Protecting & Promoting Non-Binary People’s Mental Health at Work: 9 Ways To Create a More Inclusive Workplace
Protecting and promoting employee mental health starts with the creation of a safer, more inclusive environment. Learn how to cultivate a more inclusive, mental health-friendly workplace for non-binary people in this practical guide.
- Mental health as a key business metric: The importance of mental wellbeing in the workplace
- What has inclusivity got to do with employee mental health?
- Understanding the meaning of non-binary
- Being non-binary at work: Some experiences and perspectives
- 9 actionable steps towards a safer, more inclusive workplace for non-binary people
- Key takeaways and additional resources
Mental health as a key business metric: The importance of mental wellbeing in the workplace
While physical health has long been recognized as an important factor in employee wellbeing and workplace performance, mental health hasn’t always received the same attention.
However, the cost of ignoring mental health at work is huge. In 2018, a report published by The Lancet estimated that 12 billion working days are lost due to mental illness every year. The same report estimated that mental health issues will cost the global economy USD$16 trillion by 2030.
With the topic of mental health gaining more attention in recent years, employee wellbeing is now increasingly viewed as a key business metric. Indeed, the success of every company relies on the attendance and engagement of its people, and this is only possible when both physical and mental wellbeing are promoted and protected.
Although they are not as common as physical health initiatives, multiple studies have shown that the impact of workplace mental health interventions is remarkably positive, with an average ROI of 4:1.
Research indicates that workers who feel supported by their employer with regards to mental health tend to be less likely to experience mental health symptoms, less likely to underperform and miss work, and have higher job satisfaction and intentions to stay at their company.
Furthermore, companies who prioritize workplace culture and employee mental wellbeing experience twice as much growth over a three-year period than those who don’t, according to a 2021 survey of 500 CEOs.
Ultimately, employers who invest in their employees’ mental wellbeing stand to benefit from more productive, satisfied workers, reduced absenteeism, and increased staff retention.
The role of inclusivity in creating a more mental health-friendly workplace
Promoting employee mental health begins with the creation of a safer, more inclusive environment for everybody. Such an environment is the foundation for psychological safety: the ability to show and employ oneself without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career.
In a psychologically safe work environment, all team members feel accepted and respected. In a psychologically unsafe environment, on the other hand, employees do not feel safe to be themselves. This can have severe negative consequences for an individual’s self esteem and mental health.
So, when addressing the topic of mental health, employers must take measures to ensure that everybody feels safe, valued, respected, and included—regardless of race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, background, age, disability, sexuality, or gender.
Garen Staglin, founder of One Mind, writes: “Mental health and diversity and inclusion (D&I) are closely connected. Employees from diverse backgrounds can face lack of representation, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and other stressors that impact their mental health and psychological safety at work. As a result, initiatives that support diversity, inclusion, and belonging can also support mental health—and vice versa.”
Creating a mental health-friendly and psychologically safe workplace begins with inclusivity. This requires paying special attention to the experiences of underrepresented groups who are more likely to face discrimination at work and who may be less likely to feel psychologically safe.
Throughout this guide, we will explore how employers can create a safer, more inclusive workplace for non-binary people as a first step towards helping to protect and promote their mental wellbeing.
Understanding the meaning of non-binary
When understanding the topic of gender identity, it’s important to distinguish between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’—two terms that are commonly but incorrectly used interchangeably.
Sex is the classification of a person as male, female, or intersex. This is usually designated at birth based on a person’s genitals. The sex we are assigned at birth may or may not correspond to our gender.
Gender is how we understand and experience our own gender identity. As per The Trevor Project’s definition, each person’s experience of their gender identity is unique and personal, and cannot be known simply by looking at a person.
The gender binary is a system of gender classification in which all people are categorized as being either man or woman. As per the LGBT Foundation: “Non-binary people feel their gender identity cannot be defined within the margins of gender binary. Instead, they understand their gender in a way that goes beyond simply identifying as either a man or woman.”
If a person’s gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth, this person is cisgender (or cis). If a person’s gender identity is different to the sex they were assigned at birth, they may be transgender, gender-fluid, gender non-binary, genderqueer, or agender (not an exhaustive list, but just some ways to describe gender identity outside of the binary).
