Exclusive Interview – Daisy Reeves, Partner in the London Banking department at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP (”BCLP”); member of the BCLP Global I&D Board & Co-Chair BCLP Global LGBTQ+ Allies Network
June is Pride month across the world. It’s the most significant time of the year for celebrating and raising awareness around inclusion for LGBTQ+ workers everywhere. Stonewall’s LGBT in Britain – Health report tells us 52% of LGBTQ+ people experience depression, whereas the national average is 25%. Facing shame and stigma for feeling different, unaccepted for who we are impacts our mental health–whether it’s because of our sexuality, our race, or because we have a mental or physical illness. Workplaces have a responsibility to make all employees feel included, to celebrate our differences.
I had the opportunity to share a conversation with Daisy Reeves this week for our Pride issue. Daisy is an inspiring global leader in LGBTQ+ advocacy, currently ranked as the no. 1 female lawyer in the ‘OUTstanding’ LGBTQ+ Executives Role Models List featuring C-suite and business leaders across 24 countries and 5 continents. Daisy shares her thoughts on the mental health benefits to LGBTQ+ employees of ‘coming out’ at work, what it means for companies to have truly inclusive cultures around both mental health and sexuality, and her own eye-opening lesson on why we must never take our wellbeing for granted.
As a partner a leading global law firm, were you always able to be open about your sexuality at work?
I ‘came out’ in 1995 just before university and that openness continued through law school. However, at first, I wasn’t ‘out’ at work when I started my training contract at BLP (now BCLP), where I am now a partner. In my mind, I thought a law firm in the City of London would have some Draconian views on issues of sexuality but at that time there were no ‘out’ lawyers I could see and very few lesbian role models at all. So, I chose to stay silent. During a training contract, you move between departments and I didn’t want the stigma of ‘we’ve got the lesbian trainee joining us’. I preferred people to think, ‘we’ve got Daisy joining us and she’s meant to be good’.
My then supervisor said to me one day about a year into my training contract, ‘look, we all know and of course its fine’. I guess it was a little naive of me assuming I could keep something like that secret when I’d been out and proud for many years, including with people who joined the firm from law school with me. I have always thought that was a brave and kind thing of my supervisor to do and we have been firm friends ever since.
I knew, even back then, that I wanted to stay and progress my career at BCLP on qualification because of its inclusive culture. Well over a decade ago, we set up our first LGBTQ+ employee resource group and since then we have gone from strength to strength, ending 2019 as the second most inclusive workplace in the UK for LGBTQ+ individuals, in the Stonewall Work Equality Index.
In the times when you weren’t ‘out’, what was the impact to your mental health?
‘Coming out’ and being able to be ‘out’ at work has, for me, been an overwhelmingly positive experience. When you have to self-edit and pretend, it is exhausting. Leaving out details of stories, denying the very existence of people that you love – it can take a toll on your thought processes.
It can absolutely impact your mental health. Part of that will be born out of not being able to be your authentic-self by being open about your sexuality or gender identity.
As well as it being the right thing to do, it makes business sense to be inclusive – studies show individuals are 30% less productive if they do not feel they can be ‘out’ at work and 76% more likely to leave that workplace within 3 years. Even now, the majority of graduates go back ‘in the closet’ when entering the workforce just like I did way back in 2002!
Just like choosing to ‘come out’ can involve a sense vulnerability, being open about mental health can also involve a degree of fear around how colleagues will react.
Have you also ‘come out’ to clients?
Yes, I absolutely feel able to be myself, ‘out’ with colleagues and clients. BCLP celebrates its diverse workforce and diversity of thought. We appreciate varied life experience and any firm should reflect and be representative of its client base.
So, I am open with my clients – of course in a professional context and manner. The more you normalise by being authentic in conversation, the more you diffuse prejudice. It’s normal to talk with clients, about life experiences and who you share them with.
I know that, for some, it can be a little trickier knowing whether or not to be ‘out’ with clients – and it is certainly more challenging in certain parts of the world. At BCLP we put in place a Global LGBTQ+ Allies network around 18 months ago, to ensure our LGBTQ+ colleagues feel supported, wherever they are in the world – a significant proportion of our global workforce have stepped forward as visible LGBTQ+ allies, the traction has been pretty phenomenal!
Do you think that ‘coming out’ had a positive impact on your mental health at work?
100 per cent. I’ve been able to be myself. I’m no longer self-editing. Being able to bring your whole self to work requires a culture which encourages openness and empathy. Not everyone has that luxury and it is not something I take for granted. I try to make sure, with my other LGBTQ+ colleagues and allies, that it something we foster for future generations.
Sexuality and mental wellbeing are both invisible for the most part and so people have a choice whether to be open with their colleagues. It is important for ‘diverse’ people in senior positions to be visible to others. You can’t be what you can’t see.
