Mental health of LGBT+ staff neglected by workplaces

05 April 2019 5 min. read
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Mental health in the workplace is perpetually in the spotlight, but the mental health challenges of LGBT+ workers have often been absent from the conversation. New analysis shows that LGBT+ people are more likely to attribute mental illness to their work environment and are less likely to be positive about support received, while employer interventions tend to not change the conditions for them compared to heterosexual staff.

The prevalence of mental illnesses in the UK remains high, with as many as one in every four individuals in Britain suffering at least one episode of some variety throughout their lives. Currently, around 8% of the population is in a state of depression, prompting many businesses across the country to create initiatives for staff on the matter. While there is impetus for companies to look like they are making efforts to support staff, a number of surveys have shown that little has materially changed, even if employers have waxed lyrical about mental health issues.

Indeed, while 70% of managers suggest their firm’s financial goals often block them from providing mental health support, fewer than half of organisations deal with employee mental health effectively. With 61% of the UK’s workforce suffering some form of mental health ailment, this is bad enough, but the situation is even worse for LGBT+ employees, of whom little is often written on the matter.

Findings from BITC’s 2018 Mental Health at Work Survey

Social control around sexual orientation has seen homosexual and transsexual groups generally harassed, stigmatised, and, for centuries, criminalised. The effect of various forms of discrimination caused considerable social and individual harms – particularly in terms of mental health. Recent decades have sought to change perceptions around sexual orientations, with criminalisation being removed for homosexuality in the developed and much of the developing world, while other forms of social control are challenged. There is, however, still a great deal of work to do in order to realise an inclusive and equal workplace and society.

According to a new report from Mercer, four-fifths of LGBT+ respondents have suffered from mental conditions, and 72% said that it stemmed from their work environment. Furthermore, a tenth of respondents said that they believed their identity affected their furtherment at work, while 6% said it was a factor in their being let go.

Estimates of those that self-identify as gay, lesbian or ‘other’ stand at between 2.5-5.43% of the population of England. The figure thereby encompasses a large proportion of the working population, with social control at the workplace between employees creating headaches and additional costs for employers.

Mental health concerns

The UK Government National LGBT+ survey in 2017, which resulted in more than 100,000 responses, sought to identify wider trends affecting self-identifying individuals and their communities. The survey found considerable fear among respondents, with two-thirds not holding hands in public due to fear of a backlash. The headline result, however, was that on average the group was less satisfied with their life than the general population, at 6.5 out of 10 vs. 7.7 out of 10. A large cohort, 24%, had accessed mental health services in the preceding 12 months to the survey.

At the employment level, 56% of respondents said that they were uncomfortable about being open about their sexual orientation in the workplace. Around 23% said that they received negative or mixed responses about their sexual orientation from others in the workplace, while 11% experienced unspecified inappropriate comments or conduct, and 9% received verbal harassment.

Problems persist

The survey highlights the considerable impact workplaces have on LGBT+ respondents. The study found 82% of respondents have experienced a mental health condition, with 72% attributing that condition to workplace experiences. Many people are hiding their identity from their colleagues, at 26%, with 9% encouraged to hide their identity by colleagues. 9% of LGBT+ employees said that they felt that they missed out on a promotion due to their identity, while 6% said that it was a factor in their being fired.

Support offered

Support for people with mental illness at work continues to be an issue globally. While there is increased effort to remove stigmas and to provide genuine support for people suffering from mental illnesses – that work is often a major factor in the development of a condition, reflecting the wider difficulty of creating a safe environment, on the one hand, and supporting those who cannot cope, on the other.

The wider difficulties faced by LGBT+ identities in a work environment add additional complexity. LGBT+ respondents are relatively positive about the support received from their organisation to mental health problems, with 45% rating it either very well or fairly well. However, when it comes to LGBT+ respondents that have suffered a mental health condition, 40% said that their organisation does not treat mental health conditions well.

Raising mental health issues at work comes with risks. However, the study found some differences between how heterosexual and LGBT+ respondents were treated. LGBT+ respondents were more likely to see no change in their work situation, at 44% compared to 20% of heterosexuals. They were also considerably less likely to be sacked or made redundant, with time off a more common outcome.