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Embracing your LGBTQ+ employees

Nearly 10 percent of millennials identify as LGBTQ+.

Though it may seem like the LGBTQ+ External Link (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning) community has experienced significant wins in legal rights and greater social acceptance over the last decade, the United States still has a long way to go when it comes to equality, especially in health care and workplace discrimination. More than 11 million Americans identify as LGBTQ+, 88 percent of whom are employed External Link. And, despite the social justice initiatives sweeping the United States, LGBTQ+ individuals still suffer from significant physical and mental health disparities, according to a recent study from Michigan State University External Link.

Research from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion External Link shows that health disparities among LGBTQ+ Americans are linked to stigma, discrimination, and denial of civil and human rights. These individuals often experience a lack of appropriate social programs and a shortage of health care providers who are culturally competent in LGBTQ+ health needs.

The health disparities that the LGBTQ+ community frequently experience External Link include higher rates of sexually transmitted infections, more substance use and abuse, higher rates of mental health conditions, higher odds of experiencing an eating disorder or being obese, higher rates of cervical and breast cancers Opens in new window, and a greater risk of heart disease Opens in new window. In addition, the likelihood of feeling anxious and depressed is almost 200 percent and 250 percent higher External Link for LGBTQ+ millennials than it is for their straight peers.

According to a recent Gallup® poll External Link, nearly 10 percent of millennials (adults born between 1981 and 1996) and nearly 16 percent of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2002) identify as LGBTQ+. Millennials in general are also suffering from poorer health External Link compared to previous generations, with a higher prevalence of depression opens in new window and other mental health conditions, substance abuse, type 2 diabetes, and more.

Because millennials are going to make up approximately 75 percent of your workforce in just a few years (and your company may even employ younger adults from Generation Z), it’s time to make sure your workplace culture and benefits strategy don’t just “talk the talk” when it comes to your LGBTQ+ employees.

Understanding the struggles your LGBTQ+ employees face

For most people in good health, going to the doctor for a regular checkup isn’t a big deal. For individuals identifying as LGBTQ+, it’s a different story. More than half of respondents in a survey about health care fairness External Link from Lambda Legal reported experiencing discrimination in a health care setting. In another survey from the Center for American Progress, more than 18 percent of LGBTQ people External Link who had experienced discrimination in the past year avoided doctors’ offices.

Discrimination isn’t just limited to health care settings, either. More than one-third of LGBTQ+ Americans faced discrimination of some kind in the past year, according to the State of the LGBTQ Community in 2020 External Link. Unsurprisingly, discrimination negatively affects the mental and economic well-being of many LGBTQ+ Americans, with 50 percent reporting moderate or significant negative psychological impacts. To avoid discrimination, many end up altering aspects of their personal and work lives.

In addition, the disparities between straight/heterosexual and LGBTQ+ Americans — millennials in particular — extend far beyond their physical health. A TD Ameritrade survey External Link reported that only 38 percent of LGBTQ+ millennials expect to feel financially secure in retirement. And only 53 percent report having access to health insurance benefits for themselves through their employer — compared to two-thirds of straight millennials.

Wondering what you can do to help close these gaps in the health and well-being struggles your LGBTQ+ employees face? The answer is simple.

Fostering an inclusive workplace for LGBTQ+ employees

Even though LGBTQ+ individuals have legal protections at work, there’s a lot more employers can do to help these employees feel safe and welcomed while on the job. Depending on the makeup of your workforce, this can look like updating anti-discrimination workplace policies, adopting hiring practices that prioritize diversity and inclusion, and reviewing benefits to make sure your LGBTQ+ employees feel seen, heard, and understood.

Updating anti-discrimination policies

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court voting in 2020 to protect LGBTQ+ Americans in the workforce from wrongful termination based on sexual orientation, nearly half of LGBTQ+ workers External Link still feel like they need to stay closeted at their job. That’s likely because 25 percent report External Link still experiencing discrimination at work, and 53 percent report External Link hearing jokes about gay or lesbian people at work (41 percent and 37 percent report hearing transgender- or bisexual-specific jokes).

