OPINION: Employees, including LGBT+ community, should able to bring their whole selves to work

by Simon Blake | Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England
Wednesday, 18 March 2020 11:42 GMT

A man walks up some newly decorated staircase at Canary Wharf in London, Britain, July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

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

Nurturing human connections virtually during coronavirus outbreak will be key to supporting mental health and wellbeing

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

In my first graduate job, I really worried about discussing my sexuality with my colleagues. It’s such a big part of my identity that it meant hiding large parts of my life outside of work – from the bars I went to at the weekend to the relationships that I had. I couldn’t talk openly about my social life with people at work because I was worried they would uncover the fact I was gay.

Even though I had come out to my friends and family, I was still nervous about what my workplace would think. At the time I was working in the sexual health sector, so I was in a better position than many people, but it still felt daunting. 

But I realised I was never going to be truly happy at work unless people knew the “real” me. With the support of friends, I spoke to my bosses; luckily, they were brilliant and supportive. I am fortunate, as not everyone has this experience.

Coming out at work, for me, was liberating. It meant I was no longer distracted with concerns about how I expressed my ideas, or whether I would be “caught out’ by slipping up when I discussed my personal life. It is clear to me now that not only did it make me much happier at work, but it also enabled me to perform much better in my role too.

Unfortunately, the evidence tells us that many LGBT+ employees carry the burden of feeling they must suppress their true self. Stonewall research has found more than a third of LGBT+ staff (35%) have hidden that part of their identity at work for fear of discrimination. And the same is true for many people from many different backgrounds who experience systemic inequality or other forms of prejudice, and feel they cannot express their whole identity or feel truly valued as a person.

There is more work to do to ensure LGBT+ employees and everyone, in every organisation, feels they have both the safety and confidence to bring their whole self to work. We shouldn't have to leave parts of our identity at home but day in, day out, too many people go to work and feel unheard and unseen. They do not feel they can bring their whole self to work due to fear of judgement, harm, or discrimination, with their ideas and successes too often credited to others.

Bringing our whole self to work moves us into a space where we are empowered to build healthy relationships, excel, innovate and lead well – all of which impacts positively on our sense of belonging and wellbeing.

As the current health crisis sees more people working from home than ever before, we all need to focus our activities on providing guidance designed to support employees feeling the impact of the coronavirus. Human connections are so important at this time. Nurturing them virtually will be key to supporting the nation’s mental health and wellbeing as we come together to tackle the impact of coronavirus.

Google’s landmark study, Project Aristotle, found that psychological safety is one of the five key elements of every successful team. Diversity in a workforce is a strength but it must be matched by an actively inclusive environment to deliver psychologically safety for employees. We need our workspace to feel safe for us to effectively connect with our colleagues and perform at our best.

Much progress since has been made since I started work in the 1990s, but a huge gap remains between legislation, rhetoric and the reality of peoples’ daily working lives. It is 2020. It is time for every single one of us – whoever we are and wherever we work - to have that same level of privilege and pleasure that I experience being able to take my whole self to work every day.