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Is perseverance the key to coping as an LGBT employee?

There is evidence to suggest that a high level of psychological flexibility, something LGBT employees often need to develop at work, can help people cope better, and indeed flourish, in the workplace.

A view of London's skyline. Photo: Getty
Coming out to colleagues can help you cope, and 'hope', better in the workplace. Photo: Getty

The challenges faced by LGBT individuals in the workplace, and the impact these challenges can have on their mental health, are well-documented. But with Mental Health Awareness Week fast approaching, I’d like to go one step further and focus not only on the difficulties faced by LBGT employees, but how they can rise up and meet these challenges.

Significant steps are being taken in attempting to understand how LGBT employees’ cope with the challenges they face in the workplace. From this research, the concept of perseverance is emerging as key.

Let’s talk for a minute about what LGBT employees may face in the workplace. To begin with, disclosing one’s sexual and/or gender identity can be a huge source of anxiety for some people. It can involve a series of tricky and stressful calculations about the potential costs and benefits of coming out to one’s colleagues and boss.

If one manages to negotiate coming out at work successfully, there is always the potential issue of negative or discriminatory behaviours to contend with. These may be subtle, and even unintentional, such as people making bizarre assumptions about someone’s interests or activities based on their sexual and/or gender identity – for instance, the assumption that your gay male colleague will have the ability and/or desire to advise you on your fashion issues. However, they may be more insidious, such as when LGBT people are intentionally denied promotions, career advancements and access to important resources.

But the issues I describe are not purely based on my own observations. Ample research has indicated that both coming out, and experiences of discrimination in the workplace, can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of LGBT employees.

Yet studies have shown that perseverance, or the ability to bounce back when beset by problems, may offer LGBT employees some protection from these challenges. For example, Kwon and Hugelshofer (2010) found that the characteristic of hope (or the belief that one can persist through challenges and accomplish one’s goals) buffered the impact of workplace discrimination on LGB employees’ wellbeing. In another study, Smith and Gray (2009) drew attention to the importance of hardiness (or the ability to shake off setbacks and proceed even when success seems uncertain) to LGBT people’s coping efforts.

I am currently working to add to this field by examining psychological flexibility in LGBT employees. According to already existing research, psychological flexibility describes a form of perseverance in which people are able to take actions towards achieving their goals and values, even when they are experiencing difficult or unwanted internal events.

Whilst psychological flexibility has not yet been examined in LGBT employees, there is evidence to suggest that people higher in this quality are better able to cope, and indeed flourish, in the workplace.

In addition, while people have naturally occurring levels of psychological flexibility, it is also a quality that can be enhanced through training, and research has indicated that such enhancement can, in turn, improve work-related health and performance.

This latter point is particularly important because it leaves the door ajar in terms of utilising psychologically-informed training interventions to help LGBT employees cope with the stresses of being out in the workplace.

It would be quite easy to get disheartened by the fact that LGBT employees may have to work hard at persevering in order to survive the stresses of being out in the workplace. But unfortunately in-group favouritism and out-group discrimination appears to be a natural human tendency.

Many organisations are doing a great job of promoting LGBT rights and implementing strategies to prevent unfair treatment of LGBT employees, and I would recommend they pay heed to psychologically-informed solutions to help support this. But until the day comes where LGBT discrimination is no longer an issue, we’ll need to keep on persevering.

Dr Jo Lloyd, Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London