As the Manager of Corporate Communications at Premera, Elaine Helm and her team create events and communication strategies that help Premera’s 3,400 employees better understand company goals, feel connected and engaged. Elaine has been part of Premera’s Pride journey since its first Seattle Pride parade sponsorship in 2017. She has witnessed and helped guide the company toward more intentional involvement and support of the LGBTQ+ community during Pride month and every day of the year. We sat down with Elaine to learn about her work at Premera, the importance of Pride, and what companies like Premera can do to support their LGBTQ+ employees, customers and community. Here’s what she shared with us:
Q: You have been at Premera since 2016. Please tell us why you feel compelled to stay and grow in your career here?
I feel compelled to stay at Premera because the organization is on a path of positive change. The 80-year-old company is acknowledging that the way healthcare has been done throughout history doesn’t work for everyone and we need to change the way we do things. Being part of the effort to examine what needs to change, how we can do things better, and how we can serve everyone, especially groups who have historically not been served well by our healthcare system, is a big part of why I stay.
Q: Is there an aspect of Premera’s mission to make healthcare work better that you are especially passionate about?
I’m passionate about making healthcare work better for everyone. If you are not intentional about how you tackle certain problems in healthcare you tend to leave out certain groups of people, and they tend to be the same groups who have been treated the worst by some of these systems in the past. It’s about looking at the people for whom the healthcare system isn’t working, such as the LGBTQ+ community or communities of color, and asking why it’s not working. It’s usually about feeling excluded, or difficulty finding someone who understands them, or being unable to get time off work to go to an appointment, or not knowing whether you can afford the cost of an appointment.
Take gender, for example. For folks who don’t fit the dominant view of how people are expected to perform their gender, walking into an appointment and having someone ask you a series of pretty invasive questions can be super intimidating and in some cases really traumatizing. I am passionate about helping folks understand some of the challenges people face and the interpersonal and systemic changes we can make to help everyone feel included and decrease the bad feelings a lot of people have about the healthcare system.
Q: You do important work for the LGBTQ+ community. Can you tell us how you have helped shape some of Premera’s work around supporting the LGBTQ+ community?
I identify as queer, I have family members who are gay, lesbian, transgender, nonbinary—lots of folks in my life are in the broader LGBTQ+ community. It’s been part of my life and in the back of my mind throughout my career.
My own experiences with reproductive healthcare—having a child through a process that involved medical intervention—were not smooth and simple, and it didn’t have to be as difficult as it was. The assumption that “normal” means you are in a heterosexual relationship and your gender identity is either male or female, is limiting for folks who don’t fit that framework. Experiences that seem insignificant, like a medical form that only has a place for “mother” and “father” and labels parents in a way that doesn’t fit your family, can build up over time. The term “microaggression” doesn’t mean that something is insignificant, it just means that for other people it seems small, but the cumulative impact is really big for people who don’t fit the dominant structure or view of what’s “normal.” That has driven me to get more involved.
When Premera first started sponsoring Pride in 2017, I was happy to join others from Premera in the Pride Parade, but I wanted to know what else we were doing to support the LGBTQ+ community and our own employees in this space. One of the things that we identified early on that we could start doing better was to share pronouns in email signatures and during meeting introductions. We also made a change in our employee records system where you can enter your pronouns and look up other peoples’ pronouns. This kind of small step can be incredibly helpful. It can lead us to think about other assumptions we might be making and expose our unconscious biases.
Q: June is Pride month. Please tell us what this month means to you and how Pride celebrations have evolved over the years at Premera?
In addition to increased participation by employees, Premera’s recognition of Pride has evolved to include engaging with our community partners, such as Cocoon House, a nonprofit in Snohomish County that helps young adults and teens who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability has been a longtime Premera Social Impact partner. They have marched with us in Pride parades and helped us develop content about how we can better support youth in communities who face challenges at home when they come out. There is a lot of research related to mental health and LGBTQ+ youth. The Trevor Project reports that suicide rates are heartbreakingly high for LGBTQ+ youth who are struggling with mental health issues. What gives me hope is that if even just one adult in a child’s life is supportive, it greatly decreases the likelihood that they will attempt suicide. That adult can be a teacher, a family member, a friend, a parent…someone being there can really make a difference.
I hear people say, “why do we still need Pride?” The reality is that a lot of kids still don’t see a future for themselves, so the visibility that Pride provides is super important. I grew up with a really supportive family and examples of people in my life who were openly themselves, and I still struggled when I was coming out because I didn’t have an example of someone who I identified with. Representation matters because the LGBTQ+ community is broad and diverse and you may not connect with every piece of it. It’s important for people to see how many different ways there are to be queer. This is true of any community. Within any group there is an incredible range of experiences. To actually be able to see and build relationships with people from all different parts of the broader LGBTQ+ community is important. It’s also important to recognize the ways different marginalized identities overlap and connect. The queer community has come a long way in terms of recognition and rights, but we have to keep pushing for the people who face greater discrimination and harm because of their identities, particularly people who are Black or Indigenous, transgender or gender queer.
Q: What are things more companies should be thinking about when creating an inclusive workplace for employees?
The advertising agency Copacino+Fujikado put together a Pride Brand Guide, spearheaded by a group of their LGBTQ+ employees. It is free to access and breaks down the Pride flag and its colors to help companies make informed decisions about their Pride branding “for a more purposeful, inclusive and authentic Pride initiative.”
For individuals, there are all sorts of resources to help you learn from others in the LGBTQ+ community about what you can do to be supportive. I got a newsletter just the other day from my public library with a Pride reading list. You don’t have to look far to find great ideas and resources.