OPINION: Managers must be active allies for LGBTQ+ employees

by Simon Blake | Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England
Friday, 17 March 2023 09:40 GMT

A man works at a computer on a standing desk in an office in the financial district of Canary Wharf in London, Britain, February 8, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Coombs

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

How can organisations ensure that managers take deliberate action to support their LGBTQ+ employees?

Simon Blake OBE is chief executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England

I know from my own experience that it is not easy to come out at work. When I first stepped onto the career ladder as a gay man in the 1990s, I was nervous about discussing my sexuality with my colleagues. 

Fortunately, my managers were understanding and supportive – I was lucky. Looking back, once I felt able to discuss my sexuality at work, it had a huge impact on the relationships I made at work and on my performance. I could talk openly about my life outside of work meaning I could focus my energy on building my career, without fear of being ‘found out’.

So much has changed in legislation and public opinion towards LGBTQ+ people but still we know that too many do not feel able to be open about their sexual or gender identity at work. Stonewall found that more than a third of LGBTQ+ staff (35 per cent) have hidden or disguised that they are LGBTQ+ at work in the last year, because they were afraid of discrimination.

I want workplace cultures where everyone is able to bring their whole self to work. Where people are safe and free to choose how they express themselves and their identities at work – whether that be background, sexuality, religion, gender, health and mental health – without fear of prejudice.

By being able to bring our whole self to work, we can concentrate on the job in hand rather than spending time being vigilant about what we do or don’t say, or whether we behave in the right way. What a waste of energy it is worrying about things that just don’t matter - how we walk, how we talk or how we laugh.

When we are and feel psychologically safe, we can develop strong relationships, we can connect with our colleagues, we unlock our creativity and we perform at our best.

Whilst my experiences as a young gay man in the workplace were, in the main positive, there were times my experience of growing up gay in a homophobic Britain meant I was (and still am) adept at self-censoring. As LGBTQ+ people we have grown up learning to hide parts of who we are, censoring ourselves and dialling down our relationships and our realities. Next birthday I will be 50. I have been very publicly out for a long time, including being vice chair of Stonewall and chair of Diversity Role Models, and I am still coming out – or choosing I don’t have the energy to - at least weekly.

I say this as a reminder that whoever we are, and however confident we may be about our identity, learning to take up space may feel like taking up too much space and ‘pushing it down people’s throats’. Managers play a key role in supporting visibility and at times challenging prejudice of others.

Regular catch-ups between managers and employees, where mental health and wellbeing are discussed alongside objectives and performance, are an essential part of supporting mental health. Even with new models of working, having a one-to-one meetings should be prioritised. They help managers spot signs of poor mental health early and signpost to further help if necessary. Just as with physical health, early intervention, diagnosis, and support are vital ways to help people protect their mental health and prevent issues getting worse.

Allyship is a doing work. It means showing support, compassion and care for a cause - it shouldn’t be a passive term and requires action to be authentic and ongoing. As managers, it is on all of us to demonstrate allyship through our deeds and words.

As employers, we must give managers need the tools, training and time to do the job of managing well. We should also constantly evaluate, adapt and ultimately disrupt workplace cultures to create a workplace where everybody - men, women, trans, non-binary and gender fluid people, including those who may face wider oppression owing to racism, sexism or able-ism – can thrive.

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