Promoting and supporting positive mental health of LGBT+ employees at the Workplace

Over the past couple of years, Indian companies have taken steady steps to make the workplaces more diverse and inclusive. While gender diversity has been a key driver of diversity and inclusion, other strands of diversity, such as People with Disabilities and LGBT+ still needs a lot of focus. It is only recently that organizations in India has started focusing on conversations and initiatives around LGBT+ inclusion at our workplaces after the draconian law Section 377 which criminalizes homosexuality was read down by a bench of five judges in the Supreme Court on September 2018.

As the LGBT+ community gains more opportunities and visibility in corporate India, organizations are working towards bringing in mindset shifts and creating safe and respectable work environments. While there are several initiatives related to hiring, progressive workplace policies and benefits, one area that needs a lot of focus is the mental health of LGBT+ employees.

Historically, the LGBT+ community has faced prejudice and discrimination for their gender identity and sexual orientation. Prejudice and discrimination have deep social and personal impact. Conflicts between one’s inner reality related to gender can start at a young age. Such internal conflicts combined with certain limiting experiences such as social stigma, stereotyping, homophobia and transphobia can have prolonged impact on one’s psychological health. Through the What We Know Research Project, Cornell University’s Centre for the Study of Inequality has found a strong link between discrimination and its adverse impact on the mental health of members from LGBT+ community. One of the most prominent theoretical frameworks on the psychological health of LGBT+ community is the Meyer (2003) Minority Stress Model. This model has provided a foundational framework in providing greater clarity and understanding to the mental health disparities in sexual minorities. This model describes factors associated with various stressors and coping mechanisms and their positive or negative impact on the psychological health of LGBT+ individuals. Cross sectional analysis of studies conducted in India also reveal that LGBT+ individuals show high rates of mental health concerns.

A Comprehensive approach for LGBT+ workplace well-being

To further strengthen inclusion and to enhance workplace belongingness, organizations can introduce specific initiatives to address and alleviate the concerns of LGBT+ employees. A comprehensive approach that addresses the three significant determinants of holistic health and well-being of LGBT+ employees are:

a) freedom from discrimination,

b) social inclusion at workplace, and

c) access to the right resources for support.

While equitable policies are critical, these three determinants need to be supported through specific practices and initiatives outlined below.

  1. Freedom from discrimination:
  • A Comprehensive Equal Opportunity Policy – The Equal Opportunity policy should specifically mention LGBT+ category and should also clarify the various areas of employee life cycle the policy will cover including recruitment, talent management, training and development, compensation and benefits, rewards and recognition, etc.
    • Grievance handling mechanism and whistle blower policy – A structured process for reporting discrimination and harassment guaranteeing confidentiality will reassure LGBT+ employees. This is especially important from the Indian context, where there is no anti-discrimination or anti-harassment law to protect LGBT+ employees in the workplace.
  • Gender Identity and Transition guidelines – A comprehensive workplace transition framework will guide and support LGBT+ employees who are undergoing the transition process in a positive manner. Guidelines for addressing the needs and issues that arise when an employee undergoes gender transition on the job will not only help the employee, but also the manager, colleagues, HR teams and other stakeholders.
    • Communication of policies and making it part of Employee Orientation – All related policies should be communicated widely and frequently and should be included in the intranet. A section of new employee orientation should be dedicated to sensitizing new hires on LGBT+ inclusion related policies and specific challenges related to LGBT+ community
    • Sensitization and Training – As part of the wider diversity training programmes, training modules on LGBT+ issues and challenges will enhance awareness on the discrimination faced by LGBT+ individuals. These sessions when conducted on a regular basis will help employees in understanding the importance of LGBT+ inclusion at workplace and how they can make LGBT employees feel valued.

2. Social inclusion at workplace:

  •  Role models and Story-telling – Visible role models from the LGBT+ community at the workplace can have a truly transformative impact for employees from the community. It will help them believe that their gender identity or sexual orientation will not be a barrier towards progressing at the workplace. A diverse selection of LGBT+ role models from a range of backgrounds can share their powerful stories through LGBT+ ERGs and informal events such as coffee connect sessions. Powerful stories of role models from the community and opportunities to connect and interact with them will reassure LGBT+ employees that it ok to be themselves and there will be no limits on what they can achieve.
  • Allies – Allies have a critical role to play in enhancing workplace inclusion and creating a supportive work environment for LGBT+ employees. Visible expression of support and promotion of LGBT+ issues in the workplace by allies will help LGBT+ colleagues in experiencing a heightened sense of respect and psychological safety. Organizations can conduct specific sensitization and training programmes on Allyship so that more heterosexual employees can sign up as active allies. As LGBT+ employees in India seek to resolve issues related to their sexual orientation, they are helped tremendously when high-level corporate leaders support them as allies and inspire confidence in the community.
  • Mentoring – A trusted relationship between a LGBT+ mentor and mentee can help LGBT+ employees live a more productive, happy and fulfilling life. As LGBT+ individuals transition through various life stages and milestones, they are often faced with challenges in integrating their identity into different phases of personal and professional life. Mentors can help them with this journey. Mentors help mentees challenge their internalized negative messages, which can take a psychological toll on LGBT+ individuals. Mentors help them in replacing the myths and stereotypes in a safe, non-judgmental way, thus reinforcing a sense of positive identity.

3. Access to the right resources for support

  • Affirmative Counselling support – Affirmative therapy and counselling (based on Cognitive Behavioral therapy) is a type of psychotherapy used to validate and address the needs and concerns of gender and sexual minority individuals. Stress, anxiety and depression are some of the most common problems faced by individuals from the LGBT+ community due to early life experiences of prejudice, marginalization, discrimination, stigma and sometimes even bullying and violence. Organizations can enter into partnership with experienced psychotherapists and counselling centres offering Affirmative counselling. Psychotherapists practicing Affirmative counselling usually approach LGBT+ individuals with openness and advocacy regarding their sexual and gender orientation. Setting up a specific counselling support system customized for the needs and challenges of LGBT+ employees will help them in reaching out for professional help. This will help them in managing their stress levels no matter how big or small their issues are. Such counselling support is especially relevant during the current pandemic crisis when LGBT+ people might experiencing heightened sense of isolation, anxiety and stress.

There is a huge opportunity for organizations to play a critical role in bringing about greater acceptance and inclusion of LGBT+ community. By striving towards creating safe workplaces filled with respect, compassion and fairness that embrace and support LGBT+ individuals for who they are, organizations can pave the way for greater equity for the LGBT+ community in all walks of the society.

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