Taking sexuality out of the equation, the legal profession has a reputation for being high stress and there a lot of people this takes a toll on. How have you managed your overall wellbeing as a senior level legal professional?
Well I’ll be honest, I always thought I was managing my wellbeing in positive ways, then I had a big wake-up call with my health in 2018. At that time I thought I was firing on all cylinders. I felt happy, busy, fulfilled both work-wise and emotionally. Life was good. But the truth was I was incredibly busy, too busy, in every aspect of my life. My mind was so busy.
Over a period of a week, I was hospitalised twice – the first time, on the way to work, I lost my hearing and, in the ambulance, lost my speech and some memory. I had lots of tests immediately and then, when the symptoms subsided a few days later, pending test results, I got back on the tube to work (’I never get ill’ I said to myself, ‘I’ll be fine’) and this time I lost the feeling down one side – back to hospital.
I got tested for everything, a stroke, a brain tumour, MS. No one knew what was wrong, I wasn’t allowed to be alone as the doctors didn’t know what my body was going to do next. Whilst the worst symptoms subsided, I had a loud dull ringing in my head like an old fridge for months, I couldn’t sleep and a lot of my basic bodily functions shut themselves down. I lost words and short-term memory. I still lose words quite often even now and my memory isn’t as sharp but I am delighted to say all the tests for the really bad stuff were negative.
My neurologist said I had experienced ‘a complete neurological breakdown’ probably attributed to my very busy lifestyle. My mind was not depressed, it was ‘up’ and very sparky. It wouldn’t shut down so my body did – it seemed to say ‘no more, you need to rest lady’.
BCLP were incredibly supportive, allowing me as much time as required to get better and then to have a staged return to work.
How have you approached work and your wellbeing since 2018?
After being off work for four months and being tested for so many illnesses, some really bad ones, things are put into perspective. I’ve changed a lot of things.
I don’t go to every event I am invited to and I pick and choose events where I speak. When I do go to events, I go for a shorter period and leave early. I am much more sensible now, I don’t burn the candle at both ends. I no longer feel pressure to say ‘yes’ to everything. I’ve gotten over FOMO. Plus I used to smoke 20 cigarettes day, I know I know. I quit.
Now things that would have once worried me, I no longer put energy towards. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I have been very lucky to have had a mirror held up to me to address my health, many are not that lucky.
How does BCLP address mental health inclusion within its Diversity & Inclusion agenda?
BCLP is making great strides in this area. Firms do need to make sure that the proper infrastructure is in place so that, as people become more open about their mental health, they feel they will be accepted and supported, rather than judged and rejected. BCLP is truly committed to promoting the wellbeing of its workforce.
For me, one of the most effective ways of doing this at BCLP has been through sharing personal experiences. A number of our colleagues, including senior figures in the firm, have spoken openly and candidly about their experience of mental health as part of the Lord Mayor of London’s, This is Me campaign. This article is the first time I am doing it, a different form of ‘coming out’.
What advice would you give to young LGBTQ+ lawyers still in the closet in terms of their mental health?
Everyone’s circumstances are different but I do know that the sense of isolation and loneliness people can experience while ‘in the closet’ can be overwhelming. If it’s difficult to be ‘out’ with friends or family, it is important to find safe spaces or people you can trust and confide in. LGBTQ+-friendly employers have a huge role to play here. I’ve worked with a number of people over the years who ‘came out’ to their work colleagues before ‘coming out’ to family.
Being part of an LGBTQ+ community at work can give you a huge sense of belonging and it can increase your sense of confidence and worth. Employee LGBTQ+ networks also play a vital role here.
If you are wary about ‘coming out’ at work, it helps to look out for the cues. Seeing visible allies within an organisation wearing, for example, rainbow lanyards or, in the virtual world, ally email signatures sends a huge message in terms of LGBTQ+ inclusion as do rankings from organisations such as Stonewall in the UK and the HRC in the US.
What can law firms do to encourage a true culture of openness and acceptance for LGBTQ+ lawyers and/or lawyers with mental health problems?
The legal industry has come an incredibly long way in the last 10 years and, for the most part, large firms are often places where LGBTQ+ individuals can feel at home and can be themselves. For BCLP, we have a very strong tone from the very top.
While I know there is some cynicism around ‘rainbowing up’, the symbol has helped firms and individual allies step forward to make a statement that they believe in LGBTQ+ equality. If you are starting your career and you are looking for an LGBTQ+ friendly organisation, or an LGBTQ+ friendly colleague, the importance of the rainbow symbol cannot be underestimated.
There is no doubt we are all earlier on in the journey to openness and acceptance relating to mental health, but seeing the positive response to our This is Me campaign has been fantastic. People are now wearing This is Me green ribbon pins to raise awareness around mental health. If you compare this with the progress of LGBTQ+ awareness campaigns in workplaces over the past 10 years, this gives me the confidence that we are moving in the right direction and fast, being visible for the invisible.
About the Author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.