my own communities as a gay, Asian man. Even still, I was fortunate. My first workplace was a nonprofit organization focused on behavior change technology and creating solutions to improve youth mental health. At the time, a majority of the employees were members of the LGBTQ+ community, the team was diverse and inclusive without being tokenizing, and mental health was an everyday topic given the organization’s mission.
It was in this environment — where mental health, the LGBTQ+ experience, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity were so thoroughly yet anticlimactically normalized — where I sought formal mental health support for the first time. It was here where I finally felt able to simply live my intersectional identities without the ever-constant, overbearing pressure to self-monitor and adjust my words, my behaviors, my being. From that safety came vulnerability, courage, and stories like this as my career transitioned to broader advocacy around mental health at work at the nonprofit Mind Share Partners.
Again, I was lucky. So many LGBTQ+ folks continue to navigate social, cultural, and workplace environments that still treat them as other — even in celebration. In this piece, we’ll explore core elements of the LGBTQ+ experience around mental health at work as well as a starting framework covering tangible ways organizations can meaningfully support the mental health of their LGBTQ+ team members.
The LGBTQ+ community is endlessly diverse and intersectional in nature, but many members share a unifying experience of being othered, particularly in workplace settings. Many feel compelled to monitor their presentation of gender and sexuality constantly at work. Some disclose by choice — others involuntarily. Many must respond to intrusive questioning, being misgendered, unsolicited commentary about clothing, and other microaggressions. Many, too, face harassment and outright discrimination, with research finding that LGBTQ+ workers make 22% less than non-LGTBQ+ workers. And when it comes to actually seeking mental health care, many navigate added barriers — from finding a therapist who is LGBTQ+, or who understands LGBTQ+ health needs, or who simply accepts and affirms their identity.
These are just a few of the many unique challenges that LGBTQ+ workers face in professional settings. Navigating them alone is already difficult. But the lack of support, solutions, and prevention efforts by employers compounds their impact not only on LGBTQ+ workers’ mental health, but also their psychological safety, relationships with colleagues, their sense of inclusion and belonging in their teams, and engagement at work.
Unsurprisingly, Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Mental Health at Work Report in partnership with Qualtrics and ServiceNow found that LGBTQ+ workers were more likely to experience mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and burnout and to say that their work or work environment had a negative impact on their mental health. Not surprisingly, we also found that LGBTQ+ workers were more than twice as likely to report having ever voluntarily left a previous role due at least in part to mental health reasons.
But the narrative around LGBTQ+ workplace mental health is not defined only by hardship. In our same study, LGBTQ+ workers were more likely to feel comfortable talking about their mental health at work, more likely to have talked about their mental health to someone at work in the past month, and more likely to see mental health as a diversity, equity, and inclusion issue, compared to non-LGBTQ+ workers. Despite the challenges they face, LGBTQ+ workers are well positioned to lead their workplaces as champions for mental health — not only for the LGBTQ+ community but for the organization overall.
Supporting mental health at work requires a strategic approach. This starting framework includes tangible actions both big and small, proactive and reactive, that company leaders can employ to support LGBTQ+ mental health at work.
That said, this is not a laundry list of check-the-box solutions. Instead, understand the intent and principles around safety, inclusion, equity, and advocacy that underlie these actions. Tailor your approach, and develop a strategy unique to your people and contexts.
First, ensure your list of covered providers includes those who are LGBTQ+ or who have experience with LGBTQ+ health, and make sure that your insurance plans cover services for same-sex couple and family arrangements. Consider also responsively expanding coverage following anti-LGTBQ+ legislation and world events to offer timely, additional support, whether that be subsidized therapy sessions, LGBTQ+ peer support groups, or expanding your list of LGBTQ+ providers.
Second, share information about the unique mental and overall health experiences of LGBTQ+ folks. This can include creating comprehensive guides, such as Forward Together’s, around navigating the health care system for LGBTQ+ individuals. Or even more simply: Identify a clear, designated point of contact on your HR team who is a part of or allied with the LGBTQ+ community who can sit down with employees, outline the resources available, walk them through how to access them, and answer any questions.
Finally, explore mental health training across all organizational levels, particularly with a DEI lens, to equip employees to proactively support mental health at work and understand how mental health experiences vary across, within, and at the intersections of identities and communities. For example, Mind Share Partners conducted an interactive, half-day retreat session for Kearney’s Proud Network where we leveraged immersive and participatory storytelling activities that explored the intersections of mental health, work, and the LGBTQ+ experience. ”[The session] gave the Proud Network tools to support each other and enrich connections in our community,” says Andrew Furash, Manager at Kearney and Proud Retreat Lead. “The session helped us live authentically, bring our whole selves to work, and capitalize on the value in our differences.”
This is particularly important in organizations and cultures with less representation or with ambiguous or unclear support — that is, most workplaces.
You can do this in a variety of ways. Create visibility by highlighting LGBTQ+ events, initiatives, employees, and leaders. Demonstrate allyship by addressing and correcting non-inclusive language, policies, or practices, or even formalize allyship like Accenture did through their global Ally program of 120,000+ members or PGIM through their Mental Health Champions program. Model healthy practices around both LGBTQ+ inclusivity and mental health — from sharing your pronouns, to being authentic about your own mental health, to practicing healthy work norms. And, of course, be intentional about checking in, not only in response to anti-LGBTQ+ events, but routinely to normalize talking about mental health as well.