“A non-binary gender is essentially a gender that is not strictly ‘woman’ or ‘man’. Gender is how you feel and identify. Let’s say you were born with a penis and assigned male at birth, but when you grew up, you didn’t identify with being a man or a woman. Neither identity felt quite right for you. That would make you a non-binary person.”
Writing for LGBTQIA+ youth charity Minus18, Arlo says:
“In really simple terms, a non-binary person is someone who does not identify as exclusively a man or a woman. Someone who is non-binary might feel like a mix of genders, or like they have no gender at all. Personally, I identify outside of the gender binary entirely. I am not a boy or girl at all. Some other non-binary people might identify partially with one or more of the binary genders—for example, a gender-fluid person (someone whose gender changes over time) who identifies as a girl sometimes and genderless other times. There are so many different ways to be non-binary, and we’re all still valid and real!”
Being non-binary at work: Some experiences and perspectives
A comprehensive study conducted by The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and The National Center for Transgender Equality highlights how transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals often experience significant rates of discrimination in the workplace, with almost a third experiencing discrimination in the hiring process alone. Gender non-conforming people of color are even more likely to face employment discrimination and economic uncertainty.
Key findings from the report include:
- Survey respondents experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the general population, with unemployment rates for trans and non-binary people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate
- 90% of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination at work—or took actions to avoid discrimination, such as hiding who they are
- 47% said they had experienced an adverse job outcome such as being fired, not hired, or denied a promotion because of being transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming
The findings are similar across multiple other studies. In England, nearly 20% of LGBTQIA employees report being discriminated against and suffering harassment and violence. Trans and non-binary individuals in particular face disproportionate levels of aggression and exclusion in the workplace.
In the United States, an estimated 15% of non-binary adults are unemployed—that’s three times the national average. Another comprehensive survey of trans and non-binary Americans found that nearly 30% of those employed over the previous year had been fired, passed over for a promotion, or were not hired because of their gender identity or expression.
Sharing a non-binary identity at work
Considering the definition of psychological safety—feeling accepted, respected, and safe to be oneself—it is important to consider non-binary people’s experiences of sharing their gender identity at work.
A report looking at the experiences of non-binary people in the UK found that only 6% of those surveyed always felt comfortable sharing their non-binary identity at work, while 52% never felt comfortable. 89.5% worried that their identity wouldn’t be respected, 88.2% worried that it would make their work environment more difficult, and 54.5% worried that it would impact on their career progression.
The same survey found that 79.6% of respondents felt they had to pass as male or female in order to be accepted, 52.3% had been referred to by the wrong name and pronoun by mistake, 21% had been referred to by the wrong name and pronoun on purpose, and 25.1% experienced silent harassment for being non-binary.
One survey respondent shared the impact of working in an environment that isn’t inclusive:
“Working in an environment that is not inclusive of non-binary identities is exhausting and damaging to your mental health. You need a lot of support from outside work and strategies to keep yourself going throughout the day. It is hard because not only are you facing discrimination, no one sees it as that because they don’t see non-binary as existing.”
Employers must take actionable steps to address the discrimination that non-binary people face at work. Only then can they begin to cultivate psychological safety and help to protect and promote non-binary people’s mental wellbeing.
How To Create a More Inclusive Workplace & Promote Psychological Safety and Mental Wellbeing for Non-Binary Employees: 9 Actionable Steps
There are many steps you can take to create a more inclusive workplace for non-binary people, and thus help to protect and promote their mental wellbeing.
1. Use inclusive, gender-neutral language
Language is extremely powerful, and it has the potential to include or exclude. The use of gendered language ignores and invalidates the existence of people who exist beyond the gender binary, so it’s essential to eliminate it from the workplace as much as possible.
Consider how you address groups. Instead of saying “Hi guys!” or “Ladies and gentlemen”, say “Hi everyone”, “Hi folks”, or another gender-neutral alternative.
