‘The closet I built ended up a cage’: LGBTIQ mental health at work


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Photo: Micha Klootwijk/Adobe Stock

A toxic workplace culture is bad for all employees, but can be a particular burden on LGBTIQ employees, already stigmatised by their sexuality or identity, writes RJ Miles.

I wish workplace mental health initiatives were more about helping people to understand the psychology of burnout and less about getting people to do yoga.

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The benefits of therapeutic lifestyle activities cannot be dismissed but bear with me here.

I spent half a decade as a teacher and may return one day. Like all modern careers, it is a stressful undertaking and the stress is multiplied if you happen to be a gay teacher.

Some people consider it controversial for gay people to be in influential positions with children.

For the privilege of a job, gay teachers are often expected to suppress self-identity — lest their sexuality besmirch their place of employment.

I scripted my conversations with colleagues and parents. I locked down my Facebook and quit writing in the public space in case someone Googled my name.

I built myself a closet — or tried to. Lacking carpentry skills or experience of closets, I ended up with a cage.

All for nothing. One day in the staff room, I blew my cover by unthinkingly used a feminine pronoun to describe my partner.

I had been piling onto an already stressful workload by my efforts at self-denial, but accidentally outing myself didn’t lessen the load. I now had to add self-justification to my daily list of chores.

The institution was not unaware of the need to do something for staff morale.

Although the only gay teacher, I was not the only staff member with a secret. Everyone struggled in some way to fit the required stereotype.

And straight or gay, we all worked through lunch hours, competed dog-eat-dog style with colleagues for permanency, and gave up their weekends for extra-curricular activities – and it still never felt like enough. We always felt behind.

A “wellness guru” visited school as part of professional development. He asked us where we rated our wellbeing on a scale between -4 and +4 (odd metric, but okay.)

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When he saw my minus four, he stopped and said, “Yeah… I can’t really help with that. You should see someone.” Someone = a therapist.

You see, some leaders tick the wellbeing box by outsourcing to gurus with buzz words and platitudes.

They arrive with their Pinterest boards about scented candles, mindfulness, yoga, and clean eating.

But none of that works if your whole working life is out of whack.

Everyone in that workplace suffered from both the workload and the toxic culture. No amount of wellness Band Aids will heal that.

I was forced to live an invisible life, which influenced everything I did, online and in the real world.

Being outed was a big unknown, but I knew from observation the result would not be positive.

I wish someone had explained that it wouldn’t get better in that specific place; that there is no shame in cutting free as an act of self-care.

Sometimes, it is the situation that triggers poor mental health, rather than a lack of me-time in the tub.

Sometimes, leadership teams tick the wellbeing box with low-effort outsourcing but fail to address the deeper issues of bad workplace culture.

Fostering an inclusive workplace culture where people have the freedom to bring their whole selves is much more important than wellness days.

No number of scented candles can undo toxicity, but it is a good idea to address it. Otherwise, we risk burning out some of our best and brightest — gay, straight, or otherwise.

Namaste? Nah, I’ma go. And I’m taking a free box of paperclips with me.

RJ Miles is a Brisbane mum, author and educator. To read more from RJ Miles about her experiences as a same-sex parent, click here.