Ultimately, signaling support is never one particular action. It involves intentional and consistent messaging across the organization for mental health and the LGBTQ+ community — in the company-wide campaigns for Pride Month or May Mental Health Awareness Month and in the everyday interactions among colleagues year-round.
In other words, formalize your efforts to prevent and solve for the unique challenges that many LGBTQ+ employees face at work.
First, start with everyday things like using inclusive language (e.g., saying “Hello everyone” rather than “ladies and gentlemen,” or “partners” rather than “husband and wife”); using non-gendered acknowledgements (e.g., “they/them,” “you all,” etc.) in general communications; and including pronouns in company bios, name badges, Zoom names, and even LinkedIn profiles. Document and share these norms, too, such as in G2’s employer’s guide. As you think about these everyday strategies, remember that all employees — not just LGBTQ+ folks — should partake in these practices. Consider the small, seamless ways that give LGBTQ+ employees control over disclosure without abruptly putting them in the spotlight. Bain & Company, for instance, created a ladder system that allows members of their LGBTQ+ ERG to decide who they’re out to at work.
Second, invest in programs like onboarding buddies or an LGBTQ+ ERG or affinity group like at Adobe, AstraZeneca, Converse, Progressive, Riot Games, and more. Programs like these facilitate regular spaces for safe conversations, learning, and peer support among LGBTQ+ employees and allies. For ERGs in particular, empower them to advise on inclusive programs and policies tailored to your organization, industry, and region. You can even bridge partnerships between ERGs, such as with the growing number of mental health ERGs, to further drive conversations around mental health for the LGBTQ+ community. For example, VMware’s mental health ERG organized an “Intersectionality of Neurodiversity and LGBTQIA+” panel where three employees shared their own lived experiences on the topic. “Hundreds of employees attended the event, with the feedback being completely positive,” said Dexter Arver, an organizer of the event. As one attendee shared after: “It really helps (at least for me) to know I am not ‘alone’ out there. [It’s] one of the best sessions I have attended.”
Similarly, the conservation organization World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s mental/physical wellness ERG and LGBTQ+ ERG co-sponsored a Pride Month talk with Dior Vargas, a queer, Latina mental health activist, to discuss mental health for LGBTQ+ colleagues and colleagues of color. “The community established by these ERGs gives colleagues the opportunity to connect in a deeper way,” said Jon Cass, co-chair of WWF’s Whole Beings ERG. “Having these conversations also helps us better understand where there may be gaps in the support currently provided, especially for traditionally underrepresented groups, so we can advocate for improved resources and policies.”
Of course, cultivating inclusion must be accompanied by intentional, strategic equity work to tackle the larger, systemic issues around hiring, promotion, and executive representation for LGBTQ+ employees. Combined with formal programs and small, everyday signaling, a top-down and bottom-up approach creates consistent, organization-wide messaging of inclusion and equality for LGBTQ+ employees.
As we found in our study, LGBTQ+ workers were actually more open to talking about their own mental health at work, offering a unique opportunity to empower early advocates to champion internal mental health campaigns, share their own mental health journeys, and cultivate safety and support for mental health for all employees.
One option is storytelling, which can serve as a powerful catalyst in normalizing mental health and empowering individuals across the organization to join the conversation. For example, we worked with global investment management firm PGIM’s Mental Health Champion peer network to help volunteers share their personal mental health stories. “Through Mind Share Partners’ support, the employees were prepared to be vulnerable and share their stories in a hopeful and relatable manner, positively impacting inclusion and helping to normalize speaking about mental health,” said Barbara Fuchs, vice president, talent management.
While storytelling can be powerful, it must coincide with intentional shifts in participating employees’ schedules and work to create time to lead these initiatives, or even compensation and other ways to recognize their involvement, vulnerability, and leadership.
When we think about workplace mental health, employers often turn to individual solutions like benefits, apps, and mental health days coupled with mental health awareness campaigns (e.g., “It’s okay not to be okay”).
Truly supporting workplace mental health, however, involves taking a real look at how your organization and its people work — from work-life balance, flexibility, and autonomy to the perceptions around work and achievement. All of these workplace factors — not individual coping mechanisms — have been shown time and time again in the academic literature to play a deterministic role on employee mental health, yet they’re often the last to be meaningfully addressed.
And this applies to LGBTQ+ workers. The growing norm of inclusive virtual communication practices like email signatures and Zoom names have eased the process of sharing pronouns or coming out for many. And in recent years, the transition to remote work actually reduced the number of microaggressions LGBTQ+ workers experienced in workplace settings.
The way we work impacts different employees in different ways. As we explore the future of work, organizations must make meaningful efforts to explore these nuances across communities to ensure that work itself is both healthy and inclusive.
As we think about the LGBTQ+ experience of mental health at work, remember that the unique challenges and outcomes we observe are the result of a long history of discrimination, violence, marginalization, and othering that persists to this day. No matter what workplace strategies you explore and employ, their purpose is not to accommodate LGBTQ+ people because they are different, but to correct for longstanding norms and practices that treat LGBTQ+ folks as different. And remember that supporting mental health at work — regardless of LGBTQ+ identity — includes not only openness, safety, and acceptance about mental health, but also fundamentally necessitates a healthy and sustainable experience of work itself.