With this in mind, it’s crucial that any policy changes you make embrace — not just tolerate — your diverse workforce. This can include:

  • Training managers, supervisors and employees on best practices to maintain a workplace culture that is inclusive and accepting
  • Establishing gender-neutral restrooms and dress codes (for example, not enforcing specifically gendered clothing items like skirts or dresses and instead just requiring business casual or other work-appropriate casual clothing)
  • Providing resources for employees on how to be allies
  • Encouraging authenticity at work by updating email signatures to include their pronouns External Link

By not taking a stand and officially supporting your LGBTQ+ employees, you may be putting your company at risk for losing top talent. A report from the Human Rights Campaign External Link revealed that an unwelcoming work environment can lead to LGBTQ+ employees:

  • feeling distracted at work (25 percent)
  • avoiding special work events such as lunches, happy hours or holiday parties (20 percent)
  • feeling unhappy or depressed at work (31 percent)
  • staying home from work (20 percent)
  • actively looking for a new job (20 percent)

Prioritizing diversity and inclusion

The workplace has changed significantly over the past few decades. For prior generations of LGBTQ+ workers, most of whom remained closeted at work, expecting their workplace to prioritize diversity and inclusion was uncommon. Today, however, a far more diverse LGBTQ+ workforce — whose expectations are much higher — is more likely to include women, transgender employees, people of color, and people with varied sexual orientations, rendering many policies or programs that support diversity, equity and inclusion insufficient.

To remain on top in a competitive labor market, it’s important to not only prioritize workplace diversity but act on it as well. Consider implementing more diverse recruiting and hiring practices (especially for executive-level positions External Link), offer training that educates employees about the importance of diversity and inclusion, and design workplace culture initiatives that keep your LGBTQ+ employees in mind.  

Reviewing benefits that impact LGBTQ+ employees

In addition to making sure your workplace prioritizes diversity and inclusion and stands firm on anti-discrimination toward all employees, you may also want to look at your benefits to ensure they don’t accidentally exclude certain groups.

This could simply mean changing the way your benefits are communicated. For example, understanding the higher costs of family planning for LGBTQ+ couples or replacing terms like maternity leave with parental leave to include those who may not identify as female, plan to adopt, or may be using a surrogate. Other pain points around benefits for LGBTQ+ employees include coverage for infertility External Link, which may inadvertently exclude them based on their specific situation, and transgender health care coverage.

You may also want to consider implementing a financial well-being benefit if you don’t have one already. As we mentioned earlier, LGBTQ+ millennials are at a disadvantage when it comes to feeling financially secure both now and in retirement compared to their straight counterparts. A financial wellness program that has a diversity, equity and inclusion focus can make a big impact External Link.

Plus, getting all employees — millennials especially — to engage in their financial well-being can not only improve their mental health, physical health, and retirement readiness, but also support them as they work toward goals like buying a house or starting a family.

Leading by example

Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield has long devoted time and energy into ensuring an inclusive workplace culture for our employees. Our commitment to inclusion has been recognized locally and nationally with more than 60 awards since 2009. In fact, inclusion is one of our core values — and we recognize that it's vital to our business and long-term success. Here are a few ways that we 'walk the walk:'

  • We've won the Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality award External Link from the Human Rights Campaign for several years — and we currently have a perfect score External Link.
  • We formed an Inclusion Council (a dedicated team of employees with diverse representation, including the LGBTQ voice) in 2006 to support our core value of inclusion. The council promotes workforce engagement in an inclusive, trusting and healthy work environment and culture, and educates our workforce through a variety of channels. 
  • We regularly review our health care and workplace benefits to ensure we're meeting the needs of our LGBTQ+ employees.

How it all adds up

Every company should want to attract and retain top talent and enable their employees to be able to bring their best selves to work. Now that millennials are a major part of your workforce, it’s time to embrace benefits that are inclusive of everyone you employ — regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.  

Want to learn more about your millennial employees?

Millennials currently make up 50 percent of your workforce, and by 2025, they will make up 75 percent of your employee population. This generation comes into the workplace with a desire to succeed and make a lasting impact, but they are plagued with several health conditions.

Notably, millennials with a behavioral health condition (depression, anxiety, hyperactivity) are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a chronic physical condition such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and coronary artery disease.

The bottom line: when your employees aren’t healthy, health care costs will continue to rise, and productivity will decrease.

When you download your free copy of the Millennials In Your Workplace e-book opens in new window, you can take advantage of extensive research, in-house data and subject matter expertise to help create sustainable, long-term changes in your workplace today.

Questions? Contact your authorized Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield account representative or email us at Send Email.