One in three men feel that their mental health issues are caused by their job. So for International Men’s Health Week, we’re looking at the signs and causes of mental distress at work — and what we can do about it….
Across the UK and beyond, there is a hidden epidemic in our workplaces. One that affects a significant number of male employees who struggle on each day in silence. Many feel too embarrassed or ashamed to talk to their bosses and colleagues about it, meaning that they are not getting the support they need. As a result, this epidemic is costing men their wellbeing, their careers and at worst, their lives.
Yet when it comes to mental health, many men find it hard to open up to even those closest to them. This means that with managers or teammates, it can feel almost impossible. But by taking the right steps, workplaces can actually play a key part in helping to improve men’s mental health. So let’s look at the key signs of mental distress at work, a few of the main causes and ways to offer better employee mental health support to men.
Currently, figures around men’s mental health in the UK are concerning. In fact, the biggest killer of men aged 18-45 in the UK is suicide, with men being three times more likely to die in this way than woman. And in 2019, the suicide rate for men in England and Wales hit a 20-year high. In that same year, Mind’s ‘Get It Off Your Chest’ study found that 43% of men felt worried or low on a regular basis, with 10% of those also experiencing suicidal thoughts.
And we can’t ignore the huge role that working life plays in this mental health crisis. For instance, other research by Mind has found that work is the biggest cause of stress in our lives, with one in three men attributing their mental health issues to their job — twice as many as women. Men are also more likely to turn to unhealthy coping strategies such as alcohol, cigarettes or recreational drugs rather than talking about how they feel. Also, according to a 2019 study by CV Library, 61% of men want to quit their job because it is affecting their mental health — yet the same percentage of them feel that they can’t discuss these issues with their boss.
This is also backed up by the UK’s government’s 2017 ‘Thriving at Work’ study by Stevenson & Farmer, which found that 8 in 10 employers report no cases of employees disclosing a mental health condition. In other words, this is a hidden problem. Added to this, only 24% of managers have received some form of training on mental health at work, meaning they may not be equipped to spot signs of distress in employees. As a result, many men are struggling without support each day. But what exactly is behind this massive problem?
The truth is that men’s reasons for experiencing mental health issues can vary widely and can be related to issues outside of their job, or to ongoing long term challenges. But some of the key causes of distress in the workplace itself can include:
That is why it is crucial for workplaces to be aware of these stressors, taking action to prevent, identify and manage them. Additionally, taking care of employee wellbeing can also be hugely beneficial to organisations. For instance, it can improve productivity, performance and engagement, reduce sick days and foster long term loyalty. Also, bear in mind that employee mental health issues collectively cost UK employers up to £45 billion each year.
Yet the question is — how can we learn to spot wellbeing issues in colleagues?
Men and women can sometimes show signs of mental health issues in different ways. For instance, men might show it through anger or irritability, yet this can actually be a sign of underlying depression, stress, anxiety, sadness, grief or trauma. Overall, key indicators include:
— Impaired productivity and performance at work.
— Being less interested in the job.
— Finding it hard to make decisions.
— Withdrawing socially.
— Seeming stressed, anxious or on edge.
— Seeming irritable, angry or confrontational.
— Seeming low in mood.
— Being tired or dozing at desk.
— Being detached or spaced out.
— Increased sick days or lateness.
— Complaining of aches, pains, headaches, sleeplessness or exhaustion.
— Looking dishevelled in appearance.
— Hyper-sensitivity to constructive feedback or criticism.
— Appearing to be hungover or smelling of alcohol.
Research has shown that men are less likely to open up about mental health problems at work for a variety of reasons. For instance, some might feel a sense of shame and stigma around the topic and be frightened that they could be labelled as ‘weak’ or ‘crazy’. And when you combine this with more ‘macho’ workplace cultures and societal beliefs that men should simply ‘man up’ when distressed, it can feel impossible to talk.