At the same time, make sure all company documentation and communication—such as contracts, policies, surveys, and forms—uses inclusive, gender-neutral language. Remove any references to “his/her” and default to “their” instead. And, if you’re using any kind of HR software, make sure your chosen platform also uses gender-inclusive language.
2. Normalize sharing pronouns
Using the right pronouns when talking to and about people is a crucial part of creating a respectful and inclusive workplace culture. Sharing pronouns should always be voluntary, and you cannot expect everybody to share their pronouns in return. But, as a leader, you can help to normalize the practice and create a safe space for others to follow suit if they wish to do so.
For example, if you’re interviewing a candidate for a job, you can introduce yourself by stating your name and your pronouns as follows: “Hi, I’m Jordan, my pronouns are she/her and I’m the head of HR.” You can also add your pronouns to your email signature, LinkedIn profile, Slack profile, and anywhere else you have the opportunity to do so.
If a colleague has shared their pronouns with you, make an effort to use them correctly both in that person’s presence and when talking about them in the third person. And, if you do make a mistake, always be open and willing to be corrected.
3. Update dress codes to be inclusive
A study conducted by The Human Rights Campaign found that one in five LGBTQ+ people have been told, or had coworkers imply, that they should dress more feminine or masculine. By comparison, one in 24 non-LGBTQ+ workers faced the same discrimination.
Writing for Included Health, Scottie, a non-binary trans person, says:
“I have had many experiences in which my work dress code was used to stifle my identity and expression. I had been written up in a six-month review for not appearing ‘professional’ enough. When I pressed them for more information, they gave me examples of things I could do to ‘improve’ my professionalism. All of [the suggestions] were specifically related to me having a more femme presentation.
When my more masculine clothing was tied to a ‘lack of professionalism,’ I caved and purchased more femme pants and shoes so as to not further upset my employer. I was extremely uncomfortable, felt not only exposed but erased or hidden. My interaction with my patients and clients was subpar because I was hyper-focused on how uncomfortable I felt with my appearance and how I had to carry myself to compensate.”
When asked to prioritize which inclusive practices were most important to their experience in the workplace, non-binary employees put inclusive dress codes at the top.
If a dress code is strictly necessary for your workplace, make sure it is free from gendered language—and discrimination of any kind. Allow employees to dress authentically and comfortably, and remove any rules that enforce gender stereotypes. Most importantly, be aware of the impact a dress code might have on underrepresented groups.
4. Provide gender-neutral facilities
The provision of gender-neutral facilities is another important way to respect and protect non-binary people at work. If you only provide gendered bathrooms and locker rooms, you are essentially forcing non-binary people to make a decision that does not align with their gender identity—thus invalidating their identity altogether.
Consider converting single restrooms into all-gender facilities, find other opportunities to provide gender-neutral facilities in your workplace, and remove gendered signage on bathroom doors.
5. Take a clear, zero-tolerance stance against discrimination of any kind
If you’re serious about creating a safer, more inclusive workplace for all, this must be incorporated into your organization’s anti-discrimination and anti-harrassment policies.
It’s important to be clear and specific. Explicitly name gender identity and gender expression as protected classes, and outline how this looks in practice—for example, providing access to bathroom facilities that correspond with your employees’ gender identity, enforcing an inclusive language policy, and ensuring that all employee names and pronouns are respected and used correctly (regardless of what might appear on an employee’s legal documents).
Make sure all employees are familiar with company policies, and clearly outline consequences and actions that will be taken in the event of discrimination of any kind. If incidents involving microaggressions, bullying, or discrimination do occur, deal with them quickly and sensitively.
6. Provide adequate education and training for all employees
In order to create a culture of genuine inclusivity and respect, it is essential to educate your employees and equip them with adequate knowledge, awareness, and resources.
Make sure anti-discrimination and anti-harrassment policies are easily accessible, and explain these policies and what they mean to new employees during the onboarding process. Consider holding educational workshops, such as inclusive language training, in order to reinforce company values and remind employees of what’s expected of them. Importantly, if you do organize internal trainings, do not place the burden on your non-binary employees to help plan or run them. Educating others in the workplace should not call upon the labor of non-binary people.
