A few weeks ago, my husband had a heart attack. The good news is that he’s going to be OK. But the path to restoring his health started with a terrifying weekend of uncertainty in the hospital. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of doctor visits, rehab appointments and a lot of emotions at home. I’ve been stressed out, exhausted and often overwhelmed.

And no one I work with knows anything about it.

It’s not that the heart attack is a secret. It’s that he’s the secret. Or, more precisely, our relationship is the secret. I’m one of the 46% of LGBT Americans who is in the closet at work (so says a 2018 survey by the Human Rights Campaign). Actually, I’m in several closets. That’s because I work with a variety of clients, which means that I don’t have just one decision to make about coming out but repeated decisions. Because it can take time for me to size up an organization’s culture, and because the organization isn’t as invested in me as it is in a full-time employee, I’ve generally found it easier not to say anything.

During this crisis, I’ve come to regret that decision. Trust me: The lack of support during the workday has made dealing with the heart attack much, much harder. That’s particularly apparent to me now, because it’s in sharp contrast to the outpouring of support that I got at work when my father passed away last fall. The truth is that fully separating our personal and professional lives – if that’s even possible – isn’t healthy. To me, the proof is that I’ve never felt lonelier or more isolated in my life. Of course, my work has suffered, too.

I’m not alone. The same Human Rights Campaign (HRC) survey found that 25% of closeted employees feel distracted at work, 17% say that hiding their sexual orientation is exhausting, and 31% feel depressed at work. When employees continue to feel unwelcome at work, their engagement in the job can erode as much as 30%. Honestly, I’m surprised it’s not more than that.

You’d think we’d be past this by now. And in some ways we are. I’m fortunate to live in a diverse and progressive part of the most progressive state in the country. I’m out to family, friends, neighbors and even the clerk at Trader Joe’s who unfailingly asks about my husband. But work is different. We spend more time at work than anywhere else, and how we’re perceived shapes work relationships, assignments, promotions and even how much we earn. So people are naturally reluctant to share anything that might end up working against them.

The concern is reasonable. A 2018 GLAAD/Harris Poll survey found that about 25% of American employees would be uncomfortable seeing an LGBT colleague’s wedding photo. The HRC survey found that 36% of employees feel uncomfortable talking about an LGBT colleague’s dating. But here’s the real concern: The same survey found that 59% of non-LGBT employees say it’s unprofessional(emphasis mine) to talk about sexual orientation in the workplace. (The irony here is that these same people talk about their own sexual orientation at work every day, without even thinking about it. But I digress.) Oh, and then there’s the reality that you can still be fired in 28 states for being gay.

And so many people stay in the closet. It crosses generations – even Millennials often go back in the closet at work. And it’s particularly challenging for women and people of color who already feel challenged to prove themselves at work and often choose not to add being a sexual minority to the list of qualities that set them apart.

I’m sure it’s no surprise that this is a global issue. Same-sex relationships are taboo and often illegal in many parts of the world; homosexuality is punishable by death in seven countries. And even where it is neither taboo nor illegal life can be tough: A survey by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found that across Europe, 47% of LGBT persons have felt discriminated against or have been harassed due to their sexual orientation, and 20% have experienced discrimination at work. Another study by the insurance giant Lloyd’s found that six in 10 LGBT people in Australia experience verbal homophobic abuse in the workplace, while two in 10 experience physical violence.And so a large percentage (often a majority) of LGBT employees worldwide stay in the closet: A Center for Talent Innovation survey found that 64% of LGBT employees in India, China and Brazil are not out at work.

No workplace can be truly inclusive as long as any employees feel unsafe to simply be themselves. In previous blog posts, I’ve cited numerous studies showing that being fully inclusive is good for business. That reality is underscored by some further examples from the HRC survey on the impact of LGBT employees staying in the closet at work:

· 20% avoid special events at work, such as lunch, happy hour, or a holiday party;

· 25% avoid certain people at work;

· 20% have stayed home from work because the workplace isn’t always accepting of LGBT people;

· 20% have searched for a different job.

All that adds up to a negative impact on the business. When the Lloyd’s survey was released, Chris Mackinnon, Lloyd’s general representative in Australia, noted that, “Research shows that when LGBTI staff are ‘openly out’ to all, businesses see a 15-30% increase in productivity and retention rates improve by 10%.” 

Mackinnon’s perspective is reinforced by the Center for Talent Innovation’s report, which concluded that fostering an LGBT-inclusive work environment not only helps companies attract and retain top talent, but also helps them win critical consumer segments and innovate in underserved markets.

Clearly, then, making it easier for LGBT employees to step out of the closet is about much more than whether I feel lonely and isolated at work. For organizations that value the full engagement that comes from true diversity and inclusion, the next logical question is, “How do we do that?” I’ll explore that question in my next post.