Some men might also fear jeopardising their career or chances of promotion by disclosing mental health difficulties, which can be daunting if they are the main breadwinner in their family. Others might come from a culture where it is taboo to talk about these issues.
So what can we do about it? According to Stevenson & Farmer, we have to start by changing how we see mental wellbeing in the workplace as a whole. In their words, ‘The correct way to view mental health is that we all have it and we fluctuate between thriving, struggling and being ill and possibly off work. People with poor mental health, including common mental health problems and severe mental illness, can be in any of these groups.’ Yet encouragingly, they add that, ‘An individual can have a serious mental health problem but — with the right support — can still be thriving at work.’
Overall, Stevenson & Farmer see workplace mental health as a collective and cultural issue, where we all ought to be responsible for each other’s wellbeing: ‘We need to move to a society where all of us become more aware of our own mental health, other people’s mental health and how to cope with our own and other people’s mental health when it fluctuates. It is all our responsibilities to make this change.’
And by normalising mental health struggles and acknowledging them as something we can all experience, we make it easier for men to talk about it.
While learning to spot the signs of mental distress at work is crucial, it is also important to put employee wellness strategies into place that are tailored to men.
In fact, research has shown that male employees have distinct preferences when it comes to discussing mental wellbeing. For instance, some find the term ‘mental health’ off-putting and might prefer to frame the conversation around specific issues such as ‘stress’, ‘burnout’ and ‘overload’. And by putting the focus on a specific, practical and solvable problem, it can also remove some of the shame and stigma male employees might feel.
For instance, ‘You have told me that you are feeling overloaded and that this is why you have seemed irritable and distracted at work lately. So what steps can we take to make your workload more manageable?’
However, as some men can find it difficult to open up, it can also help to have a set of specific questions to ask beyond open-ended ones like ‘Are you okay?’ or ‘How are you feeling’? These might include asking whether they feel they have the training, tools and support that they need to perform their role, or whether they are having difficulty with a particular colleague or manager, or whether they might benefit from a more flexible schedule.
But why is it that some men struggle to open up about their mental health? A recent study by the University of Technology, Sydney found that there were two key barriers: internal and external. The internal barrier was men not being attuned to mental health issues within themselves, of being so ‘on auto-pilot’ that they weren’t actually aware when stress was building up.
As men can have a culturally ingrained assumption that being masculine means being able to cope with stress, they can filter out signs that they are struggling. In fact, various men in the study described only becoming aware of their stress when some form of crisis brought it to their attention, for instance, divorce, failing health or intervention from a friend.
The second barrier was external, in other words, the stigma that still exists around mental health in the workplace and wider world. Some of the participants expressed suspicion about workplace mental health initiatives, fearing that if they did actually open up to bosses or HR, they might be stigmatised or even lose their jobs.
In the words of one man: ‘There is still stigma from workplaces, they preach this “R U OK?” But it’s a bit of a farce. I got dragged into HR meetings and in the end they just said, “We’ll just sweep it under the carpet, under the chair and hope it all sorts itself out.” You know? And nothing has been said since.’
On a positive note, the men agreed that a good solution would be to ‘anchor’ the promotion of men’s mental health to wider lifestyle practices. They suggested the focus could be on comradery, teamwork and helping others with their health, rather than an individualised approach. This could include men getting together as peers to support each other’s wellness collectively, perhaps through activities, groups or initiatives.
As one participant explained: ‘In getting help, I am helping others. Maybe men aren’t as good at getting help as they should be, but blokes really like giving help, offering help, being useful. So you train people to look after their mates rather than train them to look out for themselves, but in the process they learn how to look out for themselves.’
However, they stressed that the focus of these groups shouldn’t be mental health, as men might find that stigmatising. Instead, it would be better to focus on health in general, including physical fitness. One example would be a running club where men also have a chance to chat. This would mean that mental health would be treated as one element in a mosaic of men’s wellness needs.
