We’ve all had periods in our lives where everything seems to be going wrong. Maybe we didn’t get the promotion we wanted, our finances are a mess or we’re continuously falling out with loved ones. Life throws us these curveballs, however, even during the most challenging stages of life, we’re often expected to continue on at work while ‘being professional’.
Lakshmi Devan challenges this notion of professionalism, in a bid to create inclusive and supportive places where people can openly talk about their mental health while feeling comfortable with their sexuality.
Hi Lakshmi! Please tell us what started your journey as a voice for mental health and the LGBTQIA+ community.
When I started my professional journey, I had long, thick hair. I used to work in a digital media agency and we’d often do outdoor shoots in the middle of nowhere – there was no food or water and we barely got any sleep. Because my hair was hot and difficult to manage, I chopped it off, but soon after, I realised people were treating me differently. All of a sudden, I was one of the guys – I was taken more seriously.
It was heartbreaking to realise, but I definitely think I’ve had more growth opportunities because I’m not as ‘effeminate’ – all because of my hair! This is what made me realise that there are inequalities in the workplace.
How did you become an active voice for mental health?
I found that there’s a big stigma around mental health medication. People are afraid to talk about it because they feel it makes them look unstable or unreliable – this is not the case.
I started talking about mental health on LinkedIn – anxiety, depression, OCD, and bipolar, for example – because I wanted to normalise the conversation. At first, people would only reply via direct message, usually explaining that they didn’t want their friends, colleagues or managers to see their comments.
When I started out, I was angry. I was livid by a lot of unethical things that kept happening to women at my workplace, with no accountability. So I would share the stories on LinkedIn, and consequently get called back into the HR office time after time. Once, I was asked what kind of example I was setting as a leader to others – “that we need to stand up for ourselves,” I said.
Now, I speak about everything and I’ve created a community of people who can share their experiences so they no longer feel alone. Now, I try to be as unfiltered as possible. Yes, that gets me in trouble, but it’s worth it.
What do you mean when you say you want to ‘redefine professional’?
Sometimes I get criticised for sharing harassment or mental health stories on LinkedIn – a ‘professional’ platform. When this happens, I ask the person whether they believe that these issues occur in the workplace – because they absolutely do, they’re often just not spoken about.
I also believe that the definition of ‘professional’ is everything that a human is not. To some, professional means not carrying our emotions and leaving behind our struggles – it’s almost become synonymous with robots.
It’s understanding that everyone makes mistakes and has bad days. It’s redefining the idea that professionals don’t make mistakes and don’t have challenges. We’re humans – not robots!
How can businesses create environments where people can talk openly about their mental health and feel supported when doing so?
I talk a lot about my personal experiences because I think it helps to humanise these challenges that we face. For example, I talk openly about being pansexual because a lot of people don’t know what it is, and if they do, they can misunderstand it. To counter this, I make sure that I answer every question as openly and honestly as possible, and I encourage employers to do the same. It’s important to understand that sexuality is a spectrum and we can be anyone we want to be.
Another way is to normalise pronouns, which is so basic yet so essential. Non-binary folk often struggle with identity because everything in society is male or female – there’s often no third option. This can be hard enough in everyday life, so it definitely doesn’t have to be made worse in the workplace. Safe spaces to have these conversations are therefore paramount in helping people feel included and comfortable, and it will also ensure that employees remain engaged. If employees don’t feel engaged, they’re less likely to feel psychologically safe and will therefore leave the company. So, if employers don’t want to change for the LGBTQIA+ community, they should want to change because it helps their bottom line.
Why is it so important that companies respect pronouns?
I once got asked why I have my she/her pronouns bracketed on my LinkedIn when I looked clearly like a woman. I think this is a common question that has a simple answer: I may identify as a woman, but just because you assume someone’s gender, doesn’t make it correct. Showing our pronouns demonstrates that people can feel comfortable specifying their gender, normalising the conversations to create an inclusive culture where everyone has their needs met.
What advice would you give to those experiencing challenges with their mental health or expressing their sexuality in the workplace?
Before you talk about it, you have to be ready. These are deeply personal things, so don't feel pressured to tell anyone how you identify or the mental health challenges you’re facing until you’re absolutely ready.
Secondly, if you’re discovering your identity or sexuality, good for you! Own it! Don’t feel uncomfortable stating your pronouns – it can be as simple as “Hi, I’m Lakshmi, these are my hobbies and these are my pronouns.”
On a similar note, what would you say to your younger self?
I went to an all-girls school, but I grew up thinking I was a boy because I was attracted to my peers, and I believed that only boys could like girls. I was also a late bloomer, so I would lie awake at night wondering whether I was a boy or a girl – this made me feel like an imposter for most of my life.
Because of this, I would tell myself that I am weird, I am different and I have a lot of energy, but that’s perfect. Don’t carry the weight of what others think of you, because that’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life. My life would have been a lot happier and freer if I focused on my own happiness, rather than the opinions of others.
Finally, what has been the secret to your success?
Kindness, without a doubt. I am who I am today because of the kindness of others, and that’s why I’m so passionate about spreading positivity. The more digitally connected we become, the lonelier we feel. We look at people’s perfect lives on Instagram and wonder why our lives aren’t like that, but the truth is, you have no idea what's happening behind the scenes.