Why we need to talk about trans mental health
By Jo Faragher on 13 April 2021
Mental health at work has never been as central a part of the conversation. Senior business leaders are vocal about their investment during the pandemic in regular check-ins, dedicated helplines for remote workers who may be struggling with isolation and how they’ve trained managers to support employees to open up. But how inclusive are these commitments of everyone in the organisation?
A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that over half (55%) of trans employees had experienced conflict at work in the past 12 months, with many of those cases left unresolved. Totaljobs’ annual trans employee experiences survey, meanwhile, found that 65% of trans people hide their gender status or history at work – a figure that has risen in the past five years from 52%. One of the key fears around being out at work is how this will affect trans colleagues’ careers: 56% of trans people believe it’s harder for them to find a job, while 53% feel they experience more barriers to progress than non-trans people.
Rise in transphobia
With this backdrop of not feeling comfortable to be oneself at work, coupled with a global pandemic that has been detrimental to everyone’s mental health, it’s essential for employers to consider trans’ peoples experiences and needs when building mental health support. “There has been a rise in transphobia in the UK, things have got worse rather than better,” says Rachel Reese, founder and CEO of Global Butterflies, which works with businesses to develop their understanding of trans issues. “In many cases the pandemic has slowed down access to treatments, there are people who may be enduring lockdown with hostile family members.” For some trans employees, adds Reese, the workplace may be ‘safe space’ and employers need to be mindful of this in terms of opening facilities or tailoring support. On the flipside, however, the combination of lockdown stress and rising transphobia may make colleagues less likely to come out at work, which in itself may be detrimental to their mental health.
Alison France, a trustee of LGBT+ mental health charity MindOut and founding director of evosis, an inclusion consultancy, believes there are three key factors at play when it comes to trans mental health at work. “Firstly, being trans impacts every single thing about your daily life, it’s pervasive. For example, if you’re gay and not out you might not share the details of your weekend, but at least you can still go to the loo,” she explains. “Secondly your physical appearance is a big part of it and so visible, while finally it’s a journey that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a case of one minute you transition and you’re done, and there will be a very narrow group of people who will understand that journey and come along it with you.” Along that journey colleagues may try to be supportive and ask questions, she adds, but these can be intrusive, particularly if around surgery, so could end up making someone feel worse.
Fears around language prevent many managers from asking how they can support their trans colleagues. Reese adds: “Organisations are often worried about trans and non-binary culture so are not sure how to approach us anyway – they want to help but they’re not sure how.” Asking open ended questions about mental health can help, advises France. Mind, the mental health charity, has produced wellness action plans that managers can download to support such conversations. “These help managers ask questions in such a way that they can uncover if an employee is having problems without directly discussing their transitioning,” she says. “And don’t wait for someone to tell you they’re having mental health issues, if a trans employee knows their manager is happy to bring it up as a topic that means they’ve not had to use their emotional energy, which really helps.”
Check your support
Many organisations have stepped up the services or tools they offer to support mental health at work over the past 12 months, but it’s worth investigating how welcoming these are to trans employees. One strategy is simply to test – so if your organisation runs an employee assistance programme, what happens when a trans person calls, what advice do they offer? Trans people may prefer to talk to another trans person on a helpline, for example, so consider whether this is possible with your existing provider or contact charities such as MindOut for support. Employee resource groups can also be a useful sounding board here – asking members of the LGBT+ and trans community what they would find useful, or any sources of support your organisation might not have considered. A word of caution here, however. “Don’t expect the community to do all the work when that’s not part of their day job. Involve people, yes, but don’t make them responsible for making that change themselves,” adds France. Senior leaders and allies need to push through and advocate for these changes so that it doesn’t add to trans colleagues’ existing mental health burden.
The CIPD advocates for more inclusive policies, including practical changes to the workplace that can foster a more trans-inclusive environment. This could be all-gender bathrooms or simply the normalising of pronoun sharing on email signatures and video conference platforms. Mel Green, research adviser and co-author of the organisation’s recent report into LGBT conflict at work, says: “Our research finds that just 31% of trans employees agree their organisation has sufficient trans policies and practice in place, highlighting that organisations have some way to go in ensuring workplaces are trans inclusive. Opportunities for voice and participation and top management support for trans inclusion are also imperative.”
Some steps the CIPD suggests employers can take include:
- Review any inclusion and diversity training to ensure it includes gender identity and raises awareness of the different barriers faced by LGB and trans people
- Audit policies and communication to ensure language is inclusive
- Ensure trans employees have opportunities to provide feedback and safely raise concerns with good quality line management or through staff networks
Remember too, that trans is not necessarily a rigid identity – you will likely need to support colleagues who are gender fluid and non-binary, so include them in any policies and processes you’re looking at.
Returning to work
Finally, trans colleagues will look to leaders to get an idea of how inclusive their work environment is, so it’s crucial senior leaders are comfortable having these conversations too. Reese adds: “Where leaders don’t talk about mental health no one does – they need to say this is fine to talk about, it’s like a muscle that needs to be used.” This includes discussions about how working practices will change as pandemic restrictions ease. For some trans employees, being away from home in the workplace will be where they feel more comfortable, while for others the freedom of not commuting has been liberating. The key is to listen, concludes France: “What are the types of adjustments that would be helpful for trans people? If you’re looking at changes [to working practices] then think about how they will impact on a trans person. They won’t always advocate for themselves so bring this up in conversation.”
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