Overall, when it comes to men’s mental health at work, it can be more helpful to frame the conversation around general health and lifestyle, or on specific issues such as stress. But as men might not always be aware of when they are stressed, it is also crucial to educate all employees on the key signs. Also, framing workplace mental health around shared wellness activities and supporting your peers can also be helpful.
While it can be helpful to offer benefits like private medical insurance, many men will not identify with having a clinical issue. That is why it is important to offer more accessible tools and resources too.
With this in mind, here are some ways that you can create an Employee Wellness Programme that is more accessible to men:
— Actively challenge outdated stereotypes about the male role in the workplace, perhaps by having male managers and CEOs give talks about their own mental health.
— Train a team of workplace ‘Mental Health First Aiders’ and ensure that some are male.
— Create safe workplace spaces where peers can support each other. For instance, a men’s wellness group that signposts that it’s safe to not be okay (and that there won't be judgement or adverse career consequences for those who join).
— Talk openly and often about mental health in the workplace, including at staff meetings and in newsletters — yet back this up with concrete confidential support.
— Educate all employees on maintaining their mental health and developing helpful coping strategies — including bringing in specialists to facilitate this.
— Create an accessible open door policy where employees can chat confidentially to managers about stress, overload, burnout and other issues.
— Create better and more flexible working conditions that can help to reduce stress e.g. hybrid working.
— Offer constructive support for employees who have been through trauma, bereavement and difficult experiences e.g. paid compassionate leave, access to specialists for support.
— Train managers on how to spot signs of distress in employees — and how it can look different in men and women.
— Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing, including through surveys and confidential catch ups.
— Have anti-bullying procedures in place, including a clear process for reporting bullying.
— Promote fair and effective people management.
— Involve employees in decision making that affects them, where possible.
The key to bringing in male-friendly mental health initiatives is not to be tokenistic, as people can quickly see through this and may even be suspicious of it. Instead, any promotion of mental health ought to be backed up by concrete support structures and a reassurance of non-judgement.
Also, it is crucial to talk about mental health in a normalising way — as something that we all have — rather than using clinical language. One example might be ‘low mood’ rather than ‘depression’ or ‘distressing experiences’ rather than trauma. Even the term ‘mental health’ could be replaced by ‘wellbeing’ or even just ‘health’.
While all of the above can make a difference, workplaces could also consider offering more comprehensive therapeutic care to staff. And encouragingly, while men might find it hard to talk about mental health struggles to their bosses, they are actually becoming more open to talking about it with a professional.
For instance, Mind’s ‘Get It Off Your Chest’ study found that men’s preferred alternative to prescribed medication is actually therapy, followed by physical activity. They also stated that they would be more likely to seek support if it was made available online, if they were guaranteed anonymity and if they could access it at more convenient times of day. The key seems to be making sure men know that using workplace support channels won’t put their job at risk.
This is why it can be highly beneficial to offer flexible and confidential online therapy services for all employees. For while stress awareness training or mindfulness workshops can be helpful, they can’t replace expert support from a psychotherapist or psychologist.
When encouraging men to access this kind of support, it can be useful to highlight that contemporary therapy doesn't just involve 'talking to someone'. Instead, it can tackle issues that are holding you back and help you to build practical tools that can benefit all areas of life. Therapy can also help you to become more confident, motivated and resilient, so that you can achieve your personal and professional goals. In other words it is about growth and development, meaning it can be seen as an extension of health, fitness or other forms of self-improvement.
And in offering this kind of help, you will be reducing issues like stress, depression and burnout, while creating a psychologically safe workplace where people can flourish.
It is normal for male employees to find it hard to talk about feeling distressed at work, yet it shouldn’t have to be this way. If we can open up a collective conversation around the issue then we can start challenging stereotypes around masculinity and mental health. And by creating male-friendly Employee Wellness Programmes and offering access to confidential therapy, men can get the support they need to thrive in their careers and life.
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