June 14, 2024

We all know men are conventionally ‘hard to reach’ when it comes to opening up about mental health in the workplace. Yet, if workplace wellbeing initiatives are framed, targeted and delivered better men can – and often actively want to – engage with them, as Emily Pearson explains.

Every day I speak to an HR director or HR manager about why their male workers are not engaged in the mental health initiatives on offer, despite their commitment to investing in making workplace mental health and wellbeing programmes available for all employees.

This problem is an echo from public health services. Men are much less likely to use mental health treatments and therapies, despite suicide being three times higher for men than it is for women. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

One in five working-age men die because of five mostly preventable killers. These include the single biggest killer, heart disease, and is followed by prostate, lung and bowel cancer, which between them kill more men than suicide, which still takes male life at a much higher rate than women. These are stark statistics.

Work has been shown through evidence to create many of the negative health conditions for men, leading to their deaths.

In 2019 the World Health Organization declared that long working hours and stress are the highest risks for occupational strokes and heart disease. In 2021, 3,500 construction workers died from occupational-related cancers and there were just over 500 deaths from suicide in the industry.

Prevention and early intervention are crucial and, if addressed correctly by employers, absolutely possible.

Also possible is providing an opportunity to improve health outcomes for men with education, lifestyle changes and reaching men before crisis or when a diagnosis happens just too late. By educating men about their health, they’re more likely to live longer, be more productive at work and positively affect their families and communities.

So why are male workers often not engaged in mental health and wellbeing initiatives provided at work? The answer I often receive is, “men don’t talk about their problems because they’re stoic, too masculine or macho to ask for help”.

However, the reality is quite the opposite – if men are provided with the right interventions and environments for them safely to have those conversations.

Misconceptions around men

Men do want to engage with healthcare services. In 2015, 96% of men who took their own lives had visited their GP or primary care service within 12 months of their death. Yet these services did not deem them at risk.

I feel that misconceptions around men, though people often don’t realise it, can feed into ‘victim blaming’ them for not seeking help.

Dr John Barry, founder of The Centre for Male Psychology, wisely said: “We must stop blaming men for not seeking help due to characteristics or deficits in themselves, rather than to characteristics or limitations of therapy, services and interventions provided.”

Workplace initiatives are often generic, delivered in a one-size-fits-all approach. Mental health Initiatives and therapies are often unintentionally feminised, run by female employees and owned by female HR professionals. Rather than male-friendly, gender-specific, targeted, owned and delivered by male colleagues.

Workplace initiatives are often generic, delivered in a one-size-fits-all approach. Mental health Initiatives and therapies are often unintentionally feminised, run by female employees and owned by female HR professionals.”

The issues are complex, however. Cutting-edge research in male psychology and men’s health is suggesting that not only are many men experiencing problems in their lives and their health differently to women, but are more likely to be impacted by ‘gamma bias’ (Seager & Barry 2019).

Gamma bias is when one gender difference is minimised while simultaneously another is magnified. In the words of Dr Barry, “helping to overcome human suffering must include male suffering and is something that must include all of us.”

There have been relatively few attempts within the mainstream to design, deliver and research gender-specific interventions for men in comparison with traditional approaches.

But, as stated by Kiselica and Englar-Carlson, where male-friendly approaches have been tried the evidence to date – both experimental and anecdotal – is highly promising.

Such approaches show that men can and do talk in their own ways and in the right environment.

And, as stated by The British Psychological Society’s briefing paper, Psychological interventions to help male adults, by Martin Seager and (again) Dr Barry, ‘men’s sheds’ for example have proved to be one particularly effective male-friendly approach to improving male mental health.

More than a place to do work, workplaces should be good for the mental health and wellbeing of employees. It’s an essential part of a winning business strategy, however, we have seen a gap in targeted, male-friendly initiatives that many men are noticing too.

They can feel their workplace’s initiatives are not relevant to them. Others report that men’s health is simply completely missing from their employer’s workplace mental health and wellbeing strategies.

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Five tips for better male mental health

If you have recognised that men’s health is missing from your mental health and wellbeing strategy and initiatives, then here are my top five tips on how to make your offering male friendly.

  1. Evaluate your current initiatives. Are your current initiatives relevant, targeted and engaging for your male workers or are they creating barriers? Does your current mental health and wellbeing strategy account for the health inequalities that many men experience? Make sure you consult with your male workers to avoid assumptions about their needs.
  2. Build a culture of trust and psychological safety. Our survey showed that men are more likely to seek help from someone they trust and have a relationship with. In the workplace they are more likely to speak to their manager above an employee assistance programme or mental health first aider. Promoting positive male role modelling and sponsorship of men’s health and initiatives from the top, and developing managers with the knowledge, confidence and skills to prevent work-related stress can help.
  3. Use male-friendly activities. Use initiatives and activities that specifically target and engage men. Consider using ‘shoulder to shoulder’ goal-orientated activities that encourage natural conversations and harness male camaraderie. Embed education about men’s health into those activities.
  4. Be welcoming and accessible. Go where your male workers are and create a sense of fun and playfulness in activities. Communicate clearly using practical information making it accessible, relevant and welcoming. Many men often use online information to find out about health and wellbeing. Ensure male workers are provided equally with time away from their day job to engage in activities and initiatives easily.
  5. Keep engagement going. Tick-box campaign days can be seen as token gestures rather than helpful. Evaluate the impact of initiatives to ensure ongoing engagement. Embed male peer-to-peer support that promotes positive role modelling and tackles male-specific stigma to increase health-seeking behaviours. Finally, don’t forget to send regular reminders of initiatives and information available and track that it is reaching your audience.

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