Another recommended practice is sensitivity training. Sensitivity training is a psychological technique that uses intensive group discussions and interactions to increase sensitivity towards others, as well as awareness of an individual’s own prejudices. It can help to build mutual trust, empathy, and acceptance, to facilitate communication without fear of judgment, and to identify and address different types of discrimination. You can learn more about sensitivity training and how to implement it here.
7. Recruit inclusively and work to eliminate bias from the hiring process
With non-binary people more likely to face discrimination during the hiring process, a crucial step towards a more inclusive workplace is to review how you recruit, interview, and hire candidates.
Write inclusive job descriptions, share your job ads in a variety of different channels where they are likely to be discovered by underrepresented groups, and ensure that the application process itself is accessible and inclusive (paying attention to language). When it comes to interviews, be intentional about having a diverse panel of interviewers and asking fair, appropriate, and unbiased questions.
Learn more in Handshake’s guide to hiring and supporting LGBTQ+ early talent.
8. Actively practice allyship
Sheree Atcheson, global diversity, equity, and inclusion leader, defines an ally as “any person that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive, and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole.”
There are many different ways you can step up as an ally to your non-binary colleagues, including educating yourself and your employees (and not expecting non-binary people to take on the labor of educating you themselves), using the correct pronouns, sharing your own pronouns in order to normalize the practice and create a safe space for others to do so, and checking your own bias and privilege—to name just a few.
Speaking from her perspective as an expert counselor and sex educator (and as a cis woman) Kemoy Jemmott explains:
“Allyship can look like many different things. It’s not only about supporting someone when they are present; it’s also what you do when those people are not in the room. If somebody misgenders another person, you can politely correct them and move on. Allyship doesn’t have to always take the form of grandiose acts—you should always ask yourself how you can support a person in a meaningful way. It’s also about having conversations with people to ask them what they need.”
For more ways to be an ally to your gender non-forming coworkers, take a look at this guide.
9. Give your employees access to mental health resources and tools
A major barrier that many non-binary people face is in getting access to adequate mental health support. Based on her experience as a counselor, Kemoy Jemmott notes:
“It can be more challenging for gender-diverse people to reach out for and gain access to adequate mental health support, and I’ve heard that from some of my clients. The challenges come with mental health professionals not being knowledgeable about gender diversity or what it means to be non-binary.”
Systemic barriers such as inadequate health insurance coverage can prevent non-binary individuals from accessing affordable, high-quality care, in addition to fear of being mistreated or discriminated against.
As an employer, consider extending your employee benefits package to include mental health support. Mental health interventions in the workplace have been proven to have a remarkably high return on investment, and can play a significant role in reducing mental health symptoms, boosting productivity, and increasing an employee’s job satisfaction.
A tool like nilo.health gives your employees access to an all-round mental health support platform, providing private, one-on-one video counseling sessions with expert psychologists, evidence-based programs to help prevent and manage stress and anxiety, and clinically-approved tools to foster mindfulness, meditation, and general wellbeing. Employees benefit from quick access to mental health support which is tailored to their individual needs, while employers benefit from a happier, healthier team of people (and all the business benefits that brings). Learn more about nilo.health and how it works.
Key takeaways and additional resources
Protecting and promoting the mental wellbeing of your non-binary colleagues starts with inclusivity. Employers who strive towards a more inclusive workplace lay the foundations for psychological safety—creating a space where non-binary people are more likely to feel respected, accepted, valued, and safe to be themselves. And, in protecting and promoting your employees’ mental health, you stand to benefit from higher productivity, reduced absenteeism, faster growth, higher staff retention, and more satisfied, engaged teams.
To learn more about creating a more inclusive workplace for non-binary people and supporting non-binary people’s mental health, refer to the following additional resources:
- The Trevor Project Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth
- How To Be An Ally To Transgender And Non-Binary People
- What Does It Mean to Be Non-Binary?
- Out & Equal: Best Practices for Non-Binary Inclusion in the Workplace
- A Workplace Divided: Understanding the Climate for LGBTQ Workers Nationwide (a report by The Human Rights Campaign Foundation)
- Why Your Organization Needs An Inclusive Language Policy
- 5 Steps To A More Mental Health-Friendly Workplace