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What You Need to Know About Supporting the Mental Health Needs of LGBTQ+ Employees

By Senior Director of Fraser Case Management Sarah Shafer and Fraser Clinical Operations Coordinator Milo Williams • LGBTQ, LGBTQIA+, LGBTQ marginalization, LGBTQ mental health issues, transgender employee mental health, transgender employee support, LGBTQ mental illness, supporting LGBTQ employees, LGBTQ employee mental health, mental health support for LGBTQ+ employees, mental health accommodations employees, mental health stress, depression, anxiety, depression in LGBTQ people, • June 06, 2024

Supporting the mental health of LGBTQ+ employees goes beyond offering free coffee and work parties. Companies and organizations must create an inclusive space that feels safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender and other gender-nonconforming people. That can include a relaxed dress code and inclusive healthcare and be as easy as changing an email signature.

Here's what you need to know about how your company or organization can support the mental health needs of LGBTQ+ staff.

Create a safe space with gender-neutral language

Many companies claim to support the LGBTQ+ community, but to be truly supportive, you must demonstrate that right from the beginning. Senior Director of Fraser Case Management Sarah Shafer, who uses she/her pronouns, recommends that employers use gender-neutral language in training. The U.S. Department of Labor states, “Whenever possible, use gender-neutral language to avoid assumptions about employees' sexual orientation or gender identity. When you’re referring to a group of people, instead of saying “guys,” use the term “folx.”  Instead of saying “mom and dad,” use the terms “parents and caregivers.” During orientation, you can also make gender-diverse employees feel more welcome by suggesting that individuals use pronouns when introducing themselves.

“By starting with the onboarding, you’re indicating to LGBTQ+ employees whether your business is an inclusive space,” says Sarah. “If they hear language that is non-supportive, they might start to think that it isn’t a safe space to come out in, or be themselves in.”

You should also use gender-neutral language on paperwork, your website, marketing materials, training videos and the Employee Handbook.

Normalize gender diversity

Asking someone their pronouns and sharing your pronouns creates a more inclusive environment for gender non-conforming individuals. Fraser Clinical Operations Coordinator Milo Williams uses they/them pronouns and identifies as non-binary because they never really fit inside the gender binary.

“It may feel awkward to ask the question — ‘What are your pronouns?’” says Milo. “But more times than not — a person who isn’t cisgender — will be very understanding. And it’s more comfortable for that person to be acknowledged and addressed the way they identify.” 

It’s also important to normalize these conversations in your workplace. You can do something as simple as adding pronouns to your email signatures and nametags.

“When you make pronouns a natural part of the conversation, it creates a more comfortable environment for those who may exist outside the gender binary,” Milo says.

Management and executives should lead by example

Being a manager or an executive includes modeling appropriate workplace behavior. Managers and executives can also model inclusivity through their words.

“If an executive fails to address people how they ask to be addressed — like misgendering them or not using their chosen name or preferred disability language — it suggests to other employees that it isn’t a big deal,” says Milo.

It also indicates that talk about being inclusive is just that: talk — and employees aren’t expected to adhere to these standards.

For example, if an employee comes to their supervisor to say that a coworker has been misgendering them even after being corrected multiple times, that supervisor needs training to have a difficult conversation with that coworker about how to address LGBTQ+ staff.

Work with HR or an agency to offer employee training

Have your human resources team create mandatory employee training, covering topics like LGBTQ+ history, using inclusive language, and avoiding microaggressions.  If your company isn’t set up to do something like this, you can also reach out to local businesses like Mossier, which “is a team of experienced LGBTQ inclusion consultants and champions” that provides training to companies on these topics.

Be open to mental health accommodations

Executives must be open to providing accommodations for mental health needs. Younger employees are often more open about discussing mental health issues, so are more likely to ask for accommodations.  

“It’s a good thing that young people are more willing to talk about mental health,” says Shafer. “And how leaders respond to this is important. If mental health needs are viewed negatively or ignored, young employees may feel unwelcome and unsupported and are much more likely to leave the company.”

Accommodations for mental health needs may include requests like additional time off, flexible work schedules or changes to their office environment.

Offer flexibility

Both a flexible work schedule and allowing employees to work from home can support employee mental health. A flexible work schedule makes it easier for LGBTQ+ employees to attend therapy, since most therapists offer appointments during typical work hours. For transgender employees and other employees with intersectional identities — like being queer and disabled — a flexible schedule makes attending regular doctor appointments much easier.

When it’s possible for a job role, working from home allows LGBTQ+ staff to have more schedule flexibility. Remote work also allows them to create a more sensory friendly work environment. There are more LGBTQ+ people within the autism spectrum. SPARK states, “Studies vary widely on the percentage of people with autism who are gay, lesbian or bisexual. One analysis suggested the rate is 15 to 35 percent among autistic people who do not have intellectual disability.” The Human Rights Campaign states, according to the Household Pulse Survey, “At least 20 million adults in the United States could be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender - nearly 8% of the total adult population.” Many people with autism also experience sensory differences. That means bright office lights, loud background noise and strong smells can be overwhelming and even painful to their senses. Working from home allows employees to control their environment and eliminate unwanted sensory input.

Create employee resource groups

An LGBTQ+ employee resource group offers a safe space for staff to come together, share their experiences and be heard, whether that’s sharing their sexuality or gender expression or talking about other issues. This is a good way to support staff’s mental health and can create a better experience for all LGBTQ+ employees. In the group, individuals can also brainstorm ways to make the business more supportive of all LGBTQ+  staff experiences.  

Offer inclusive benefits

Not all family structures look the same. To truly support the mental health of LGBTQ+ employees, same-sex partners should be eligible for healthcare benefits for their families, whether that means a married partner, unmarried significant other, children or no children. Saterman Connect states, “Domestic partner benefits should be available for all couples, regardless of whether they are for heterosexual or LGBTQIA+.”

It’s also important that your employee healthcare providers are respectful of people’s sexual orientation, gender identity and race. Mental Health America states, “In a survey of LGBTQ+ people, more than half of all respondents reported that they have faced cases of providers denying care, using harsh language or blaming the patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity as the cause for an illness.”

This is particularly true for employees with intersectional identities. The Human Rights Campaign states, “We know that LGBTQ+ people who are BIPOC often face barriers to treatment and care because of mistrust of the medical community, and high uninsurance rates among many other societal injustices. In the United States, more than one-quarter (28%) of LGBTQ+ adults of color have no health insurance coverage, compared to 8% of all adults.” Ask human resources to compile a list of in-network providers who specifically support transgender individuals and others within the LGBTQ+ community. Your insurance should also cover gender-affirming care, which can include offerings like hormone therapy, facial feminization surgery, and top surgery, for people who identify as transgender and nonbinary.

Inclusive healthcare for LGBTQ+ employees must include inclusive mental health care. Harvard Business Review states, “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.” Again, work with human resources or your health care provider to provide employees with a list of therapists who offer inclusive care or identify as LGBTQ+.

Caring for LGBTQ+ employees’ mental health starts on their first day. Your company should ensure onboarding materials, website, marketing materials and employee handbooks use gender-neutral language and normalize gender diversity. Management must lead by example and have the training to handle difficult conversations. All employees should have training to understand how to treat coworkers with respect, and organizations should offer LGBTQ+ employee groups. Offer employees a flexible environment and provide mental health accommodations, as needed. And to truly support the mental health of LGBTQ+ employees, offer benefits that support gender-affirming care and domestic partner benefits.